Recent revelations about President Donald Trump’s fear of poisoning from food or from his toothbrush are the fodder of political thriller novels or motion pictures. Trump’s alleged fears were revealed in the newly-published political kiss-and-tell book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” written by journalist Michael Wolff. There have been leaders throughout history who have fretted about being poisoned to death by political opponents. In some cases, these leaders had good reason to be worried, because poisons introduced into their food and drink is how they were ultimately dispatched by their political adversaries.
In most cases, leaders suffering from toxiphobia – the dictionary definition for someone afraid of being poisoned – have also been ruthless tyrants who have suffered from extreme paranoia. Although Trump’s pipe dreams of being a tyrant are checked by the US Constitution and two other equal branches of the federal government, he does meet the definition, as defined by those toxiphobes who have preceded him in history, of being a paranoid would-be dictator.
Trump’s fear of being poisoned has resulted in his affectation for meals that consist of two Big Macs, two fish filet sandwiches, French fries, and a chocolate milkshake, which are reportedly ordered and picked up by his Secret Service detail at the McDonald’s located three blocks from the White House at New York Avenue and 13th Street. Trump’s opting to eat food from a fast-food restaurant arise from his concern that “deep state” forces might try to poison the food prepared by the well-vetted and US Navy-operated White House mess. US Navy mess specialists, who are part of the White House staff, also travel with the president and taste any food before it is eaten by the chief executive.
Although many modern world leaders have taken precautions when it comes to their food and drink, including measures that employ food testers, Trump’s paranoia about being poisoned is extreme, more so than any of his predecessors in the presidency, including the very paranoid Richard Nixon. Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have all employed food testers, to varying degrees, especially while on foreign trips. George W. Bush reportedly ordered two FBI agents to taste his food while he was on a November 2003 visit to the United Kingdom.
President Franklin Roosevelt had no qualms about accepting a case of vodka and a supply of caviar from Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, following the February 1945 Yalta conference. Roosevelt even served the vodka and caviar to his guests in the White House. Stalin used his own trusted food tester, his half-brother Sasha Egnatashvili, who was nicknamed “the Rabbit.”
Reagan, although employing a White House food tester, became ill with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea in January 1988, the night before a Washington meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita. It was never reported whether the food tester also became sick.
Another Japanese prime minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, would figure prominently in another US presidential nausea spell. On January 8, 1992, George H. W. Bush fainted after vomiting in Miyazawa’s lap during a state dinner at the prime minister’s residence in Japan. Even though sushi was served at the dinner, Bush was not stricken by bad fish or intentional food poisoning. During the afternoon, he and US ambassador to Japan Michael Armacost played a foursome tennis match with Emperor Akihito and Crown Prince Naruhito. Apparently, Bush imbibed too much and later, while various types of raw fish and moving gelatinous substances were being served at the state dinner, Bush took ill at the sight of the food.
Among many of Trump’s current international counterparts, food testing is merely a normal part of personal security and complements bodyguard, motorcade route, rope line, assembly hall, airport tarmac, and other protective measures taken to safeguard heads of state and government. Poisoning of a designated protected person is a significant concern for all professional security details. Poisons range from the faster-acting cyanide and arsenic trioxide, to more gradual-acting strychnine and atropine, which are all easily-obtainable by a potential assassin.
In 1991, the body of US President Zachary Taylor was exhumed and examined for signs of an arsenic poisoning assassination. Taylor died in the White House in 1850 after eating a bowl of cherries, possibly containing arsenic. Taylor was believed poisoned by Southern activists opposed to his anti-slavery stance. Although the 1991 autopsy concluded Taylor died from gastroenteritis, or “cholera morbus,” critics noted the tests were conducted in Kentucky and Tennessee, which remained and continue to remain hotbeds for the neo-Confederate cause. Whether or not he was poisoned, Taylor, would not look kindly upon Trump’s dalliances with white supremacists, neo-Confederates, and southern secessionists.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s food is tested by the Special Protection Group before being served to him. Samples of food eaten by Modi are also tested and the results are even kept for 72 hours.
No different than the White House, the Kremlin also employs food specialists, including a doctor, who examine dishes prepared for the Russian president.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan begins to approach Trump-level paranoia. He employs a special food analysis unit in the presidential mansion in Ankara that tests all food destined for Erdogan’s table for poisons, radioactive substances, and biological warfare-grade bacteria that might be used in an assassination attempt. The special unit employs five on-site food analysts who are on duty for 14 hours a day examining every bit of food and liquid prepared for the Turkish president. Erdogan follows in the footsteps of the founder of the Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk, who was paranoid about being poisoned and used several food tasters. There may be some reason for Erdogan to be paranoid. It is believed that Turgut Ozal, one of Erdogan’s predecessors, died in 1993 from drinking poisoned lemonade served to him at a Bulgarian embassy reception in Ankara.
Saddam Hussein employed an Assyrian Christian named Kamel Hana Gegeo as his personal food taster. Gegeo was eventually beaten and shot to death by Saddam’s son Uday Hussein at a 1988 dinner honoring Suzanne Mubarak, the First Lady of Egypt. Like Trump, Saddam preferred store-bought food products. Saddam had a particular penchant for Raisin Bran cereal and Mars chocolate bars. Trump’s toxiphobia concerns are more in line with regimes like those of Saddam Hussein and various Roman emperors. Roman Emperor Claudius, whose paranoia almost matches that of Trump’s, was believed to have been poisoned by his food taster, Halotus, who poisoned the emperor’s favorite dish, mushrooms.
One of the more paranoid dictators to have used food testers was the Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu, who traveled with not only a full-time food examiner, a Securitate intelligence service chemist, and mobile food-testing laboratory, but also his own food. Ceausescu insisted on drinking raw vegetable juice with a straw, even at state dinners arranged by foreign hosts.
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte relied on a Newfoundland retriever as his food tester during his exile on Elba. Thailand used mice to test food served to foreign leaders attending the 2003 Asia-Pacific Economic (APEC) summit in Bangkok in 2003.
Other notable toxiphobes included German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler, a noted vegetarian, who preferred asparagus, bell peppers, rice, and pasta. Hitler’s food testers consisted of over a dozen women who ate vegetarian food specially prepared for the Fuehrer. If they did not get sick or die within 45 minutes after eating samples from the meals, they would be delivered to Hitler. Mao Zedong, a prolific carnivore, also used food testers. African dictators Jean Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, Idi Amin of Uganda, and Francisco Nguema of Equatorial Guinea employed food tasters. Their menus often included cannibalistic dishes of human beings. According to his cook and assumed food taster, Bokassa reportedly once dined on a human corpse stuffed with rice and flambéed in gin.
While food security is a normal part of VIP protection for most presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, sultans, and pontiffs, Trump’s paranoia about food poisoning and his penchant for certain foods, in Trump’s case, McDonald’s – itself, a slow poison for someone 71 years of age – places him in the bizarre company of some noted tyrants. They include Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Nicolae Ceausescu, Kemal Ataturk, Idi Amin, and Jean-Bedel Bokassa, and Emperor Claudius.