Why Donald Trump Is Crushing the GOP Field
Updated | We were finally sitting in Donald Trump’s office for our final interview at the end of a monthlong reporting odyssey. A colleague and I had tailed him pretty much everywhere he went. I flew with him down to Atlantic City in his retrofitted French military helicopter, rode with him in his limos and chatted with him in his various offices and at his home. We were reporting a cover profile for Newsweek. It was 1987, and Trump back then was a real estate and casino magnate who was, for the first time in what would become a quadrennial drill over the next 30 years, pretending to contemplate running for president.
Doonesbury, the popular adult cartoon strip, had repeatedly and savagely mocked the idea, but the political class had begun to take notice. One day in his office, he gleefully reeled off the names on his phone messages from media poo-bahs. “Look at this: Fox Butterfield, Noo Yoooik Times; David ‘Broduh,’Washington Post. It goes on and on!”
He was loving the attention, but now, with the deadline to get his name on the ballot in New Hampshire looming, he was ready to put an end to the flirtation. Sitting behind his desk, he looked at the two of us and smiled. “You guys want a scoop for your story?” he asked. “I’ll give you a scoop: I’m not going to run for president.” He paused, letting the not terribly surprising news sink in, then waved a finger at us and added, “but if I did run, I’d win!”
‘He’s a Disaster!’
Nearly three decades later, I’m riding with Trump in an elevator in Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, heading up to his office just after he’s done yet another interview in the lobby with yet another anchor from Fox News. This time—you might have heard—he is running for president, and my editor at Newsweek asked me to fly to New York City from my post in Shanghai to follow him around again to try to figure out why he’s running and, more important and interesting than that, why he’s in the lead for the Republican nomination.
The surreal quality of all that was evident the minute I stepped into the Trump Tower lobby. The media epicenter of this “mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore” populist presidential campaign is the Trump Bar, where a gin and tonic costs $11.88 (not bad by Midtown Manhattan standards). The bar sits across from the bank of elevators, and the long line of interviewers—Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren one day, Fox News’s Eric Bolling the next, with the occasional CNN inquisitor thrown in—set up their cameras and lights there. Periodically, Trump descends from his office, waves at the inevitably startled tourists who happen to be in the lobby, sits down across from whoever it is who’s next in line to interview him and does his shtick:
“I’m gonna get back our jobs from the Chinese and the Mexicans and the Japanese and all the other countries that are screwing us!”
“[Fill in the blank]”—Jeb Bush, the Iran nuclear deal, the Mexican border—“is a disaster!”
“John Kerry doesn’t know how to negotiate! He’s a disaster!”
And on and on until the interview ends, whereupon it’s back up to his office, often for yet another interview, this one on the phone, maybe with Trump fan-gal Laura Ingraham or one of the other conservative talk show hosts he regularly feeds nowadays. While he has made the occasional forays to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina in the past few months—and his aides say there will be more of them after the first Republican primary debate on August 6—he is for now dominating the news about the Republican campaign by simply riding up and down the elevator in one of the many buildings named after him, to the bar named after him, and walking past the gift shop stocked with his ties, T-shirts and even the dopey golf hats like the one he wore on his recent trip to the Texas-Mexico border.
Trump has only spent, according to his initial filing, $2 million on the campaign since announcing in mid-June. Over the same time period, the Jeb Bush campaign has shelled out more than $3 million while raising more than $11 million—and has bubkes to show for it. The communications director for the Trump campaign is a 20-something who was moved over from Trump’s company; a couple of months ago, she was writing press releases about golf course openings. She has no assistant.
It’s true that on the fifth floor of Trump Tower the campaign has cleared out a big space for offices, but for now it’s just a vast, empty room. There’s an Iowa flag on one wall and on another a sign (evidently Trump channeling his inner Bill Belichick) reading: “Do your job.”
But there’s no one there—not a single soul. That’s in contrast to, say, the Ted Cruz campaign headquarters, where dozens of staffers and volunteers man the phones, frantically try to raise money, bash out direct mail pitches and mull campaign strategies for Iowa and beyond. And still, as Trump tells me, chortling, “The polls are through the roof!” And indeed, just before the first Republican debate, Trump is killing the field, ahead of Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and all the other GOP wannabes.