My tour inside the peculiar mind of the GOP front-runner.
Meeting with Donald Trump at his office is like performing a walk-on part in a movie. Flooded with natural light from two sides, the space is as bright as a stage set. The star is an aging leading-man type whose face is so plastic-perfect that he doesn’t seem to have any pores. His elaborate hairdo, glowing, swooping and sprayed into place, announces his identity. The ultimate professional, he delivers timeworn lines so well they almost sound fresh. Think Michael Caine in one of his lesser, late-career films.
As I shake Trump’s hand, I wonder, Will he reach for sanitizer? A handkerchief? We clasp hands and then I watch closely as he slips behind his desk and discreetly brushes his hand against the fine fabric of his expensive suit.
No other businessman in America, and perhaps the world, can turn something so small—a little fear of contamination—into a trait that a stranger has in mind upon meeting him, but then again, there is no other Donald Trump. This is what I tell him during our first meeting in his office, where a brag wall is covered in magazine covers featuring his face and heavyweight Mike Tyson’s championship belt, payment for some debt, lies on the floor. “As far as I can tell, there’s no one who’s been on the stage as long as you and still remains in the public eye,” I add. “Who else is there?”
The world is Trump’s stage, and most of the players from the early years of his celebrity in New York are either faded or gone. Old enemies and friends including Ed Koch, Roy Cohn, Leona Helmsley and George Steinbrenner are dead. Others, such as Rudy Giuliani, are sometimes visible but generally irrelevant. Meanwhile, the press clippings he receives at the start of each day attest to Trump’s ongoing celebrity, and the quantity and quality of this attention is what interests me. In his wealth and fame he is truly a man for our time, the ultimate expression of certain aspects of the American spirit—from the vanity to the insecurity—in the 21st century.
Recently, Trump has flummoxed the Republican establishment and puzzled many journalists with his leap to the front of the field in the race to be the GOP’s candidate for the presidency. Turning apparent missteps into proof that he is unscripted and “unfiltered,” Trump has made his combative brand of authenticity the centerpiece of a most unconventional campaign—and one that has him dominating opinion polls.
But anyone who knows Trump well, and has followed him through his decades of fame, knows Donald Trump is never just what you see on the surface. A master manipulator, he has always played every angle—bullying or flattering, and then suddenly changing directions—in order to gain an advantage. As often as not he keeps his true intentions to himself, and if his latest skirmish with Fox News is any indication, he is still a few steps ahead of everyone else. Having entered a new game that calls for seeking attention in a crowed room—modern day politics—Trump is proving that his skills are transferrable.
When I first meet Donald he says he was prepared to decline my request for a series of formal interviews, and he has only agreed to this meeting because I’m being assisted by the writer Mark Dagostino, who is helping me with research. Mark reported on him for People magazine and Trump likes him, but as he says, he is only talking to us as a courtesy. We deserve to hear no in person. But this all sounds like salesmanship. No, I couldn’t possibly sell. This property means too much to me. But maybe for you, I could make an exception.
We agree to half a dozen interview sessions, which would give us time to march through his life in an orderly way. Trump says he’ll do his best to address the past, although he much prefers to discuss the present and, whenever possible, the future. With this decision made, he eases into a monologue.
A fiend for news of all sorts, from celebrity gossip to politics, Trump criticizes Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase, who had recently approved a $13 billion payment to settle federal cases related to the bank’s role in the financial industry’s meltdown that led to the Great Recession. Trump clearly thinks Dimon is a wimp, and he’s generally disgusted by President Barack Obama, whom he also regards as weak. In our meetings Trump often filled pauses with criticisms of Obama. Often these statements came during walks to the elevator, when the audio recorders were switched off, or they were couched as “off the record.”
It’ll probably be a bad book and I’ll regret doing it. But, OK, I could sue you if it’s bad, but I won’t bother because the book won’t sell.
In two instances when he spoke on the record, Trump veered from a general discussion of “success” to an evaluation of the president. In the first case he said Obama lacked the qualities of a winner and “has had so many losses and people don’t even want to watch him on television.” In the second he said the president was not psychologically tough. “It’s all psychology. If Obama had that psychology, Russia’s Vladimir Putin wouldn’t be eating his lunch. He doesn’t have that psychology and he never will because it’s not in his DNA.”
When Trump spoke about Obama, he sounded personally irritated, which may have been because the White House had ignored his offer to lead the federal response to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill because the admiral in charge “doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Unfortunately Obama’s former senior adviser David Axelrod had revealed this exchange, and Trump’s offer to build a ballroom at the White House, after Donald stopped speaking to me, which made it impossible to follow up on it with him.
Although Trump’s attitude toward Obama was tinged with emotion, he was far more caustic in his remarks about the fourth estate. “There is tremendous dishonesty, tremendous dishonesty, in the press,” he volunteered, naming certain journalists, including Timothy L. O’Brien and Wayne Barrett, both prominent Trump critics, as chief offenders. “I believed in the press. And when this guy [Barrett] wrote this way, I realized, ‘Wow, we’ve got a different situation than I thought. This is not an honest business.’” Trump’s most venomous words are reserved for the editor of Vanity Fair, whom he calls “scumbag Graydon Carter.” Trump will mention the man many times, always saying the phrase in a hurry as if it were a single, indivisible word: “Scumbagraydoncarter.”
Considering his lifelong dance of mutual manipulation with the press, Trump’s complaints are more than a little ironic. Few have profited more from the tide of celebrity news that has swamped the public discourse. His analysis is also entirely self-referential. Writers and reporters are worthy, or not, depending on how they have responded to his various pitches. When the writer Timothy O’Brien said Trump wasn’t as wealthy as he claimed, Trump sued. He lost, but considering the costs incurred, O’Brien’s publisher lost too. In this case, he doubts we’ll be meeting in court: “It’ll probably be a bad book and I’ll regret doing it. But, OK, I could sue you if it’s bad, but I won’t bother because the book won’t sell. People want positive, inspiring. That’s what you should write if you want a success.”
After Trump issues his advice we are dispatched to an outer office to make arrangements with Trump’s chief assistant, Rhona Graff, who presides over a clutch of secretaries who are beautiful in the way of the women who play attractive secretaries on television shows and in movies. Smartly dressed and flawlessly made-up, they are both functional and decorative. Graff sets a date and time for our first session with “Mr. Trump” and agrees to help with introductions to people who know and like him. There’s Trump’s mentor from his days at a military academy and, of course, his grown children, who all work for him.
In the elevator Mark D’Agostino and I stand in stunned silence as we descend to the pink-marble lobby of Trump Tower. Over coffee we decide we are glad our subject has agreed to be interviewed, but feel less than optimistic about what this process will yield. Trump famously avoids discussing the past, resists self-analysis and is doggedly committed to the image he has constructed. At one point he said, “You can use this, but don’t say you got it from me,” then shared some tidbit about a recent success. Trump’s use of this technique was noted by Mark Singer in the New Yorker in 1997. He’ll try it again with us many times. Fortunately he has abandoned others, such as posing as a “Trump spokesman” named John Baron—but his use of “off-the-record” remarks must still work because it’s still in his vast publicity-seeking repertoire.
It is not Trump’s outrageousness that makes him worthy of interest. More important is that he has succeeded, like no one else, in converting celebrity into profit. Somehow he has done this even as a substantial proportion of the population, arguably more than 50 percent, consider him a buffoon if not a menace. What does it say about Trump that he is so undeniably successful by the two measures that matter the most to him—money and fame? And what, pray tell, does it say about us?