Politico thought it would be good if everyone actually understood the reality of Donald Trump, so they convened some experts on Trump’s career and biography, five Trumpologists who covered him professionally: Wayne Barrett, a longtime Village Voice reporter; Gwenda Blair, a bestselling author; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Dâ€™Antonio; Harry Hurt III, an author and videographer; and Timothy L. Oâ€™Brien, a writer and editor at Bloomberg.
Michael Kruse: Iâ€™d like to start talking about Donald by talking about Fred Sr. and going back to the very beginning, to Jamaica Estates [the Queens neighborhood where Donald grew up]. What do people need to know? What should we know about Donald because of his father, because of that relationship?
Harry Hurt III: I ran into Fred at Coney Island, with his secretary-mistress, one day, and he usually went to a place called Gargiuloâ€™s down in that area. But that was closed that day, and so I was with my researcher and we tailed them over to the original Nathanâ€™s hot dog stand. Donald was flying somewhere at the time, and we overheard Fred wipe some mustard off his lip, like this here, and he said, â€œI hope his plane crashes.â€ And I looked at my researcher, and I said, â€œDid you hear what I just heard?â€ He said, â€œYes, I did.â€ I said, â€œWell, thatâ€™s my man. Thatâ€™s Fred. The apple donâ€™t fall far from the tree.â€
Barrett: Well, you know, with all this Tea Party anger that heâ€™s appealing to now, he was the original bailout. I mean, the banks could have put him under any day. They took tremendous losses in those negotiations and deals. So they saved him. He was too big to fail.
Hurt: He was the original â€œtoo big to fail.â€
Barrett: Heâ€™s the consummate example of what his voters rail against.
Oâ€™Brien: I remember Trumpâ€™s finance chief Steve Bollenbach, who worked through the debt for him, said he had this conversation one day where they were going to take the yacht. And they didnâ€™t want to take the yacht. And the light suddenly went on in their heads: The banks actually donâ€™t want to control all these assets. They want him to operate out of it, and they both thought, â€œWow.â€ That was the moment when they realized they had leverage.
You know, everything he does now, he doesnâ€™t need loans to do any of it. The golf courses are owned by the members. They pay fees that finance it. He gets a salary from NBC from The Apprentice, and he gets licensing fees for everything else. I mean, thereâ€™s some projects, like the Chicago hotelâ€”he got bank debt for that. Deutsche Bank loaned into that one.
Barrett: But heâ€™s gone from the 18th floor to the 18th hole.
Blair: It was branding. It was the early branding that kicked in for him. He spent the â€™80s getting that brand going. So he buys the shuttle, he buys the yacht, he buys the Plaza Hotel, everythingâ€”
Oâ€™Brien: The Generals.
Blair: The New Jersey Generals, which gets him onto the sports pages, which gets him up to a national level. So the branding he had in place, so by the time the first bankruptcy comes up, the brand is the thing they donâ€™t want to let go of. They donâ€™t want to foreclose and not have the name, which is so counterintuitive that the mind boggles. Like, wait a minute. This guy is in corporate bankruptcy, but his nameâ€”but thatâ€™s how it was. He could get the over-the-barrel piece for the banks, and heâ€™s been doing it ever since. Itâ€™s the over-the-barrel piece which he did with the Republican Party now. How do you get them so they canâ€™t get rid of you, they canâ€™t let you go? And heâ€™s really good at that.
Barrett: Well, the thing was that the banks wouldnâ€™t complain, either. When they cut the deal with him, if they didnâ€™t go on to a prosecutorâ€”I mean, all of the financials that he gave the banks were totally false.
Hurt: And theyâ€™re liable for that, for not doing their due diligence.
Barrett: Yes. They were so embarrassed that they never went to a prosecutor. Clearly, there could have been a case made.
Oâ€™Brien: The other thing, too, that I think the media has to hold his feet to the fire on is heâ€™s gotten away with this notion that heâ€™s a superior deal-maker, and a very successful businessman. I thought about it after he went after the Iran deal. He said, â€œObama negotiated this horrible deal with Iran. Itâ€™s a bad deal, and when I get to Washington, there wonâ€™t be bad deals anymore. Iâ€™m a great deal-maker.â€ And then the reality, the objective reality, is that heâ€™s been a horrible deal-maker. His career is littered with bad deals. And yet, heâ€™s essentially now a human shingle. Heâ€™s not someone whoâ€™s a particularly adept deal-maker, if you look at his whole career.
Kruse: A human shingle, because there were the bad deals that brought him down in the early to mid-â€™90s, right?
Oâ€™Brien: What he was left with was licensing his name. So he licenses his name on mattresses and underwear and vodka and buildings, among other products.
Kruse: He made this transition from being an actual businessman, a person who does deals, some of which were good, to a grand promoter of his own name.
Oâ€™Brien: And the reality TV version of a successful businessman.
Barrett: This is the ultimate promotion of his own name. This is the ultimate brand.
Kruse: But the fact is that there is a middle ground. There is, basically, 1990-ish to 1995 where he is a failure.
Oâ€™Brien: Heâ€™s in desperate straits. He almost had to go personally bankrupt.
Kruse: The success is that he didnâ€™t die a business death. The success was survival.
Oâ€™Brien: And he was a survivor, to his credit. He survived.
Kruse: Why, though, wasnâ€™t that failure?
Oâ€™Brien: Because of The Apprentice. I think singularly because of The Apprentice. But he was a joke in between 1993 and 2003.
Blair: You know that family legacy, that family culture of â€œnever give up.â€ He never said he was a failure. Everybody else said, â€œThis guy is going down. Heâ€™s filed for bankruptcy. This is terrible,â€ but he didnâ€™t say that. He continued to say he was the best of the best, the biggest of the biggest, and he went on. I think thatâ€™s a huge piece of that.
Barrett: I tell the tale towards the end of the book about after the settlement with Ivana, he goes to meet with John Scanlon, who was a New York publicist of some skill, and tries to hire Ivanaâ€™s publicist to now represent him, and tells John, who is now dead, â€œIâ€™m going to make a giant comeback, and I want to be on the cover of Time again, and I want you to handle it.â€
So heâ€™s already thinking that way, in that very down moment of his life, but he knew he had bilked the banks. The banks put him back up on the pedestal. They didnâ€™t have to, but it took a while to climb up that ladder.
Dâ€™Antonio: What about the fact that Fred died and that money became available?
Oâ€™Brien: Which totally insulated him from a lot of problems, that inheritance that he got from Fred. At one point, he needed his siblings to extend him a loan. I think it was the hard reality of family money.
Dâ€™Antonio: The first thing I think that you credit him with is this creation of himself, which is very American, this idea that Iâ€™m going to imagine what Iâ€™m going to be, Iâ€™m going to tell the world that Iâ€™m it before I am it, and then the world is going to help me become it. And he did it.
Oâ€™Brien: Think about the genesis of The Apprentice. The show got launched because Mark Burnett [the producer of The Apprentice], as an immigrant to the United States, is selling blue jeans in Venice, California, barely making it. He doesnâ€™t have any faith in himself and reads this book called The Art of the Deal, and he thinks, â€œWow, this is the bible of how you make it in America.â€ And then whatever it is, 25, 30 years later, he does Survivor. Thatâ€™s a huge hit. He becomes a force in the TV industry, and he thinks, â€œIâ€™m going to go back to the godfather of my success, Donald Trump, and Iâ€™m going to create a TV show that embodies the inspiration I felt from The Art of the Deal.â€ And thatâ€™s how The Apprentice gets launched, because The Art of the Deal, as Wayne knows, didnâ€™t comport with reality, and The Apprentice is just a TV version of The Art of the Deal. Itâ€™s a total distortion of reality.
Glasser: So itâ€™s a TV show about a book about a guy who was an invented character.
Glasser: Thatâ€™s now led to a campaign based on the TV show based on the book.
Oâ€™Brien: About a man whoâ€™s saying heâ€™s a politician, who could probably never really deliver on everything heâ€™s saying.
Dâ€™Antonio: So itâ€™s all about this autobiography, which isnâ€™t auto, and it isnâ€™t a biographyâ€”which is, you know, only in America.
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