King asked Sharpton to join him and Trump in Atlantic City, where King was scouting locations for future fights. For his two friends, though, it was peace King was after.
“I want you to meet Donald Trump, and I know you all got differences. He’s not a bad guy,” Sharpton recalled King telling him in “The Method to the Madness,” an oral history of Trump’s rise to the presidency.
“I don’t want to meet Donald,” Sharpton replied at first.
But King wore him down, and Sharpton found himself in Trump’s chopper, seated across from the two of them: the promoter and the self-promoter.
“It was the most surreal 45 minutes of my life, because it was two guys talking nonstop about themselves,” Sharpton said. “It didn’t feel like either one of them even stopped for air and totally were not listening to each other.”
Sharpton’s account of his introduction to Trump and their subsequent, decades-long acquaintanceship — published in the new book by Aaron Short and Allen Salkin — reveals the inner workings of a relationship between two master media manipulators, one that was built on favors and a shared hometown but has lately devolved into the kind of ugly bout King tried to avoid 30 years ago.
“They have different agendas, but they fight the same way,” Salkin said. “They’re opposed on the issues, but they know how to play the media game, with sensationalism and bombast.”
On Monday, Sharpton said Trump’s attacks on Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and his majority-black West Baltimore district were “bigoted and racist.” The day before, the president called Maryland’s largest city a “rodent infested mess.”
“He has a particular venom for blacks and people of color,” Sharpton said at a news conference. “He attacks Nancy Pelosi, he attacks Chuck Schumer, he attacks other whites — but he never said their districts or their states are places that no human being wants to live.” (Though Trump has been critical of San Francisco in the past.)
Earlier that day, Trump singled out Sharpton in a tweet, calling the civil rights leader “a con man” and “a troublemaker” who “Hates Whites & Cops!”
“Yes, I make trouble for bigots,” Sharpton shot back. “. . . As far as me being a con man, if he really thought I was a con man, he’d be nominating me for his Cabinet.”
Their newest feud, as barbed as any they’ve had, is yet another example of how Trump’s drift to the political right has alienated him from elite Democratic circles in Manhattan — and, especially, from black leaders whose support could have bolstered his reelection bid.
“It’s sad for Trump that he’s burning some of these bridges he’s had with the New Yorkers who knew him,” Short said. “They need to reach out to people who didn’t vote for them. Sharpton could help him in those communities, but they’ve decided that’s not the strategy. His methods are to sow racial divisions and galvanize his base and win a narrow victory in 2020. So it’s helpful for him but maybe not helpful for our sanity.”
One of their first public spates bubbled up in 1989 — after Sharpton said he visited Atlantic City — when Trump took out full page advertisements in local newspapers directed at five teens of color wrongfully convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park. They called for authorities to “bring back the death penalty” and they warned against “roving bands of wild criminals.”
Sharpton said the messages were racist and demanded that Trump apologize for his “hatemongering ad.” Trump, in would become a trademark political tactic, doubled down.
"You better believe that I hate the people that took this girl and raped her brutally,” he said then. “You better believe it.”
But a few years later, the two were palling around at Mike Tyson’s Connecticut mansion. Here’s how Sharpton remembered the scene in “The Method to the Madness”:
I went up to the master bedroom, and on the balcony stood Don King and Donald Trump and all of these guys from the hood, which Tyson’s crowd was. This was not your upper-echelon black entrepreneur crowd. And Trump and Don King standing there and talking about fight deals and all that. That’s when he and I start talking again. And he told me, “I’m helping a lot of Democrats. You call me.”
In 2001, the two teamed up to help a Democrat, each lending his imprimatur to the New York mayoral campaign of Fernando Ferrer. Ferrer, then a liberal Bronx borough president, ran on curbing police brutality and defending abortion rights. He would have been the city’s first Hispanic mayor.
Sharpton and Ferrer regularly campaigned together, and on the eve of the runoff election for the Democratic primary, Trump lent Ferrer a last-minute endorsement. The candidate hoped a Trump-Sharpton tag team would unite New York’s disparate voting blocs. But the effort was unsuccessful, and Ferrer lost the party’s nomination.
By the mid-aughts, “The Apprentice” was entering its celebrity-themed second act, and its impresario and star had a proposition for Sharpton.
“I get a call out of nowhere, 2007, that Mr. Trump wanted me to be on ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ ” Sharpton said. “I said, ‘I’m not interested.’ . . . He called me twice. ‘Come on, Al. Do you know how many people watch my show?’ He gave me the whole spiel.”
But Sharpton sensed a setup, incoming payback for their past duels.
“You would like nothing better in front of a huge audience to fire Al Sharpton,” he recalled telling Trump. “You will never get that opportunity.”
But the two did face off publicly a few years later, after Trump began pushing the racist “birther” hoax, claiming President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Around the same time, Sharpton began hosting a talk show on MSNBC and used the platform to attack Trump’s embrace of the bogus theory, labeling it “racist” and “race bait.”
“I’m really livid with him now, and I back away from any communication with him,” Sharpton said.
As the two sparred, another mediator tried to step in. Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer, orchestrated another summit between his boss and Sharpton. Trump’s camp wanted Sharpton to lay off, to quit calling Trump a racist. Sharpton insisted that he had walked a familiar tightrope, calling the comments racist but not attacking Trump personally.
At the Trump Tower meeting, Sharpton said he and Trump argued for 45 minutes.
“Finally we agreed to disagree,” Sharpton said, adding that he told Trump, “I don’t call people racist anymore unless they absolutely give me no choice, but it’s racial and it’s disgraceful and you shouldn’t do it."
He told Trump he’d have to talk about the episode on TV that night. He said he didn’t trust Trump to be honest about the meeting.
“Donald Trump will lie,” he said.
Sure enough, Trump tweeted that Sharpton “came to my Trump Tower office to apologize for calling me a racist--very nice, apology accepted!”
“A little while after that I ran into him somewhere and said, ‘I knew you were going to distort it,’” Sharpton said. “He said, ‘I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do. We’re both New Yorkers.’”
That begrudging — but often mutual — appreciation surprised Short when the longtime New York journalist interviewed Sharpton.
“He saw him as an equal,” Short said of Sharpton’s attitude toward Trump. “He was another New York media figure who understood the system and survived the ’80s and transformed.”
“Trust me, this will not be the last of it,” Salkin added. “Most likely, they will once again break bread together. It’s a New York thing. You can scream at each other and then go have drinks together.”
When Short interviewed Sharpton in August, the last time the reverend had spoken to Trump was nearly two years earlier, shortly after the presidential election. The call came minutes after Sharpton delivered an insightful analysis of Trump’s victory on “Morning Joe.”
“Trump is an outer-borough guy who was never accepted by the real estate moguls and downtown barons of that industry,” Sharpton said on the show. “So he always had a chip on his shoulder. He felt that they looked down on him and his father. . . . And he translated that chip on his shoulder, that resentment, to those blue-collar workers in Appalachia and Kentucky because that was really how he felt.”
In the car afterward, Sharpton’s phone lit up with a number he didn’t know. A voice on the other end asked him to hold for the president-elect. It was his longtime sparring partner, soon to be the most powerful man in the world.
“Al,” said Trump in his familiar timbre. “I saw you this morning. I was telling my wife, ‘He got me. This guy knows me.’ You’ve got to be a New Yorker to know that. You’re absolutely right.”
Marc Fisher contributed to this report.