Even in the 1980s, when greed was good and the young Donald Trump cultivated a lifestyle of gold-plated excess, the notion of a real estate developer — a landlord, for goodness’ sake — becoming a celebrity and bringing famous people into his orbit seemed a bit far-fetched.
But as Trump built his gleaming Fifth Avenue tower, plastered his name on jets and a massive yacht, and surrounded himself with boldfaced names from the worlds of TV, music, sports and modeling, the boxing promoter Don King coined a name for this developer’s way of winning and using celebrity: “telesynergistic.”
King struggled to define the term — something about a person who uses his image to “transform dreams into living reality, in minimal time, at megaprofits” — but a new word seemed vital to describe what Trump was doing.
Trump knew instinctively that he could enhance his own stature by being seen with celebrities, and he also knew he could do it by breaking the rules and bashing some of those same famous people.
No other president has come to the White House as deeply schooled in the methods and madness of the American craft of celebrity. And no other president has used celebrities in quite the same way — both as inspiration to mold policies and as foils to entertain and satisfy his political base.
In recent weeks, Sylvester Stallone led the president to pardon the early 20th-century boxer Jack Johnson. Then Trump met with Kim Kardashian West, who pressed him for clemency for Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old drug offender who had served 22 years of a life sentence. Trump commuted the sentence and then called Kardashian on her cellphone to deliver the news.
Meanwhile, Trump has continued to attack celebrities he thinks his supporters will eagerly turn against. He disinvited the National Football League’s Philadelphia Eagles and the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors from White House visits, and he took to Twitter to attack Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour, filmmaker Michael Moore and Meryl Streep, among others.
Just after ABC canceled Roseanne Barr’s rebooted sitcom because the star had compared former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett to an ape, Trump blasted TBS comedian Samantha Bee for referring to his daughter Ivanka Trump with a crude slur. Via tweet, the president asked: “Why aren’t they firing no talent Samantha Bee for the horrible language used on her low ratings show?”
A few other presidents — notably, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama — came to office as charismatic celebrities, attracting big names from Hollywood and sports who were eager to attend state dinners or take in a movie with the first family. But Trump revised the script: Although most celebrities didn’t flock to his side, he brought some into his policymaking process.
“Trump is very different from other presidents in that he has no regard for process,” said Bruce Miroff, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Albany who studies presidential leadership. “So it’s unlikely that anything will reach him through the usual Washington process. He likes to make decisions by instinct, and that allows prominent celebrities to solicit him for their causes. He gets to play the regal role, issuing decisions from above them.”
Trump works this way because “he doesn’t have the cachet that brought a Frank Sinatra to Kennedy and Reagan,” Miroff said. Although Barr and Kanye West have praised him on Twitter, “Trump is more radioactive to liberal celebrities than any other president. When you have [actor] Scott Baio vouching for you at the Republican convention, you’re on weak ground.”
Celebrities have been both useful and threatening to Trump for most of his career. As a real estate developer, Trump craved the respect of industry leaders, politicians and the New York Times, even as he attacked such institutions as elitist. Trump’s attitude toward celebrities has followed the same pattern, a provocative mix of seeking their approval and attacking their privilege.
Trump wanted to be New York’s biggest builder, but even more than that, he wanted to be a grand American showman whose name was synonymous with a high-end, aspirational brand. He knew — both instinctively and through the tutelage of his mentor and lawyer, Roy Cohn — that a key way to build that brand was through celebrity, both his own and the reflected fame of Big Names.
Starting in 1973, Cohn injected the young Trump into his whirl of social events, introducing Donald and, later, his new wife, Ivana, to the likes of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, gossip columnist Cindy Adams and cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder.
On his own, or posing as “John Barron,” his fictitious PR man, Trump would call newspapers and TV stations, urging them to cover his appearances with the famous. Trump started attending Manhattan’s hottest parties in the company of photogenic women he had recruited by calling modeling agencies.
As he told Playboy magazine in 1990, “The show is Trump, and it is sold-out performances everywhere.”
False reports about celebrities could be just as good as the real thing: When Trump Tower opened in Manhattan in 1983, Trump touted rumors that Prince Charles and Princess Diana were buying an apartment in the building. In his book “The Art of the Deal,” Trump called it “the sale that never occurred” yet boasted that it was “the one that most helped Trump Tower.”
After Trump bought the Palm Beach, Fla., estate Mar-a-Lago in 1985, he spread the word that Diana, Madonna and other big names were joining his new club, even though local newspapers reported that there was no basis for such rumors.
Shannon Donnelly, a longtime society reporter for the Palm Beach Daily News, fielded Trump’s calls urging her to cover each celebrity appearance at Mar-a-Lago. She recalled Trump taking Jay Leno around from table to table to chat with guests at one charity event, and William Shatner spending an evening with Trump at another ball.
“I don’t know if he was the one adoring the celebrities or they were there to adore him,” she said.
Trump often adopted ideas he’d been pitched by celebrity guests, but, as Donnelly noted, “Any member of the club could get his ear. You don’t have to be a celebrity to influence him. He’s always asking people what they think he should do.”
Some big names grew wary of appearing to be too close to Trump. Michael Jackson owned an apartment in Trump Tower and attended a young Ivanka Trump’s ballet performances. But Jackson, like Whitney Houston and Liza Minnelli, declined invitations to Trump’s 1993 wedding to Marla Maples, reportedly because Trump had left his first wife, Ivana, for Maples in a bitter public drama.
“It’s just like I was afraid of, I’m the biggest name here,” Howard Stern complained that night to the New York Daily News.
But, at wedding No. 3, to Melania Knauss, the A list showed up. The guests in Palm Beach included Bill and Hillary Clinton, P. Diddy, Billy Joel, Derek Jeter, Matt Lauer, Katie Couric, CBS chief executive Les Moonves and then-NBC television president Jeff Zucker.
That was in 2005, the heyday of Trump’s NBC show “The Apprentice,” which won strong ratings at first, giving its main character a big national publicity boost. Later, Trump literally surrounded himself with notable names on its offshoot, “Celebrity Apprentice,” and some of his guests on that show have made return appearances in the Trump White House.
Kardashian appeared on both shows, and her sister was a contestant on “Celebrity Apprentice.” When she met the president in the Oval Office, she broke the ice by joking that “I am here because I really want to know why you kicked Khloe off,” as she recounted on NBC’s “Today” show.
The next day, Trump said he was considering pardoning Martha Stewart, the lifestyle mogul who was a host of “Celebrity Apprentice,” and commuting the sentence of another contestant, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.
Trump retained the title of “Celebrity Apprentice” executive producer even after becoming president. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway defended that decision, saying that even presidents “have a right to do things in their spare time.” She compared Trump’s role on the reality show to Obama’s regular golf games.
As Trump entered the White House, experts suggested that he’d have to shift gears from creating spectacles to the inglamorous work of governing. But Trump thought that the same tactics that got him elected would serve him well in office.
In New York, Trump had realized that his celebrity protected him from consequences for his affairs and corporate bankruptcies. Similarly, in the White House, he understands that the same excesses that made him steady tabloid fodder for decades exempt him from the standards usually applied to politicians. He is, instead, judged as sports and entertainment celebrities often are, permitted a range of behavior that would bring down a politician.
So there is actually political benefit to be gained — at least among his supporters — by continuing his nasty feuds with celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell, Cher, Graydon Carter and Megyn Kelly.
Other presidents, too, have realized the power of celebrities to burnish their own images. Bill Clinton went on Arsenio Hall’s late-night talk show to play the saxophone, and Richard Nixon made a cameo appearance on TV’s “Laugh-In.” Obama did this more extensively, slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show,” while his wife rapped with Missy Elliott on a song boosting girls’ education. Obama’s 2008 opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ran a TV ad called “Celeb” that linked Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and accused him of being “the biggest celebrity in the world.” On his way out of office, Obama threw an all-night bash at the White House that featured Streep, Tom Hanks, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney.
But Trump, in his relationship with celebrity, as in so many other areas, is unique. In one sense, he has stepped back from the celebrity-politician axis that seemed so prominent during the Clinton and Obama presidencies. In his campaign, Trump blasted Obama for being too close to Hollywood types, and since taking office, Trump has avoided the White House correspondents' dinner, which has become a symbol of the blurring of lines dividing celebrities, journalists and politicians.
But if there appears to be some distance between Trump and many celebrities, that’s not for lack of trying on his part. Elton John, Garth Brooks and Celine Dion all turned down feelers about performing at the inauguration.
What Trump got instead were the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Rockettes and Jackie Evancho, who had appeared on “America’s Got Talent.”
Sensitive as ever to criticism that he hadn’t scored top names, the then-president-elect boasted on Twitter that “The so-called ‘A’ list celebrities are all wanting tix to the Inauguration . . . .”
The president told Kardashian in the Oval Office that she and her husband were giving his popularity among black voters a significant boost. Donald Trump Jr. called it “a cultural turning point.”
The episode brought on the cognitive dissonance of a panel of conservative Fox News commentators praising a rapper who had blasted George W. Bush.
“Once in a while, people come along and they break the mold. Kanye is one of them. Donald Trump is one of them,” Fox’s Jesse Watters said. Trump “was out, you know, at nighttime taking lots of pictures with other celebrities. And people admired his entrepreneurship, his flashiness, his style and his wealth, and the women that he hung around with. . . . You can’t underestimate what’s going on here.”