“Donald Trump is on the line.”
It was the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, at WWOR’s station in Secaucus, N.J., and Rolland Smith, the lead anchor for the news outlet’s coverage of the day, was apologizing for the channel’s technical difficulties. The crushing pictures and videos of airplanes hurtling into the World Trade Center were seemingly on a loop for hours. That’s when Brenda Blackmon, the co-anchor of the coverage, interjected to let her colleague know that Trump, the real estate mogul with well-documented ties to Lower Manhattan, was on the phone.
When the planes hit the towers, Alan Marcus got a call from Will Wright, the news director at WWOR. Upon arrival, Marcus, who acted as a spokesman, lobbyist and consultant for Trump throughout the ’90s and also did on-air analyst work for WWOR, said Wright asked him whether he could get a celebrity on the line for them to interview. Befuddled by the request during the tragedy, Marcus asked him to clarify.
“He said, ‘No, could you get Trump?’ ” Marcus told The Washington Post in an interview late Monday. “I said, ‘Yeah, let me call him.’ I called him and he picked up right away.”
The night before, Trump was in New York’s Meatpacking District for Marc Jacobs’s spring fashion show, seated in the front row with the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker and Monica Lewinsky.
The following morning, after news programming broke into regularly scheduled network and cable shows, Trump, who would later tell Howard Stern that he was waiting to watch an interview with former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, got Marcus’s call at his private number. The analyst told The Post that Trump asked him where the TV crew was for the interview, with Marcus saying that the talk would have to be done over the phone.
“He was nervous about the interview,” Marcus recalled.
From his Midtown Manhattan apartment in Trump Tower, the businessman shared his disbelief on what he said he was witnessing on 9/11.
“I have a window that looks directly at the World Trade Center, and I saw this huge explosion,” Trump told Blackmon. “I really couldn’t even believe it.” He added: “Now, I’m looking at absolutely nothing. It’s just gone. It’s just hard to believe.”
A little more than a minute later, Marcus asked whether Trump’s 40 Wall Street building had suffered any damage. Before getting into his response about his Financial District property, the businessman had something he wanted on the record.
“40 Wall Street actually was the second-tallest building in downtown Manhattan, and it was actually, before the World Trade Center, was the tallest — and then, when they built the World Trade Center, it became known as the second tallest,” Trump said in the WWOR interview. “And now it’s the tallest.”
Blackmon told The Post late Monday that Trump’s response left her baffled.
“[Marcus] dialed him up, and that’s when [Trump] gave the answer he did, which stunned us at the time,” Blackmon said to The Post. “Any reaction I had, in the midst of everything that was happening, was, wow, that’s insensitive. It just was.”
Smith told Politico in 2016 that the line from Trump seemed to be spontaneous.
“I think it was an all-of-a-sudden epiphany for him,” Smith said, “and he seemed to just blurt it out.”
Having known Trump for the better part of 30 years, Marcus told The Post he thought Trump mostly came off well, but still remembers the line all too well.
“I didn’t like his line about having the biggest building in downtown,” said Marcus, president of the Marcus Group, a New Jersey-based public relations firm. “But that’s just how he talked.” Marcus added: “By Donald’s standards, he was probably very good. He was trying to behave.”
At the time, the 10-minute interview with the businessman was something of an afterthought in the sadness of the day. But in the years that followed in Trump’s ascent to the White House, the interview, his first on-air interview that day, offers a unique instance in which the businessman was somber and restrained in his words, while also forming general feelings on national security that would later become part of his presidency.
In the interview, Marcus asked Trump, given that he had considered running for president in 2000, about what he would have done if he had run and been president at the time of the tragedy.
“Well, I’d be taking a very, very tough line,” Trump said to Marcus. “I mean, you know, most people feel they know at least approximately the group of people that did this and where they are. But, boy, would you have to take a hard line on this. This just can’t be tolerated.”
As both a candidate and president, Trump has often evoked 9/11 on the campaign trail and in office, praising police officers and firefighters for their bravery. But he’s also been accused of politicizing the date. In a February 2016 Republican presidential debate, Trump, then a candidate, seemingly blamed Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for the terrorist attack. Trump also promoted a debunked theory in 2015 that thousands of people in New Jersey, specifically Muslims, were cheering as the World Trade Center collapsed. That same year, Trump claimed he saw people jumping from the twin towers. It was a claim he did not make during his 9/11 interview with WWOR, though he did say he could see the World Trade Center, which was close to four miles away from his apartment.
“He wasn’t looking out the window of the Empire State Building,” Marcus told The Post of Trump’s claim he could see the World Trade Center from Trump Tower. “That wasn’t possible.” (George Ross, a longtime attorney for Trump, supported Trump’s statement to Politico in 2016 that he saw the World Trade Center from his Trump Tower office.)
The WWOR interview with Trump, used, in part, to fill time, almost did not happen. With many news stations across New York having transmitter facilities located at the World Trade Center, local outlets initially had a hard time getting on air. That was not the case for WWOR, Marcus said, which had an antenna in Alpine, N.J., that allowed them to broadcast immediately. WWOR dropped its local news coverage in 2013.
Instead of thinking about the brevity of Trump’s 10-minute spot, Blackmon, who said she was with the station for 27 years, remembers working for days on end and going down to Ground Zero. Blackmon said she kept every newspaper and magazine she could find from that month in a box that she believes she still has today.
“I had kind of forgotten about [the interview] because there were so many other things from that day,” said Blackmon, founder of the Kelly Fund for Lupus, a nonprofit created after her daughter was diagnosed with the disease. “I had lunch with Alan Marcus recently and we talked about [the interview], and I said, ‘Oh my God, I forgot about that.’ He said, ‘How could you forget about that?’ I said, ‘I guess it was just the day.’ ”
The same goes for Marcus, who prefers to remember the station’s comprehensive coverage of thousands of people supporting the first responders and volunteers in the days, weeks and months that followed rather than the Trump segment.
“I think Donald’s interview — taken in the context of the day — I thought for him he was subdued, but how could you not be?” Marcus told The Post. “He was a native New Yorker, and he was a guy who never said no to an interview.”