“I just discovered this,” he said, pointing at the conference table that took up most of the room. He swept his arm over the table, beckoning us to inspect. Every inch of the table’s surface was filled with stacks of magazines. “All from the last four months,” he said, and on every cover of every magazine, there he was, Donald J. Trump, smiling or waving or scowling or pouting, but always him.
“Cover of Time, three times in four months,” he said. “No one ever before. It’s amazing.” There he was on the New York Times Magazine, and on Esquire and on Rolling Stone and on and on, the man who was about to be nominated as the Republican candidate for president, his success (or his notoriety) emblazoned on magazine after magazine. He was very much impressed.
He was all sunshine on that June day, an exemplar of the power of positive thinking, the core of the theology that he’d grown up with in Fred Trump’s office and the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale’s church. In that moment, Donald Trump was the can-do dealmaker, the tough decider, the ebullient kid who, as his sister put it, was “just a nice boy from Queens.”
A few moments later, he would switch gears and show us his other side, also a classically American streak, this one darker, with a trace of paranoia and a dash of despair. This was the author of “Crippled America,” the truth teller who told huge crowds, “We don’t have a country anymore,” the prideful tycoon who now threatened to sue us even as he told us how much he was enjoying our interviews.
See more of the reporting that informed the book here
All told, over the past four months, Trump spent more than 20 hours talking to Washington Post reporters who were working on a biography, titled “Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power,” published by Scribner. Trump was gracious and generous with his time, took nearly all of our questions, and often extended the length of our interviews, sometimes doubling or tripling the allotted time. That level of cooperation was a surprising switch from the campaign’s initial reaction to the book.
On a Friday in April, Marc Fisher called Trump’s campaign press secretary, Hope Hicks, to tell her about the book deal that would be announced the following Monday. Fisher asked if Trump would grant a series of interviews about his life and work.
Hicks cut him off, calling the decision to write a book “incredibly disingenuous. . . . You are profiteering off Mr. Trump. This isn’t something we’re participating in; you all are making money on this.”
Fisher pointed out that in every election year, The Post publishes a comprehensive series of articles tracing the candidates’ lives. This would be no different, except that the same reporting that was going toward newspaper articles was also being used to tell the story in one narrative, in book form. The Post planned a similar examination of the life and record of the Democratic nominee. Hicks was unimpressed. She reiterated icily that no cooperation would be forthcoming, and she ended the call.
After the weekend, Hicks called back, her tone now bright and friendly. “I told Mr. Trump about your project, and he loves it,” she said. “He’s happy to meet with you.”
From then on, Trump made himself available, in person and on the phone, to reporters delving into his childhood, real estate career, Atlantic City gambling operations, foreign business ventures, and political evolution, as well as his romances, family history, friendships and other influences. He provided this access despite his public ban against The Post’s reporters who were covering his campaign.
The interviews were fascinating but frequently frustrating: He rarely refused to answer our questions, but when the subject was uncomfortable or raised doubts about some of his past decisions, he often gave us disjointed answers that steered into completely unrelated matters.
Throughout the interviews, he was alternately enthusiastic (“Let’s keep going — this is a lot of fun,” he said during one of our sessions, rebuffing his secretary’s effort to bring the meeting to a close) and sternly skeptical, repeatedly telling us about the “lowlife reporters” who had written books about him through the decades and about the legal actions he had contemplated or taken against those authors.
Both aspects of Trump seemed to be the stuff of fiction, of characters who were written to capture the hopes and ambitions of a great, young nation, but also its fears, doubts, and jealousies. Even after all those hours of interviews, Trump seemed not quite real, a character he had built to enhance his business empire, a construct designed to be at once an everyman and an impossibly high-flying king of Manhattan, an avatar of American riches.
Trump was charming, yet forever on the make, like Lonesome Rhodes from “A Face in the Crowd,” a 1957 movie starring Andy Griffith as a folksy, but ultimately cynical Arkansas traveler who soars from a filthy jail cell to the pinnacle of American celebrity and political power. Trump was a natural-born populist, like Howard Beale, the TV anchorman from “Network,” a 1976 film in which the newsman rallies the nation to open their windows and shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Trump was at times naive yet wise, like Chauncey Gardiner, a dim gardener whose unwitting folk wisdom turned him into a possible presidential contender in “Being There” (1979).
Throughout the past century, Americans were periodically drawn to voices arguing that foreigners or The Other were responsible for the nation’s troubles: Father Charles Coughlin, a priest who used his nationwide radio show in the 1930s to deliver an America First message laced with assaults on Jews; and George Wallace, a segregationist governor of Alabama who ran for president in the 1960s and ’70s as a populist preaching that “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference” between the Republicans and the Democrats; and Patrick Buchanan, a Washington insider and presidential candidate who encouraged voters in the 1990s to rise up as “peasants with pitchforks” to take their country back from politicians who had failed to stop illegal immigration and the ravages of free trade.
These men had appealed to the darker aspect of the American personality, the flip side to Billy Graham’s confident theology of good deeds and righteous capitalism, Martin Luther King Jr.’s march to the mountaintop of justice and fairness, and Barack Obama’s promise of hope and change.
Trump believed — like so many great Americans real and imagined, such as Steve Jobs and Jay Gatsby — in the unlimited, unequaled power of the individual to achieve nearly anything. And like many other products of the uniquely American machinery of celebrity, Trump believed that his fame and success would catapult him to a level of power that he deserved because he had made so much money. He believed that just by walking into a room, just by reflecting the passions of a crowd, he could shift the course of events. He could, for example, make America great again.
In his incongruously serene office high above the cacophony of Fifth Avenue, the walls lined with awards and photos of himself at dinners and parties and even on the cover of Playboy, one portrait stood out, positioned prominently on Trump’s desk. It was a framed photograph of his father, Fred Trump, who made his fortune by providing housing for working-class families, mostly in Brooklyn and Queens.
At the start of the Depression, Fred, then in his mid-20s, worried about his financial condition and shouldered as little risk as possible. He said he was successful because he squeezed nine days out of a seven-day week and made sure every penny was spent wisely.
A key to success, Fred once explained when accepting the Horatio Alger Award for overcoming adversity, is “you must like what you do. You must pick out the right business or profession. You must learn all about it. . . . Nine out of 10 people don’t like what they do. And in not liking what they do, they lose enthusiasm, they go from job to job, and ultimately become a nothing.”
As his father’s son, Donald was given everything from the start — he could never qualify for the Horatio Alger Award — but he was driven to avoid failing in his father’s eyes, to avoid becoming a nothing.
The last three presidents had struggled fairly publicly with their fathers. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama wrote and talked about their feelings of abandonment. Their resolve to prove themselves helped propel their meteoric ascents, tempered by a charisma perhaps born of their lifelong need to win attention and love that were missing from their upbringing. At a later stage in life, George W. Bush similarly struggled with the shadow cast by the failure of his father’s presidency; he, too, chose a road on which he might make right the disappointments of his father’s journey.
All three of those presidents, to one degree or another, openly carried burdens from their parents’ lives. Trump admitted to no such troubles. He had never been very forthcoming about the texture of his home life. His father, he would admit, was sometimes distant — “His life was business . . . a very content person” — but ultimately a loving, strong figure. Trump had reduced his story of his mother, even more of a mystery to outsiders, to less than a sentence: “very warm . . . great sense of pageantry . . . very beautiful.” Donald Trump had walled off the pain in his past, hid it behind a never-ending show about himself.
The rest of the desk was devoted to Donald, the stacks of magazines featuring his image, the morning’s news clippings about himself. Yet in an office dedicated almost entirely to celebrating Trump’s success and performance, nothing spoke to the man’s private passions or predilections, nothing to indicate a hobby, an artistic interest, a literary bent, a statement about his credo, his crises, or his dreams.
In one of his books, “Trump: Think Like a Billionaire,” he had asserted that visionary business leaders succeed “because they are narcissists who devote their talent with unrelenting focus to achieving their dreams, even if it’s sometimes at the expense of those around them.” He approvingly quoted a writer who said, “Successful alpha personalities display a single-minded determination to impose their vision on the world.”
Trump had reached the pinnacle of American politics virtually without allies, rising in opposition to the party structure. More than any other major figure in modern presidential politics, he seemed allergic to ideology. He had won the nomination with an impossibly tiny campaign staff, a core of half a dozen loyalists, most of them newcomers to presidential politics. His most valued consultants were his children and their spouses.
He had never really had close friends. As far back as 1980, he had told TV interviewer Rona Barrett, “My business is so all-encompassing that I don’t really get the pleasure of being with friends that much, frankly.” She pressed him: Whom would you call if you were in trouble and your family wasn’t around? “Maybe I’d call you, Rona,” he said.
Thirty-six years later, when we asked Trump about his friendships, he took a considerable, unusual pause, and then said: “Well, it’s an interesting question. Most of my friendships are business-related because those are the only people I meet. The people I meet, really, I guess I could say socially, when you go out to a charity event or something. . . . I have people that I haven’t spoken to in years, but I think they’re friends.” And he named — off the record — three men he had had business dealings with two or more decades before, men he had seen only rarely in recent years.
“I mean, I think I have a lot of friends,” Trump continued, “but they’re not friends like perhaps other people have friends, where they’re together all the time and they go out to dinner all the time.” But was there anyone he would turn to if he had a personal problem, or some doubt about himself or something he’d done? “More of my family,” Trump said. “I have a lot of good relationships. I have good enemies, too, which is okay. But I think more of my family than others.”
Trump often struggled to respond to questions that pushed beyond his business deals and political tactics. In one of our visits to Trump Tower, we asked what he might say to people who wondered whether he had core convictions, given that he had changed his party registration seven times, including stints as a Democrat.
Trump didn’t talk about his ideological evolution or about how the parties had changed. Rather, he explained his political hopscotching as pure pragmatism. “It had to do more with practicality,” he said, “because if you’re going to run for office, you would have had to make friends.”
Despite his lifelong belief in holding his ground and refusing to apologize, Trump at times candidly acknowledged his mistakes. Asked by our Post colleagues about failures such as corporate bankruptcies, most of them related to his Atlantic City casinos, he said, “I did take my eye off the ball, and part of that was because of the difficulty I had with the marriage, of course.” His affair with Marla Maples during his marriage to his first wife, Ivana Trump, coincided with one of the most difficult passages in his career.
But he was unapologetic about making big money even as his financial maneuvers hurt those who had backed him. The bottom line, he said, was that “I wasn’t representing the country. I wasn’t representing the banks. . . . I was representing Donald Trump. So for myself, they were all good deals.”
In the weeks before this summer’s Republican National Convention, Trump was under pressure from his party’s leaders to tone down his coarse rhetoric and show that he could be more than the sneering voice of a frustrated nation. Trump told us that to win in November, he needed to be disciplined. “I think that consistency in the message is very important,” he said.
But despite his efforts to build a disciplined message about national security, trade deals and bringing back American jobs, he continued to startle the nation with personal attacks, suggesting that a U.S.-born judge ruled against him because of his Mexican heritage, or criticizing the grieving parents of a Muslim U.S. Army captain who was killed in action in Iraq. Trump and his aides kept saying that as the general election approached, he would alter his tone and become more presidential, but on many days, his first mission seemed to be to rationalize his prior comments, or to attack how they’d been reported.
At the GOP convention in Cleveland and in the weeks that followed, Trump’s vision featured no shining city on a hill and offered no details about how he’d make the instant, absolute fixes he promised. He would just do it — and fast.
He seemed smoother now — when a lone protester interrupted his acceptance speech in Cleveland, Trump said nothing, just stood quietly and waited for her to be removed, although he looked as if he was bursting to let everyone know what he really thought of her. But he was still Trump, still the cocky, blunt kid from Queens, still the guy who would say what others only thought. “I am your voice,” he said. “Believe me. Believe me.”
After the convention, there was no rest. The hundred-day blitz of a fall campaign would begin almost immediately — three debates, rally upon rally, a blizzard of charges and countercharges in countless cable TV appearances — and it was already clear that this would be a bitter battle between the two least-popular, least-liked major-party candidates in modern political history. At the end of that slog, Trump was certain, the White House would be his.
Yet as confident as he was of victory, he said he had not spent much time planning for how he would operate if he won. He would run the country much as he had his businesses, he said, keeping a close eye on everything, insisting on high standards. The difference would be that he’d be doing everything for the country, not just for himself.
What exactly that might look like was not entirely clear. He expected his day-to-day work style to be similar to what he’d done for decades. At Trump Tower, he kept no computer on his desk, and he avoided reading extensive reports or briefings. He went with his gut. He tweeted what he felt, confident that his heart was right where the people were.
There would be so much to do now. His daughter Ivanka had promised the nation on that last night of the convention that, come January, “all things will be possible again.” And Donald Trump had told the crowd that because “nobody knows the system better than me . . . I alone can fix it.”
He alone. His father, who had warned him against being “a nothing,” was gone and never got to see this astonishing American journey to its conclusion. His family joined him onstage for the final celebration as red, white, and blue balloons fell and beach balls bounced around the arena. But in that last moment before he left the stage, Donald Trump was on his own. He stuck out his jaw, pursed his lips, and stepped into the dark tunnel behind the stage.