Evan Thomas is the author of “Being Nixon.”
The Washington Post, in its post-Watergate heyday, was known by other journalists as a reporter’s paper or a writer’s paper. Its staffers were given the freedom to experiment stylistically and to take as much space and time as needed to report out the story. The Post was not, however, known as an editor’s paper. Reporters were seemingly permitted to dump their entire notebooks onto the page; investigative pieces wandered on (and on) in ways that could seem confusing or turgid. The New York Times, meanwhile, was working harder at producing a tightly edited, vivid and more reader-friendly paper — while hiring away some of The Post’s best reporters and writers.
One could argue that journalistic writing has generally declined in the Internet age, as the pressure grows to crank out maximum volume, usually as fast as possible. But long-time readers of The Post will notice that in the past few years, the paper has improved, becoming sharper and more smartly conceived. With added resources and improved morale, Post reporters and editors are making the paper more insightful and readable — a closer competitor to their old rival in New York.
Fresh proof arrives in “Trump Revealed,” a biography of the GOP’s narcissistic nominee, quickly but deftly wrought by two excellent Post writers from deep reporting by a score of Post reporters with the help of two fact checkers and three editors. Trump is already badmouthing the book as “ridiculous,” but he gave the Post team 20 hours of interviews, and the finished product is by no means a hatchet job. Much of the material may appear familiar — parts have appeared as feature stories in the newspaper, in somewhat different form — and there is no Rosebud here, no epiphany that explains it all. But the many revealing scenes cohere into a fascinating portrait.
In a vignette at once slightly comical and chilling, Trump discovers, or is discovered by, the malevolent Roy Cohn. The year is 1973, and Trump, scion of an outer-borough housing developer, is trying to make the jump from the bridge-and-tunnel crowd to the Manhattan glitterati. He has been an eager guest at a New York establishment called Le Club, whose members supposedly include “13 princes, 13 counts, four barons, three princesses, two dukes.” The club rejects him from membership until he promises not to go after married women who were coming there “because I was young and good-looking” (or so Trump recounted in his book, “The Art of the Deal”).
In the bar of Le Club, Trump finds a man with hooded eyes and a scarred face — the sinister Cohn, Sen. Joe McCarthy’s henchman, who has long since clawed back from McCarthy’s televised downfall in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings (“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”) to become a potent lawyer/fixer in Manhattan. Young Donald explains to Cohn that he has a problem: His real estate company has been sued by the state for racial bias. Trump says he is thinking of settling the case. Nonsense, says Cohn. You never settle: Hit back. Countersue. Trump promptly hires Cohn, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Never mind that Trump eventually was forced to settle, on about the same terms he would have agreed to if he had never met Cohn. Cohn continued to mentor young Donald in important lessons of self-aggrandizement, the most important of which is that all publicity is good publicity. In the 1970s, Rupert Murdoch was transforming the New York Post into a racy tabloid, and Trump soon became a poster boy, his affairs and divorces almost daily fodder. “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had” was a favorite headline, attributed to Trump’s mistress, later second wife, Marla Maples.
Trump enjoyed appearing on the New York Post’s gossipy Page Six so much that he began posing as his own PR man, going by the fictitious names of John Miller or John Barron (in a possible wink, Trump gave the name Barron to his latest son). “Some reporters found the calls from Miller or Barron merely playful, if a bit weird,” Kranish and Fisher write. “Others thought the calls were disturbing or even creepy, as Barron seems to take pleasure in describing how prominent women were drawn to Trump sexually.”
Stories about Trump and women have intrigued more highbrow publications. This past spring, the New York Times ran a purported exposé of Trump as a sexual harasser. The piece was something of a fizzle; most of Trump’s women seemed to take a benign view of him. Kranish and Fisher (using reporting from Post staffers Mary Jordan and Karen Heller) offer a more nuanced view. “Beyond the parties and sightings with models and actresses, despite the screaming headlines, his relationships with women rarely seemed romantic or even libidinous,” the authors write. “With Trump, his friends said, women were always the object of a chase or a quest.” The Post team quotes Trump from a 1994 television interview with journalist Nancy Collins. “I love creating stars,” he boasted. “I’ve really given a lot of women great opportunity. Unfortunately, after they’re a star, the fun is over for me. It’s like a creating process. It’s almost like creating a building. It’s pretty sad.”
For a moment, it appeared, Trump showed a flicker of self-knowledge, even pathos. Visiting him in his office high above Fifth Avenue, Kranish and Fisher asked about his friendships. There was a “considerable, unusual pause” before Trump struggled to answer. He stumbled around, trying to explain that he had business friends, not social friends, because he had no time for social friends, unless you count the ones met “when you go out to a charity event or something.” Then he named three men but put their names off the record. He had done business with them years before, he awkwardly said, but had rarely seen them in recent years. It was apparent that Trump had no friends, outside his immediate family.
Cohn may have been a true friend, once, long ago, when he was tutoring young Trump in smash-mouth PR. In 1984, Cohn, a closeted homosexual who frequently denounced gays, fell ill with an HIV infection. “As Cohn struggled to stay alive, Trump pulled back from his friend for a time.” Cohn was “miffed by Trump’s apparent betrayal,” the authors write, quoting Cohn: “I can’t believe he’s doing this to me. Donald pisses ice water.” But then, when Cohn’s sleazy past as a lawyer finally caught up and he was disbarred, Trump came around and invited Cohn to rest at his Palm Beach, Fla., estate, Mar-a-Lago. A few months later, Cohn died. At the memorial service, the authors write, “Trump attended, standing silently in the back.”
Always attack, Trump learned from Cohn. When New York Times columnist Gail Collins called Trump a “financially embattled thousandaire,” he sent her column back with her face circled. Next to it, he had written, “The Face of a Dog!” That is the avenger Trump wants you to know. Kranish and Fisher and The Post’s reporters have given us a more complex and human Trump. They point out, for instance, that the reality-TV star most famous for saying “You’re fired!” actually “felt uneasy getting rid of an employee. If it had to be done, he would rather delegate the task to an underling.”
Trump the outrageous poseur becomes sadder and more real in this fine book.
By Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher
Scribner. 431 pp. $28