After she joined Donald Trump’s real estate business, Louise Sunshine struggled to maintain a steady weight while managing her new career alongside the busy schedules of three young children.
Trump must have noticed, Sunshine said. She recalled that he kept an unflattering photograph of her in a drawer — a “fat picture,” as she called it — that he would pull out when she did something he didn’t like.
It was “a reminder that I wasn’t perfect,” said Sunshine, who worked with Trump for 15 years starting in the mid-1970s when he set about remaking Manhattan’s skyline. “He just is that way.”
Sunshine said she bears no grudges and instead considers Trump a valued mentor. A political fundraiser with no prior real estate expertise, Sunshine ascended to executive vice president of the Trump Organization, joining a cadre of female executives who have played central roles in Trump’s empire.
Trump called Sunshine’s account of the photograph “totally false and ridiculous,” but her feelings illustrate a paradox about the Republican front-runner.
In the five months that the billionaire businessman has spent on the presidential campaign trail, his inflammatory missiles toward women have prompted charges of sexism, even misogyny. His obsession with physical appearance — such as speculating that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton was wearing a wig — drew charges of bullying from the candidate vying to be the country’s first female president. Polls show Trump suffering from a wider gender gap among American voters overall than other Republican candidates.
But many women who have worked closely with Trump say he was a corporate executive ahead of his time in providing career advancement for women. While some say he could be boorish, his companies nurtured and promoted women in an otherwise male-dominated industry. Several women said they appreciated how Trump granted them entry to a new playing field.
“From the standpoint of being a woman, I just thought he was phenomenal,” said Sunshine, 74. “So supportive and encouraging. . . . He gave me the ropes, and I could either hang myself or prove myself.”
Jennifer Crisafulli-Oberting, 43, a contestant on the Trump reality TV show “The Apprentice” who went on to promote the show in media appearances with Trump, said she felt she was being welcomed into the “boys’ club” — but on her terms.
“You were like one of the guys right off the bat, but you didn’t have to act or dress like one of the guys,” she said.
Trump often told the women he employed and worked with that he valued those he believed would stand their ground on construction sites and in legal battles. He called Barbara Res, whom he put in charge of the construction of his now-iconic Trump Tower in 1980, “a killer,” she recalled. And he used to tell her and others that “men are better than women, but a good woman is better than 10 good men.”
“He wasn’t discriminatory against women that I saw,” said Res, now in her 60s and owner of a construction consultancy.
Res said Trump was “brave” to hire her when few women were in the business. But like many men of the era, she said, “he was sexist; he made comments and stuff like that.”
In an interview, Trump blamed perceptions of him as sexist on unfair media coverage of his presidential campaign.
“I have been very, very good for women,” he said. “I was way ahead of the curve.”
Trump highlighted the role of women in his corporate success in his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal,” writing that he hired “a lot of women for top jobs, and they’re among my best people.”
Referring in the interview to his recruitment and promotion of women, he added: “It was a good decision. Good for women and good for me.”
Today, according to Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, there are more women than men holding executive positions in the Trump Organization, heading such departments as human resources, golf and hotel management, and global licensing, even though women make up just 43 percent of the overall workforce. Women who are in similar positions as men, Cohen said, “are compensated at equal and in many cases higher pay rates.”
It was not possible to independently verify Cohen’s data, and he declined to provide documentation.
The picture many current and former employees paint stands in contrast to the blustering controversies prompted by Trump’s comments since he hit the campaign trail. In an interview after the first Republican debate, when Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly grilled Trump about calling women “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs” and “disgusting animals,” Trump said Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.” He mocked the appearance of his only female rival for the nomination, Carly Fiorina, referring in a Rolling Stone interview to her face and asking, “Would anyone vote for that?” His attempt to make amends by saying of Fiorina, “I think she’s got a beautiful face,” struck many as demeaning.
Asked in an interview about his comments about Kelly and Fiorina, Trump said: “They can take care of themselves. They are capable of taking care of themselves.” He also insisted that he does not discriminate. “I treat men and women in a very similar fashion,” he said.
Trump has not reserved his critiques of appearances to women. He said recently that his hair was better than that of rival Marco Rubio. And he achieved a back-handed jab at Rand Paul during a recent debate by saying, “I never attacked him on his look, and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.”
At times, it seems Trump can’t help himself. Midway through a telephone interview about his treatment of women, he told a Washington Post reporter, “You’re a very beautiful woman, as I understand it.”
The presence of striking women has played a key role in Trump’s relentless quest to boost his brand — in real estate, in entertainment and now in politics.
In 1989, Savvy Woman magazine ran a cover story featuring Trump with Res and two other women on his team with the text “Surprise! Mr. Macho’s Inner Circle Isn’t An All-Boys’ Club.” The cover at once burnished the image of an alpha male and suggested the modern sensibilities of a gender-neutral employer.
After “The Apprentice” debuted in 2004, Trump’s many media appearances with shapely beauties helped goose the show’s phenomenal ratings. Crisafulli-Oberting remembered participating in a shoot for People’s 2004 Sexiest Man Alive issue in which she and five other women appeared in a barbershop scene combing Trump’s hair and shining his shoes. A quote from Trump, then 58, reads, “These are special women, so if they think I’m sexy, that’s OK with me.”
Now, in his political life, Trump relies on a former model, 27-year-old Hope Hicks, to run his PR.
His glamorous daughter Ivanka — about whom he once said, “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps, I would be dating her” — introduced Trump when he announced his presidential bid. Ivanka, 34 and pregnant with her third child, navigates a thoroughly modern path between motherhood, real estate development and promoting her line of jewelry and clothing. She is developing a Lean In-style “Women Who Work” initiative and in recent weeks has taken to the airwaves to combat the furor her father’s comments provoked.
“I don’t think that he’s gender-targeted at all,” Ivanka Trump told CNN. “I wouldn’t be a high-level executive within his organization if he felt that way.”
Those who have worked for Trump say looks aren’t everything. He is more interested in hiring smart people, regardless of gender, they say, and that has led Trump for decades to rely on strong, assertive women both as gatekeepers and as advisers.
Norma Foerderer, for instance, spent two decades as a personal assistant to Trump, advising him on everything “from what color tie to wear to whether or not he should purchase a building,” according to Jim Dowd, who used to represent Trump at his PR company. Foerderer, who rose to vice president, retired in 2006 and died two years ago.
Rhona Graff, Trump’s current assistant and a senior vice president, has been with him for more than 25 years. Graff, who regularly appeared in “The Apprentice,” gained some notice recently after a super PAC backing Trump used contact information that came from her to solicit a donation, according to an e-mail obtained by The Post. Graff declined to be interviewed for this article, but she sent an e-mail in which she described a stimulating position in which two days were never alike working for a man who is at once demanding and “brilliant, insightful, funny, charismatic and surprisingly down to earth.”
Several of Trump’s female employees said he fostered a positive work environment.
Deirdre Rosen, 42, vice president of human resources for the Trump Hotel Collection, said that after working for big public companies, the seven years she has spent at the family-run Trump Organization have offered her the flexibility to “be present at soccer games and drama club” with her children.
Jill Martin, 35, assistant general counsel, who joined the Trump Organization five years ago, described a boss who helped her overcome her caution about her abilities and encouraged her to grow. When a case went before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, she said, Trump could have asked a more experienced male lawyer to argue the case. Instead, “He said, ‘Jill, you’ll do great,’ ” she recalled. “He pushed me when I needed it.”
But several women who are longtime Trump supporters say the provocative outbursts that served Trump well in business and entertainment don’t belong in politics. “I don’t like the fact the worlds are merging,” said Ereka Vetrini, a TV host and lifestyle expert.
Vetrini, who appeared with other female “Apprentice” contestants in a controversial TV Guide cover (“tummies bare, ties on”), said she understood the impetus to boost ratings for Trump’s show, but political polls are a different matter.
“Fiorina and Kelly?” she said. “I can’t disregard those comments.”
Nor can Res, who also disagrees with her former boss’s political stance: From his antiabortion position to his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, “his policies, the things he says he believes in, are very anti-women.”
“I’m voting for Hillary,” Res said.
Despite what she says is outrageous language, Sunshine said she supports Trump in his bid to be president.
And the “fat picture”?
She hasn’t forgotten it, Sunshine said. “When I gain weight, I think of that picture,” she reflected, evoking a Pavlovian image of her former boss using the photograph as a trigger to condition her behavior.
Looking back, she said, “it was quite a good idea.”