Donald Trump came down the stairs, stopped in the middle of the clubhouse restaurant, thrust his arms out and proclaimed: “How great is this?”
It was his way of saying hello, as well as a declaration of how America’s boss planned to try to own the room — through charm, not intimidation.
What was so great was the expansive view out the windows of Trump National Golf Club in the Virginia suburbs outside Washington. Trump, wearing his usual uniform of a dark suit and a bright red tie, took it in and then walked between a picture of Ronald Reagan and a framed Variety page showing NBC’s “The Apprentice” as the nation’s No. 1 television show and took his seat at the head of the table.
We sat on either side of him. At the other end was his presidential campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, already well into his first Red Bull of the day, and his spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, whom Trump referred to as a “beautiful beauty.”
The wait staff, there in the offseason to serve breakfast for Trump and his guests, poured him a Diet Coke from a glass bottle, a precursor to his meal of three eggs, bacon and sausage. And then the man who has captivated U.S. politics for the past six months took it away, a nearly 90-minute one-man channel surf that landed on, among other topics, golf, the polls, whether he planned to drop out of the presidential race, what he’s afraid of, whether he’s a nice person, the media, the media and the media.
The interview came the morning after the Dec. 2 massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., in the hours before the motivations of the two shooters became fully clear. This also was shortly after Trump had expressed interest in creating a national database to track Muslims who are already in the country. We asked whether he was going to reach out to Muslims, to try to smooth over relations.
Trump: It’s possible. It’s possible. Look, my whole campaign is about honesty. We have a problem. People said, “Oh, that’s not politically correct, what he said about surveillance.” But we have to have some surveillance.
[At that point, Trump turned to look at the television sets above and the coverage of San Bernardino.]
Even these two people, I figured they were crazy shooters. The guy goes to Saudi Arabia, meets a wife who is, you know, whatever. From what I’m hearing, she’s egging him on. Telling him he’s not enough. We’ll find out what happened. But as soon as I heard the two names I said to myself, “Oh no, here we go again.”
Four days later, Trump proposed barring virtually all Muslims from entering the United States.
Trump has, to say the least, a complicated relationship with the news media.
Over the course of the interview, he bragged about being a “cover boy,” being able to call in to TV shows, boosting ratings for the presidential candidate debates, NBC’s “Meet the Press” and any other show he appears on. He’s particularly fond of a recent History Channel documentary about him and, at one point, he looked up at a TV and was delighted to see CNN flash one of his tweets on the air.
But Trump is also clearly tormented by the clownish way he’s often portrayed and the delight that the media seem to take in his struggles. He obsesses about perceived slights, which he spots everywhere. Words, phrases, characterizations that conflict with his sense of self. He doesn’t, for instance, like his speaking style to be described as “rambling.” He knows what he’s trying to say.
Trump was especially peeved about one of his more infamous moments, a nighttime rally in Iowa a few weeks ago when he mocked Republican rival Ben Carson for his violent past. Trump focused in particular on Carson saying that he had once tried to stab someone, but that a belt buckle prevented him from doing any harm.
Trump: You had to see the whole speech. It was so good. That was when Carson went down. That was the thing that totally took him down. In Iowa, big audience.
Ginsberg: Don’t you think it was his lack of knowledge on foreign policy?
Trump: No, that may have been the beginning of the end but my speech is when he really began to go down. I talked about his book and in his book he says he has pathological disease. I mean, he actually says it. There’s no cure for it. I compared it to a child molester because there is no cure for child molesting, other than — well, you know.
Costa: In the field, nobody else wanted to go there.
Trump: Nobody. Then I talked about taking the lock at his friend’s face, taking a hammer to his mother’s head. Then about the belt.
[To Costa] You didn’t see the whole speech. That’s the problem with what I did and won’t do again. [To Ginsberg] You saw what I said and it was fine. You have to see the whole speech to understand.
I started talking about it and explaining, and then I showed how it doesn’t work that way. I moved over and took the belt, demonstrated what I meant. People there got it.
What they do, the dishonest press does, is one second of me playing with my belt. People go, “What the f--- is he doing?” They don’t know it was about the knife going into the belt. They haven’t seen the whole speech and what I was saying about how a belt doesn’t stop a knife. I was showing a knife, a knife going into a belt isn’t stopped by the belt.
So, if you watch the speech, it took down Carson. That was the beginning of the end for Carson. I figured I had to do it. You know the expression in golf: Johnny, he’s just hanging around. The guy was just hanging around. I couldn’t understand it. He was just hanging around.
Ginsberg: But in that speech you also questioned how stupid are the people of Iowa and this country.
Trump: It’s fine when you put them both in. You can’t put in just the one. That’s only fair.
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding Trump is whether he’ll have the stamina and fortitude to stay in the race, particularly if it becomes an extended primary fight.
Most politicians and pundits thought he would never get in to begin with. When he announced in June, they predicted he wouldn’t last long, a sideshow at best. Then they thought he would get out when he had to disclose his finances. Or after he insulted Sen. John McCain’s war experience, Fox News Channel host Megyn Kelly, Mexicans, Muslims, the disabled, you name it.
If shame wouldn’t do the trick, surely the voters would. Fun as the summer may have been, the fall was the time to get serious and his support would begin to fade. Trump stoked some of this speculation in early October when he went on “Meet the Press” and, in response to a question from host Chuck Todd, said that if people lost interest in him he would drop out.
Two months later, people have not lost interest in him. In fact, the latest polls show just the opposite. Yet the speculation that he’s going to magically disappear persists.
Ginsberg: When I sit down with your rival campaigns, they all go through their strategy, gaming out how they think they’ll win. But they never mention you.
Trump: They never mention me?
Ginsberg: They never mention you. I ask, “What about Donald Trump?” Their answer to that is, “He’ll go away.” That’s all they say.
Trump: Are they still saying that?
Ginsberg: I say, “Okay, how do you know that?” And they say, “He’s just going to go away.”
Trump: I’m a deal guy. I’ve been winning all of my life. Like this property. I bought it six, seven years ago. I bought it for a steal. Eight hundred acres on the Potomac River. I bought it for nothing. I could sell it for anything. I’m not selling, but I could sell it for anything. My whole life is about winning. I always win. I win at golf. I’m a club champion many times at different clubs. I win at golf. I can sink the three-footer on the 18th hole when others can’t. My whole life is about winning. I don’t lose often. I almost never lose.
Hicks: Tom Brady says you never lose.
Trump: In Massachusetts, I’m at 48 percent. You know why? Tom Brady said Trump’s the greatest. He says it to anyone who asks him. You know, it’s hard for a guy like him to say that. When you’re a football player, you don’t want to be taking sides in campaigns and having the Hillary [Clinton] people now say you’re not as good as Bart Starr. You understand. So Tom Brady is great.
Trump then offers an extended analogy about how he’s like North Korea — no one talks about him, or the nuclear-armed nation, because there’s no answer for either.
Ginsberg: There is another side to the “you’re always a winner” thought: Because you’re always a winner, you won’t face the prospect of losing. As we get closer to Iowa and Ted Cruz, or someone else looks like they’re going to win, then you’re going to back out.
Trump: I’m never backing out.
Costa: Never backing out?
Trump: Never backing out. Never.
Ginsberg: Most people who win the nomination end up losing a state or two. Most people lose quite a few of the states. What happens when you lose a state?
Trump: I can handle it, sure. I can handle it.
Costa: Are you really ready for that political pain?
Ginsberg: The flip side of winning every poll is that you’re winning every poll, every poll, and then you lose a state.
Trump: Hey, look. I went through a depression, a real-estate depression that was massive in 1990. The last one I made a lot of money because I was a buyer — like I bought this at the bottom of the market. I can tell — I’m so good at real estate, I’ve made billions of dollars. Tell me the day you bought the property and I’ll tell you if you made a good deal.
I made such a mistake with Chuck Todd because I told such a truthful — he asked me would I ever get out? I thought, “Huh? I’m leading in all of the polls. Would you ever get out?” I said, “Look, if for some reason that I wasn’t leading in the polls, that I wasn’t getting the acclaim or the biggest audiences — and I’m getting the biggest crowds by far, much bigger than Bernie Sanders ever had.” Nobody reports that, but anyway. We had 12,000 people in Sarasota at 12 o’clock on a Saturday. Last night, we had a group in Manassas, they were so packed in. They couldn’t get them in. You saw.
So, I said to Chuck, honestly, if I’m down and not getting crowds, if I was down in the polls. I’m a believer in the polls by the way. Rarely do you see a poll that’s very far off.
Costa: Now it’s December. You just said you’re never backing out.
Trump: Let me just say: That interview was a couple of months ago. If I see that I’m not going to win, I’d get out. I’m not a masochist. I go home and I see my wife. She’s always a good critic. She says, “That was a great answer.” Other people say the same. [He points to Lewandowski.] He hated it. I said, “What’s wrong?” The only one who hated it was Corey. He was going like, “Oh s---.” But I quickly understood why. He was right. The next day, the headlines: Trump may leave race.
They took the statement, which was a perfectly honest, honorable statement and they made it sound like I’m leaving.
Ginsberg: Most people leave the race because of money.
Trump: Right. They never say it because they’re not honest.
Ginsberg: Well, it’s December. There are 60 days to Iowa.
Trump: I will never leave the race.
Ginsberg: You will never leave the race?
Trump: Are you ready? [He waves one arm over his head, as if to clear away everything and remove all doubt.]
I. Will. Never. Leave. This. Race.
The Trump show that the public sees is one-dimensional. He’s not exactly known for nuance. He’s loud, assertive, cocksure of everything he says and does. Most people have strong feelings about him, one way or the other. To his fans, he’s the boss the country so desperately needs; to his detractors, a bully and bigot who must be condemned.
But one on one — or, at least, two on one with a room full of earnest employees and Secret Service agents surrounding him — he can show a sliver of another side. Vulnerable would be a stretch. Reflective, perhaps. A human . . . something.
Costa: You’re friends with my buddy Michael Bamberger. [Bamberger is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated who reports on golf.]
Trump: He’s a good guy, really good guy. Say hello to him for me, will you? You know, his best golf story ever was about Mike Donald, who almost won the  U.S. Open. He was leading the U.S. Open going into the final hole. He was an early starter. A rabbit. In other words, he was a good golfer who never made $10, who was on the tour for 10 years. Leading the U.S. Open. Had a great final round but he was in the middle of the pack. Two hours to go and everyone said he was going to win the U.S. Open. He wasn’t supposed to win the U.S. Open because he was a rabbit. Jack Nicklaus, all the others, they’re the kind of guys who usually win.
So he’s in the clubhouse, leading the U.S. Open, everyone’s doing great, watching it on TV. And then Hale Irwin goes crazy on the course. You remember?
Costa: I’ve read about it. [Costa was 5 years old in 1990.]
Trump: Irwin goes to the 18th hole, he’s one down to Mike Donald, who no one had ever heard of. And Hale Irwin sinks a 97-foot putt. [News reports list it at 45 feet.] That was the one where he ran around the green. Now Irwin has the privilege of playing Donald in a playoff the following day. A full 18-hole playoff. Hale Irwin, naturally, wins because the other guy never wins. The champion always wins.
Bamberger did one of the greatest stories ever on that. The next day they show Mike Donald, two pictures. One has him on Sunday and Monday, Mike Donald playing to thousands of people up and down the fairway, 20 rows deep, as he walks up the 18th hole at the U.S. Open. Pictures. The next day, he doesn’t win, he’s seen walking up a fairway, nobody there, no money, his wife carrying the bag. If he had won, it’d have been a life-changing experience. But he didn’t win. Those pictures, famous, I remember them.
Costa: It can be like that in presidential politics.
Ginsberg: Is that something you’re afraid of? One day you’ll walk down the fairway and nobody will be looking?
Trump: He’s a natural reporter, this guy. Did you hear the question, Corey? It’s a very good question. He’s a veteran.
Ginsberg: What’s the answer?
Trump: A thing like that is always a possibility. It’s never happened because I’ve been having this [he gestures around] for a long time. I write a book, it becomes the Number One selling business book of all time. “The Art of the Deal.” All of my books have done well. The current book does well — I don’t even have time to promote it. Have I spent 10 minutes promoting it?
Lewandowski: Zero. The signing you did in the office, that’s it. We didn’t take three weeks off like someone else.
Ginsberg: Like Ben Carson?
Trump: I didn’t take three weeks off, going all over the place to promote it. You sell thousands of books a day if you do that. So the book, the show. “The Apprentice” had some great run, it was the Number One show. What a lot of people don’t realize is that I gave up a lot to do this — not just deals but a two-hour prime-time television show for another two years. Don’t kid yourself.
Hicks: Although we’re probably on TV more than ever now.
Trump: In retrospect, it probably wasn’t such a bad idea.
[Turns to Ginsberg] Your question is a very fair question. I don’t know if that ever happens, because it’s never happened to me. You have to tell me: Why do I get four times the ratings of other candidates? The debates are the most highly rated shows ever for Fox News and CNN, in their history.
Ginsberg: The question is: Are you afraid of that? Not if it’s happened.
Trump: I hate the concept of it. I’m not afraid of it, but I hate the concept of it.
Ginsberg: What do you hate about it?
Trump: I hate the fact that it’s a total unknown.
Ginsberg: Because you’d be out of control?
Trump: I’ve always been there. In school, I was always successful. In life, I was always successful. My father was a successful real estate developer and he was a very tough man but a good man. My father would always praise me. He always thought I was the smartest person. He said to one of the big magazines that everything he touches turns to gold. At a very young age. So I don’t know.
Ginsberg: So that amps up the pressure on you. You have to live up to that.
Costa: It’s a burden.
Ginsberg: You’re pressured to live up to that.
Trump: Yes. But I’ve been doing it my whole life. If there is a fear at all, it is a fear of the unknown because I’ve never been there before.
The final question:
Ginsberg: Before you go, I promised my 8-year-old son, who watches “Morning Joe” with me, that I’d ask one of his questions.
Trump: Go ahead.
Ginsberg: His question to you is: “Are you a nice guy?”
Trump: It’s the thing that — number one, it’s my hair. Number two, what don’t people really understand? Those are the two questions I always get. Number one, my hair is real. It’s me. I’ve seen these old pictures, I combed it the same way. Okay.
Hicks: It’s the same way. Remember the History Channel?
Trump: It’s crazy. You saw that? By the way, it was a nice story. They really — did you see it? [to Ginsberg]. They did such a nice piece and they didn’t even ask for an interview or anything. They just took clips and related it to what I’m doing now.
Lewandowski: Nice piece.
Trump: I have a friend, Bill Zanker, who’s a very smart guy. He said, “If you didn’t go through those difficulties in the early 1990s, when the press was just tearing you apart, you wouldn’t be nearly as big as you are now.” Again, I never went bankrupt, but I went through a lot, owed billions and billions of dollars. The press loved it, they were killing me, not talking about other people.
I said to him, “That’s wrong.” He said, “No. If you didn’t fight through it and become bigger than ever, you’d never be as big as you are now.” Interesting thought. That’s his feeling. I’m not sure if I agree. But you understand what he’s saying. It showed a human . . . something.
[To Ginsberg] Tell your son I think I’m a very nice person who gets along very well with people. I’m very loyal, to a fault. My wife said, “You’re too nice too long and then when you go bad, then you’re too bad.” Then she said, “You get too vicious and you never forgive. You put up with too much too long. You get screwed by somebody. You’re too nice, and then you flip, it’s too long, too nasty, too horrible.”
This is the first in a series of breakfast interviews with the 2016 presidential contenders.