The famous escalator ride almost wasn’t.
When Donald Trump announced his seemingly quixotic presidential bid on June 16, 2015 — four years ago Sunday — he descended a golden escalator into the atrium of his Trump Tower skyscraper in Manhattan and upended the course of political history.
But at the time, nearly every member of his nascent political team urged Trump not to ride a moving stairway down to his announcement. They fretted that it would look amateurish and not remotely presidential. At one point, George Gigicos, the campaign’s director of scheduling, offered a compromise: that Trump instead take the elevator, give his speech and then ride the escalator back up once he was done — like a mechanical rope line, Gigicos suggested.
Trump was insistent. “No, I’m going down the escalator,” he said — an early example of him flouting the norms and conventions of politics at nearly every juncture and often prevailing.
On Tuesday, the president will make his 2020 reelection bid, with the full force of incumbency, during a massive prime-time rally at the Amway Center in Orlando that he will fly to on Air Force One. The arena can hold up to 18,500 people, and the president tweeted Monday that the campaign already had 100,000 requests.
“We are building large movie screens outside to take care of everybody,” Trump wrote.
The president’s Trump Tower launch and his relaunch Tuesday show just how far he has come as a candidate for the nation’s highest office, and also how little has changed from those early, frenzied days.
The Trump campaign currently has 80 paid consultants and full-time staff members, campaign officials said. Trump Victory, the campaign’s joint fundraising entity with the Republican National Committee, has 13 state directors, with more expected soon. And the campaign hopes to have 2 million trained volunteers by Election Day, officials said.
The Orlando rally will mark the president’s 550th campaign event since announcing his first presidential bid, the campaign said — illustrating how Trump’s reelection effort has effectively been underway since January 2017, the month he took office.
“We will never again be able to replicate that ragtag, underdog, underfunded, understaffed, underestimated campaign in 2016 — but we don’t have to,” said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. “He was running to be president. Now he’s running as the president.”
During the 2016 campaign, especially in the early days, Trump and his small team of advisers would just hop on “Trump Force One,” as they had dubbed his private plane, and fly around the country — almost always returning to the comfort of his Manhattan tower every evening. But now, the logistics of moving the president, along with his Secret Service detail, are far more complicated.
Trump, however, remains much the same.
“That guy you saw in Trump Tower, the magnetism of him and his message, that hasn’t changed at all,” said Michael Glassner, the 2020 campaign’s chief operating officer, who joined Trump’s 2016 bid within its first month. “His ability to power this movement and change the country hasn’t changed at all.”
This description of the efforts behind Trump’s 2015 launch is the result of interviews with key players who were there at the beginning, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the experience publicly.
Trump had flirted with presidential runs before, using the drama and media attention to boost his business endeavors. So when he again began talking about a White House bid, just about everyone was skeptical. Sam Nunberg, one of his first campaign hires who was later fired, recalled having to beg mainstream reporters and conservative pundits alike to take his word that the planned Trump Tower announcement was, in fact, the start of a serious presidential campaign.
Hope Hicks — who at the time handled publicity for the Trump Organization and would eventually become the White House communications director — wasn’t sure what Trump was talking about when he called her into his office to tell her he was headed to Iowa and wanted her to be the press secretary for his campaign.
“Which one? The Doral marketing campaign?” Hicks asked, referring to one of Trump’s golf properties, according to an account by Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, in his book, “Let Trump Be Trump.”
To which Trump replied: “No. My presidential campaign! I’m running for president.”
There was reason to have doubts. Planning for the launch started in earnest about a month out, and at the time, Trump had only committed to traveling to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The idea was to announce his candidacy and then assess how he was doing at the end of the summer.
Even with preparations underway, Trump tried to postpone the announcement, saying, “Why don’t we put this off for a little,” Nunberg recalled.
“I looked at it as this is Madonna saying she doesn’t want to come out and perform for a sold-out Madison Square Garden,” Nunberg said, adding that he assumed Trump was simply nervous and ignored him.
Some in Trump’s orbit — including Michael Cohen, Trump’s then-fixer and personal lawyer, who is serving a three-year prison term for tax evasion and campaign finance violations, among other misdeeds — pushed for a circuslike spectacle, complete with elephants and women in bikinis.
But Lewandowski wanted a more professional backdrop, including a sparse stage with draping and a row of crisp American flags. “I said we are going to make sure it looks like Donald Trump is running for president of the United States, down to the blue suit and white shirt,” Lewandowski said. Nunberg said Trump was initially wearing a black suit but changed into a blue one because “he told me it was going to go better with the flags.”
To build the stage, they first had to turn off the waterfall in the atrium of Trump Tower. At one point, Matthew Calamari, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Trump Organization, saw Gigicos wielding a hammer and became alarmed, according to Lewandowski.
“This is Italian terrazzo marble — put the hammer down!” Calamari said in a thick New York accent that Lewandowski described in his book as “Joe Pesci from either ‘My Cousin Vinny’ or ‘Goodfellas.’ ”
Reached in Greece, Gigicos said: “I know that Mr. Calamari is very particular about what goes on the marble floor, and he should be; it’s a very nice floor.”
The night before the launch, Gigicos and Lewandowski worked through the night at Trump Tower, said a person familiar with the preparations. Hicks stayed until midnight, went home and slept, but was up by 3:30 a.m. and back before sunrise, this person said.
Still, the event had an amateurish feel. Trump had printed out his speech in his favored extra-large font and was still making changes with black and red Sharpie markers until 35 minutes before he headed downstairs, Nunberg said.
As he began his escalator ride, a homemade “Vote Trump” poster on electric green cardboard came unstuck and fluttered down to a high ledge. At another point, Trump and his wife, Melania, passed by a “Hot Entrees” sign from his fast-casual restaurant in the tower’s atrium. And the campaign would later receive a cease-and-desist letter from Neil Young, whose 1989 hit “Rockin’ in the Free World” played as Trump took the stage.
Some of the “supporters” who filled Trump Tower were hardly campaign enthusiasts; some were bewildered passersby pulled in off the street, and others were paid to attend — a detail chronicled at the time by the Hollywood Reporter and not disputed by two people familiar with the arrangement.
Michael Steel, a senior adviser on the 2016 presidential campaign of Jeb Bush — who at the time Trump announced was widely considered the Republican front-runner — remembers watching the event on a large TV with other policy advisers in their campaign headquarters and laughing at what they viewed as a sideshow.
“All our discussions centered on what he was promoting, what his real angle was,” Steel said. “There’s a way to do this that looks serious, and riding a golden escalator in your own Manhattan skyscraper to a crowd that appeared to be composed of largely confused tourists is not that way.”
Katy Tur, who ended up as one of NBC’s main Trump correspondents in 2016 and now hosts her own TV show on MSNBC, was assigned to his campaign on a whim. At the time, she was a foreign correspondent based in London who happened to be back in the newsroom for a visit. She was sent out to cover Trump for what everyone assured her was, at most, a six-week stint.
Tur said she was eager to get a taste of campaign life, which she had never experienced, but also joked that she feared the assignment showed that her bosses didn’t view her as someone with serious political chops. “It’s not like they’re saying, ‘Katy, go cover Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz,’ ” she recalled. “It was like, ‘Katy, go cover this P.R. stunt for a little while.’ ”
Trump’s speech was notable for the many ways in which he departed from the script, including saying that Mexican immigrants coming into the United States were criminals and “rapists.” The outrage was instant: Some businesses cut their ties with Trump, there were calls for an apology, and political pundits pronounced him doomed.
Some in Trump’s orbit, however, noted that he had made many of the same incendiary statements.
“When everyone started freaking out, it just proved that nobody was paying attention to him,” said one person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss unflattering details. “I don’t know what that says about me, because I’d heard that at least five other times verbatim, and there were no red flags.”
In the campaign’s early days, the candidate would ask, “How’s this for Trump? How is Trump doing?” Nunberg said. And the truth was, he was doing well; he debuted near the top of the pack and never really left, earning a center-stage spot in all the primary debates determined by polling position.
If Trump’s 2015 launch was haphazard and unconventional, his 2020 launch Tuesday promises to be far more streamlined and professional, if still something of a spectacle. On Friday, his campaign announced a “45 Fest” — an all-day festival starting outside his Orlando event at 10 a.m., complete with live music, food trucks and jumbo screens to watch his speech.
As Trump’s team debated where to announce the bid, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, suggested a return to Trump Tower, possibly followed by a rally. The idea, someone familiar with the arrangements said, was to return to the iconic beginning as a way to showcase what Trump has accomplished in his first 2½ years in office.
But others lobbied for Florida, and the president agreed. He liked the idea of a rally with a massive crowd, and Florida made sense as a pivotal state where Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 and where he needs to win again. The president owns several properties in the state, including the private Mar-a-Lago Club, which he treats as the Winter White House. Florida was also where, during the Republican primaries, Trump dispatched with two native sons — Bush, a former governor of the state, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — in a turning point for his campaign.
His allies say Trump is still the same raw and authentic candidate his supporters came to love, just surrounded by a more polished apparatus. “It’s the equivalent of running a successful start-up compared to being the CEO of Google or Exxon,” Lewandowski said.
Conway described the difference as “David beats Goliath” vs. a president running for reelection.
“Is there any substitute,” she asked, “for the roar of Air Force One coming to a community near you?”