The man he’s been waiting for
Donald Trump once wished for a ‘proper president’ who could save the country. Eventually, he decided he was the perfect person for the job.
In October 1980, in his first major interview on network television, Donald Trump sat on a couch in his Fifth Avenue apartment discussing the tough decisions he had made as a builder. (“Rona Barrett Looks at Today’s Super Rich” would air the following year.) Then the 34-year-old Trump abruptly turned the casual interview into something more controversial: a lecture on the lack of leadership in the United States.
Gas prices were soaring, and inflation was rampant. More than four dozen Americans who had been kidnapped from the U.S. Embassy in Iran were being held hostage while, according to Trump, “we just sit back and take everybody’s abuse. . . . I just don’t feel the country is going forward in the proper direction.”
Republican Party delegates will gather in Cleveland from July 18 to 21 to choose their nominees for president and vice president. Full coverage, featuring special reports, photos, graphics and videos, will be at washingtonpost.com/politics. Photo of Donald Trump by Erik Tanner/Contour by Getty Images
Barrett was taken aback by Trump’s shift to politics. “Would you like to be president of the United States?” she asked.
No, he said. Politics was a “mean life. . . . Abraham Lincoln would probably not be electable today because of television. He was not a handsome man, and he did not smile at all.” Trump said he knew people who would be “excellent” presidents because they were “extraordinarily brilliant . . . very, very confident . . . and have the respect of everybody.” None of them would seek the office because of the media scrutiny, which he called a tragedy.
“One man could turn this country around. The one proper president could turn this country around,” he said.
Trump would spend decades waiting for him.
Since his rise as a businessman in the 1980s, Trump showed few constants when it came to politics, with one exception: He tried to align himself with winners, people who could raise his profile and further his business goals. He teetered back and forth between political parties and offered conflicting clues about his core beliefs, from health care to abortion rights. Trump helped candidates on opposite ends of the political spectrum with money and endorsements, while often expressing concern that the country was losing its spirit and its stature.
This article is based on reporting for “Trump Revealed,” a broad, comprehensive examination of the life of the presumptive Republican nominee for president. The biography, written by Post reporters Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher in collaboration with more than two dozen Post writers, researchers and editors, is scheduled to be published by Scribner on Aug. 23.
Seven years after Trump’s Rona Barrett interview, in the spring of 1987, Michael Dunbar, a furniture-maker in Portsmouth, N.H., tried to convince Trump that he was the man who could turn things around. The Republican Party activist became fascinated by news reports about Trump’s business acumen and personality. He sent out mailers encouraging Republicans to “draft Trump.” Friends told him the idea was laughable, but Dunbar invited Trump to speak to the local Rotary Club. Trump, intrigued, invited Dunbar to discuss the idea at Trump Tower that summer.
In his 26th-floor office, Trump offered Dunbar a Diet Coke as they talked over the plan: Trump would fly his private helicopter to a New Hampshire airfield, speak to the Rotary crowd at Yoken’s restaurant and hold a news conference. They had a deal.
A few weeks later, Trump took out full-page ads opining on foreign policy in three major newspapers. “There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure,” he wrote in the ads, which cost a combined $95,000. He questioned why the United States continued to provide military funds to Japan and Saudi Arabia and implored: “Let’s not let our great country be laughed at anymore.”
The image of the rest of the world laughing at U.S. leaders would become an enduring theme in Trump’s political rhetoric. This time, it came in the seventh year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, just weeks before the publication of Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal,” in which Trump called Reagan a smooth performer but questioned whether “there’s anything beneath that smile.”
Video: One year of Trump: How he became the presumptive nominee
Donald Trump announced his campaign for president on June 16, 2015, and he's come a long way in the year since. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
On the day Trump’s foreign policy ads appeared, he told reporters that he would travel to New Hampshire. He was asked whether he was running for office. “There is absolutely no plan to run for mayor, governor or United States senator,” an unidentified spokesman replied. “He will not comment about the presidency.”
On the bright morning of Oct. 22, 1987, Trump’s helicopter landed at a New Hampshire airfield, where a limousine paid for by Dunbar ferried him to Yoken’s restaurant. There, a waiting crowd held placards that said, “Vote Trump for President” and “Vote for an En-‘TRUMP’-eneur.” In his talk, Trump reprised themes from his advertisements. But he then told the assembled reporters: “I am not interested in running for president.”
Dunbar wondered why Trump had even bothered coming to New Hampshire. Was it just a promotional gambit for his book? He later received a copy of Trump’s book, inscribed “To Michael: I really appreciate your friendship — You’ve created a very exciting part of my life — on to the future.” Dunbar hoped he had planted a seed.
Trump’s brief flirtation with a run for office was over, but he reveled in the curiosity about his emerging political ambitions. Promoting his book, he would continually repeat his stances on issues such as trade. “This sounds like political, presidential talk to me,” Oprah Winfrey told Trump when he appeared on her popular talk show in the spring of 1988.
“I just probably wouldn’t do it,” Trump said, “. . . but I do get tired of seeing what’s happening with this country. And if it got so bad, I would never want to rule it out totally.”
A few months later, Trump attended his first Republican convention, as George H.W. Bush accepted the party’s nomination for the presidency. During an interview on CNN, talk-show host Larry King asked Trump why he was there. Trump said he wanted to see “how the system works.” King wanted to know if Trump classified himself as an “Eastern Republican” or a “Rockefeller/Chase Manhattan Republican,” shorthand for the liberal wing of the GOP.
“I never thought about it in those terms,” Trump replied.
How about a “Bush Republican?” King asked.
Trump, who boasted of his great wealth, decided to cast himself as a man of the people: “You know, wealthy people don’t like me because I’m competing against them all the time . . . and I like to win. The fact is, I go down the streets of New York, and the people that really like me are the taxi drivers and the workers.”
“Then why are you a Republican?” King asked.
“I have no idea,” Trump said. “I’m a Republican because I just believe in certain principles of the Republican Party.”
Trump, Bill Clinton and actor Billy Crystal, second from right, participate in a charity golf tournament in 2008 at Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y. Before he entered politics himself, Trump spread his donations and support among Democrats and Republicans alike. And he changed parties seven times between 1999 and 2012. (Rick Odell/Getty Images)
Trump became a vocal supporter of Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. “I think Bill Clinton is terrific,” Trump said Dec. 27, 1997, on CNN’s political talk show “Evans & Novak.” “I think he’s done an amazing job. I think he’s probably got the toughest skin I’ve ever seen, and I think he’s a terrific guy.”
One month later, reports surfaced that Clinton had had a secret sexual relationship with an intern named Monica Lewinsky, beginning when she was 22 years old in 1995 and lasting more than two years. Trump was unperturbed. “The best thing he has going is the fact that the economy’s doing great,” Trump said in August 1998, days after Clinton finally admitted a relationship with Lewinsky. “I’ve never seen anything like it. You know, they talked about the ’80s were good. The ’90s are better.” Trump suggested that if he were a candidate, he would face similar controversy: “Can you imagine how controversial that’d be? You think about him with the women. How about me with the women?”
As a new election approached, Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime lobbyist, examined the potential field, led by Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. Stone said that this could be Trump’s moment and that the path forward might be within a third party. Ross Perot, a Texas billionaire with no political experience, had won nearly 19 percent of the vote in 1992, and Jesse Ventura, a professional wrestler Trump knew from his involvement with WrestleMania, had improbably won the governorship of Minnesota in 1998 on the Reform Party ticket. Ventura had made his name parading in a feather boa and mocking Hulk Hogan as a World Wrestling Federation commentator. If Ventura could go from being known as “The Body” to being called “The Governing Body,” maybe Trump could become president.
Donald Trump chats with CNN talk-show host Larry King on Oct. 8, 1999. He said on King’s program that night that he was forming a presidential exploratory committee under the banner of the Reform Party. Once a supporter of Bill Clinton, Trump now proclaimed that Ronald Reagan was his political role model. (Reuters)
On Oct. 8, 1999, Trump announced on “Larry King Live” that he was leaving the Republican Party to join the Reform Party and was forming an exploratory committee to run for president. He made a U-turn on Clinton, calling the previous four years “disgusting” and professing Reagan as his role model because he had helped to regenerate the spirit of the country. Trump said his main competitor for the Reform Party nomination, Pat Buchanan, was too divisive. Trump insisted that he, on the other hand, was all about inclusiveness.
Who, King asked, would Trump pick as his vice-presidential candidate? Trump named Oprah Winfrey.
Although he called himself conservative, Trump was floating many liberal ideas. In the Advocate, a gay-oriented news magazine, he took issue with how Buchanan talked about “Jews, blacks, gays, and Mexicans.” Trump called himself a conciliator, saying he would extend the Civil Rights Act to include protections for gay people and would allow them to serve openly in the military, repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Clinton-era policy that had lifted a ban on gays in the military but forbade them from talking about their orientation while in the service. Trump also called for universal health care and the protection of Social Security, through a one-time tax on the super-wealthy and new money generated by renegotiating trade agreements.
Two weeks after Trump announced his exploratory committee, he appeared on “Meet the Press,” where the moderator, Tim Russert, pressed him on a range of issues. At one point, Trump said he supported a right to partial-birth abortion, a procedure in which the fetus is partially removed from the womb before it is aborted. Stone, Trump’s political adviser, accompanied him to the interview. When the two left the studio, Stone said, Trump admitted that he didn’t know what partial-birth abortion was.
In another book published in January 2000, Trump clarified that he supported a ban on partial-birth abortion after learning more about it. And he said that while he was “uncomfortable” with abortion, “I support a woman’s right to choose.”
In weighing a presidential bid in 2000, Trump sought advice from Jesse Ventura, right, who had won Minnesota’s gubernatorial election as a Reform Party candidate. About a month after their meeting, Trump announced he would not run. (Associated Press)
Trump’s quasi-campaign traveled to Minnesota for a January 2000 meeting with his role model, Ventura, and his campaign staffers. Trump told them he wanted to learn how a man who started at the bottom of the polls, who was deemed by some to be a joke, ended up as governor. Dean Barkley, who had chaired Ventura’s campaign, advised Trump: “Just be honest. It’s not what you say, but how you say it. And talk to the public, not at them.”
Later that afternoon, Trump and Ventura appeared at a lunch for the local chamber of commerce. Trump the listener was gone; the showbiz Trump had returned. He mocked the Republican candidates, winning laughs: “Are these people stiffs or what?”
But Trump eventually chose not to run. On Feb. 19, 2000, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which he said that his exploratory campaign was the “greatest civics lesson that a private citizen can have.” But he was not sure a third-party candidate could win.
Although he had already pulled out of the race, Trump’s name remained on the Reform Party ballot in Michigan and California. He won both primaries.
During the 1988 campaign, Trump hosted a fundraiser for Vice President George H.W. Bush. Boxing promoter Don King, center, was a guest at the event at New York’s Plaza Hotel. (David Bookstaver/Associated Press)
Before he decided to run for office, Trump’s political donations were a cost of doing business, suggesting that his practice of politics was transactional, not ideological. He hosted fundraisers and invited politicians to weddings. “I give to everybody. When they call, I give,” Trump said. “And you know what? When I need something from them — two years later, three years later — I call them. They are there for me.”
Trump and his major companies gave at least $3.1 million to local, state and federal candidates from both parties between 1995 and 2016, not including donations that may have flowed through the scores of limited-liability corporations that Trump controlled.
He donated to Hillary Clinton when she was running to be a U.S. senator from New York. Asked if he voted for her, Trump said: “I never say who I’m going to vote for.” He did say in a separate interview, however, that his votes for president were consistently Republican. Although he said he lost respect for the younger President Bush because of his handling of the war in Iraq, which he later called a “disaster,” he said he voted for Bush again in 2004 because he felt it was important to “carry the Republican line.” Recalling the 2004 vote, Trump said he showed his distance from Bush by not throwing fundraisers for him.
Trump’s public statements sent mixed signals about his political leanings. In 2006, he told the New York Times that Sen. John McCain, who would become the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, could not win because he advocated sending more troops to Iraq. Trump praised the future Democratic nominee, then-Sen. Barack Obama, for his “wonderful qualities.” Nonetheless, Trump contributed $3,600 to McCain during the 2008 campaign and said he voted for him.
Trump changed parties seven times between 1999 and 2012, starting when he left the GOP to consider a run under the Reform Party banner. After registering as a Democrat in 2001, he switched back to the Republicans in 2003. He became a Democrat again in 2005 and a Republican in 2009. He chose not to be affiliated with any party in 2011. Asked what he would say to critics who saw the constant party-switching as proof that he had no core beliefs, Trump responded: “I think it had to do more with practicality because if you’re going to run for office, you would have had to make friends.”
Then he returned to the GOP in 2012, once again stoking speculation that he had his sights on the presidency.
His wife, Ann, by his side, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney listens as Trump endorses him in the 2012 GOP primary race. Speculation had swirled around a bid by Trump himself that year, especially as he became outspoken in the birther movement, which questioned President Obama’s Hawaiian birthplace. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)
Trump’s celebrity status promptly put him among the 2012 front-runners. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey of early-primary-state Republican voters released in April 2011 showed him tied for second place behind Mitt Romney. Among tea party supporters, Trump led the field. And his positions became more aligned with conservatives: Now he was against abortion and no longer advocated making gays a protected class.
He bashed Obama with an intensity he had never displayed for his predecessors. He called the president’s signature health-care law a “job killer.” He drew wide attention for focusing on the long-discredited assertion that the president had been born not in Hawaii but in Kenya, his father’s native country. “I have people that actually have been studying it, and they cannot believe what they’re finding. . . . I would like to have him show his birth certificate,” Trump said on NBC, cementing his role as a leader in what became known as the birther movement.
Obama put the document on public display and ridiculed the real estate mogul days later at the annual black-tie White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, joking that Trump could now turn his attention to whether the United States had faked the moon landing. The audience roared with laughter while Trump looked on stone-faced, although he later insisted that the jokes were fine and the evening “phenomenal.”
Two weeks after the dinner, Trump announced that he would not run in 2012, saying that “business is my greatest passion and I am not ready to leave the private sector.” In a later interview, he explained the decision: “My children were younger. I was doing numerous jobs, many jobs, and I really wanted to wrap them up.”
On Feb. 2, 2012, he endorsed Romney and became an outspoken surrogate. On Election Day, Trump went to Boston to attend what he expected to be a Romney victory party. Romney’s loss made him livid. If only the candidate had used him more, Trump said, Romney would have been a winner. Trump took to his increasingly favored medium, Twitter, to vent his frustration: “This election is a total sham and a travesty.” “We can’t let this happen. . . . The world is laughing at us.”
The world is laughing at us. It was the same concern Trump had from his first interview with Rona Barrett, when he said one proper president could turn the country around. Now a full-fledged celebrity, Trump was certain who that man might be.
After Romney’s loss, Republican elders huddled to create ways to transform the GOP into a younger, more inclusive party with new ideas. Trump was forming a different plan. Twelve days after the 2012 election, he filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He wanted to trademark an old phrase from Reagan that he planned to make his own: Make America Great Again.
Jenna Johnson, Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher contributed to this report.