Donald Trump scurried off to the bedroom of his Manhattan triplex to change into his golf clothes, leaving me surrounded by bird’s-eye views of Central Park, marble columns, stalactite chandeliers and piles of gold-leaf furniture that Louis XVI might have commissioned after a bender in Las Vegas.
I sat down and paged through a lavish photo-biography of Muhammad Ali, spread open in front of me on a glass coffee table the size of a wagon wheel.
When Donald returned, he asked me if I liked Ali.
I did, I said. I thought he was a hero.
Donald waved his arm at me to follow him and stepped into a private elevator that would take us to Trump Tower’s residential lobby several hundred feet below.
As we began humming downward, Donald asked me if I liked boxing.
I admired Ali, I said, but not boxing.
Donald continued making plans, brightening as he threw out ideas. Maybe we could go to a match together in Atlantic City, he suggested.
I asked him if he’d really want to see me again after the book came out, referring to the biography, TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald. There’ll be some stuff in it you may not like, I told him.
Donald nodded his head at the elevator’s floor. I was right, he admitted—we probably wouldn’t be ringside together.
When we reached 56th Street, we climbed into Donald’s Mercedes and drove to a Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course that he had bought a few years earlier and which he was excited to show me. Along the way he gamely participated in a lightning round of questions about the American Dream, corporate life, women, children, God, James Bond, talk shows, Viagra and his lifelong role as Mr. Id.
“If Donald Trump didn’t exist, would we have to invent him?” I asked.
“No,” Donald responded. “The world will get along just fine. You see people that are very important—they go and the world continues to get along.”
That afternoon in Bedminster, a decade ago, was the last time Donald and I spent time together. We first met in the nineties when I was writing a book about gambling. We crossed paths again later when I was a reporter for the New York Times covering his emergence as The Apprentice’s über-entrepreneur while, in the real world, he was trying to avoid a flameout from his stumbling casino operations.
Eventually, I wrote TrumpNation, hoping Donald’s life and times might be an interesting way to examine the over-the-top worlds he occupied and to see what that might say about American business, politics, entertainment and celebrity.
Donald cooperated with the project, and I flew cross-country and up and down the East Coast with him on his jet, tooled around Palm Beach with him in his Ferrari and interviewed him in his homes and offices. Donald’s oldest friends, longtime employees, political allies and rivals and most admiring and critical competitors all offered me their assessments of him.
“He’s one of the more original people of our time, and we don’t have very many of them,” Barbara Walters told me.
“He’s a great man,” Donald’s wife, Melania, confided to Walters. “He should live forever.”
On the other hand, casino titan Steve Wynn had told me and other writers for years that he was less impressed, labeling Donald at various times a “lightweight, second-string adolescent,” a “half-baked mentality,” a “cartoon” and a “perverse exaggeration.”
TrumpNation came out in in the fall of 2005, and in early 2006 Donald sued me for $5 billion, claiming that the book libeled him because—in addition to being a tour of his life as a casino and real estate magnate, a spinmeister nonpareil, an outré fixture in pop culture and an occasional presidential candidate—it was skeptical about his ever-changing and ever-expansive proclamations about his wealth.
Evaluating Donald’s riches was like trying to bottle smoke. At one point, when Forbes magazine posited that the Trump coffers were brimming with $2.6 billion, he told me the actual figure was $4 billion to $5 billion. Later the same day, he called and amended his own assessment—to $1.7 billion.
While I was doing research for TrumpNation later on, he said he had $5 billion to $6 billion stashed away, but when I spent the night at his Palm Beach estate, a glossy little pamphlet found its way into my room stating he had amassed $9.5 billion. And on and on and on.
Three executives with intimate knowledge of Donald’s finances and track record told me at the time that they thought he was worth $150 million to $250 million. Grousing, said Donald.
“You can go ahead and speak to guys who have four-hundred-pound wives at home who are jealous of me,” he told me, “but the guys who really know me know I’m a great builder.”
So Donald sued me, claiming that low-ball assessments of his wealth were defamatory and had kneecapped him as a businessman. Evidently, a really rich Trumpster was a less attractive business partner than a super rich Trumpster.
Donald lost the case, but one of the highlights of the litigation was a two-day deposition my lawyers conducted with him. The deposition established the fact that Donald had overly generous and malleable definitions of being a proprietor when it came to major real estate projects he was involved in, such as the West Side Yards in Manhattan. It turned out that what most business people might call an “investment,” Donald unflinchingly called “ownership.”
So it went, as well, in discussions of his wealth. My lawyers produced a Deutsche Bank document that set his 2005 fortune at $788 million. That number landed on Donald’s desk after he had already assured bankers and casino regulators that he was worth $3.6 billion (and when he was assuring me that he was worth $5 billion to $6 billion).
Trump’s own accountant noted during depositions that he had a loose grasp on all of Donald’s debts, and Donald—well, Donald seemed to have a loose grasp on everything else.
“Now, Mr. Trump, have you always been completely truthful in your public statements about your net worth of properties?” my lawyer asked during the deposition.
“I try,” said Donald.
“Have you ever not been truthful?”
“My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings, but I try.”
“Let me just understand that a little bit,” my lawyer said. “Let’s talk about net worth for a second. You said that the net worth goes up and down based upon your own feelings?”
“Yes, even my own feelings, as to where the world is, where the world is going, and that can change rapidly from day to day. Then you have a September 11th, and you don’t feel so good about yourself and you don’t feel so good about the world and you don’t feel so good about New York City. Then you have a year later, and the city is as hot as a pistol. Even months after that it was a different feeling. So yeah, even my own feelings affect my value to myself.”
“When you publicly state what you’re worth, what do you base that number on?”
“I would say it’s my general attitude at the time that the question may be asked,” Donald responded. “And as I say, it varies.”
Yep, it varies. When Donald announced his presidential run in the summer of 2015, he waved around a document claiming his fortune topped $8.7 billion. And when he formally filed campaign papers with the Federal Election Commission about a month after that, his net worth had soared another $1.3 billion to $10 billion—about $8.2 billion more than Deutsche Bank said he was worth a decade earlier (a decade that included the most severe financial and real estate crisis since the Great Depression).
My Bloomberg colleagues Caleb Melby and Rich Rubin recently looked into what keeps Donald’s $10 billion hot air balloon aloft, and estimated that his fortune is closer to $2.9 billion. Even Forbes, which has often approached estimates of Donald’s wealth with inflationary brio, pegs his net worth at $4.5 billion.
No one really cares about Donald’s money as much as Donald does, in part because he constantly generates media attention about his wealth whenever he lobs around numbers. Donald could help settle the matter by releasing his tax returns, which has been a longstanding practice for presidential candidates.
In 2011, when Donald last play acted around a presidential bid, he said he would release his tax returns when Barack Obama released his birth certificate. In the fall of 2015, he said he would release his tax returns when “we find out the true story on Hillary’s emails.” To date, Donald has kept his tax returns to himself.
Presidential campaigns are expensive things, and if Donald needs a loan I’m here for him. I’m willing to lend him money even though he called me a “really, really dishonest” writer recently, and even though he’s repeatedly taken to Twitter to let the world know that I'm a “really stupid talking head,” a “dumb guy with no clue!” as well as “dopey” and a “loser” (along with others on his “losers” list, including John McCain, Rosie O’Donnell, Karl Rove, Russell Brand, Chuck Todd, Seth Myers, Graydon Carter, George Will and Cher).
While I sit by the phone waiting for Donald to call, please read on, because I think this book may help you get your head around the Donald Trump phenomenon.
Donald has been a phenom and has been phenoming away for the better part of three decades, and his effervescence has touched everything from casino tables, Manhattan real estate, golf courses, The Apprentice and vodka, to haberdashery, underwear, furniture, cologne, online education, mattresses, and WrestleMania (Donald once body-slammed WWE honcho Vince McMahon during an event, shortly before Stone Cold Steve Austin walked across the ring and dropkicked Donald himself).
In the ten years since I wrote TrumpNation, the parameters of Donald’s business life have remained largely the same. The scion of a very wealthy father, he continues to be a deft and canny self-promoter, a shrewd survivor who nearly suffocated beneath hundreds of millions of dollars of debt as a young developer, then managed to reinvent himself as a human shingle who, with unquenchable ubiquity, licenses his name for tidy fees.
But the momentum of 2015’s Summer of Trump has pushed the parameters of Donald’s political life far beyond what they were in decades past, when his regular forays into presidential politics amounted to brief encounters that created tiny windfalls of publicity.
After announcing his presidential candidacy in 2015, and promising to build a wall to prevent Mexicans from raping, murdering and narco-trafficking willy-nilly in the Home of the Free, Donald found that plain speaking made him the early darling of a certain swath of Republican voters.
Such is Donald’s hold on a sizeable chunk of the GOP’s anti-Washington, pro-free-enterprise electorate that even after disparaging John McCain for getting captured in Vietnam and suggesting that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s aggressive questioning during a debate was due to excessive menstruation, he held his place atop the polls—leaving the GOP’s elders scrambling to contain a raft of political forces they apparently don’t fully understand or know how to corral.
Donald has pushed his party toward the primal scream end of public policymaking on issues such as immigration (I’ll just build a wall), foreign policy (I’ll just land somewhere in the Middle East and take ISIS’s oil) and trade (I’ll just tell Ford to move its plant out of Mexico), leaving an indelible mark on the tenor and substance of the election season he inhabits no matter what course his campaign ultimately takes.
Here’s a grenade, Donald is telling us. Take the pin out and throw it at somebody. Anybody.
As it turns out, many voters are still smarting from the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, the Great Recession that followed and discontent with a permanent political class in Washington more obsessed with infighting than legislating. And that brew of personal pain and political inertia has created conditions in which someone with evangelical zeal, comic timing, impish radar and frat-house instincts can thrive—someone like Donald Trump, for example.
Donald has managed to captivate voters by substituting a pogo stick for a political platform as he bounces from media appearance to media appearance, agenda-free. When he does delve into policy, Donald sometimes sounds very similar to the person we deposed during our lawsuit—the famous businessman who had to explain how he tallied his wealth every day.
“I’m not a believer in man-made global warming. It could be warming, and it’s going to start to cool at some point,” Donald told one radio interviewer. “I believe there’s weather. I believe there’s change, and I believe it goes up and it goes down, and it goes up again. And it changes depending on years and centuries.”
When Donald rolled out his presidential tax plan he offered a recycled mix of tax cuts for the wealthy, corporations and low-wage earners combined with tax hikes for hedge fund managers and a number of other loophole closures. How he would fund his plan and make up for lost tax revenue was less clear, unless you were willing to accept a lot of abracadabra in the form of tax-cut-induced economic growth that would, well, just happen. Presto.
“This is my wheelhouse,” Donald said of the plan. “The economy is what I do well.”
The broader magic of Donald’s candidacy is that it continues to thrive on its lack of specificity and the staccato patter of someone unfamiliar with and inarticulate about the actual mechanics of governing. Maybe you don’t need to be a student of good government and policymaking when you have the regular, heady buzz of poll numbers keeping you motivated.
“Right now, I love polls because I’m winning everything. I’m even winning—we just got one from Florida. I’m killing the governor and the senator from Florida,” Donald told George Stephanopoulos in October 2015. “I mean, it’s been amazing. Texas winning, winning everything, winning every state, winning every national poll and big lead.”
How Donald operates a by-the-seat-of-his-pants political campaign—and how he might preside over the executive branch if he manages to reach the White House—can’t be understood without retracing his journey from a privileged childhood in New York to the junctures when Donald began crafting himself into Trump, when the businessman became the celebrity, and when the celebrity became a presidential contender.