My Time with Trump
The Contently Foundation’s editor-in-chief speculates on how the man he knew will govern
By Brad Hamilton
For many left-leaning Democrats like myself, the shock and horror of what happened Tuesday has evolved into genuine fear. Many Americans are terrified Trump will bankrupt our economy and/or trigger nuclear Armageddon. Perhaps the planet will implode. Or maybe we’ll go down in a bonfire of racist rage. There’s a defeatist revenge fantasy in play, that if all hell busts out, it will serve those idiots right for electing a demagogue. See! You did this to yourselves, suckers!
While a nightmarish result is certainly possible, it’s not inconceivable that something more palatable awaits, better perhaps than a best-case scenario of Trump not completely wrecking our democracy.
On the surface, hope seems preposterous. The man has issued the most vile statements of any president or president-elect in our history. He incited violence against protesters and gleefully embraced sexual assault. We might well witness — within weeks of him taking office — a jury finding Trump guilty of defrauding students out of their savings. He’s toyed with the idea of launching ICBMs against our enemies, which doesn’t sound dangerous at all. I mean, what’s the point of having a nuclear warhead if it’s just going to sit around collecting dust?
Yet having dealt with the man for a number of years as a reporter and editor at the New York Post, which covered his exploits excessively, I see a glimmer or two to temper this despair. My thoughts:
He’s not just an egotist — talking about himself constantly — he’s an egoist, which means he thinks a lot about himself and what’s good for No 1.
My guess is that he already is pondering his legacy, hoping to be seen as a great president, loved by the people, hailed by the pundits. Here’s his problem. The Republican Party is taking aim at policies that are popular. Abortion rights, legalized pot, gay marriage, reasonable gun laws — a majority of Americans support those things. If Trump ignores the Paris climate change agreement or relaxes restrictions on carbon emissions, he upsets the 70 percent of us concerned about global warming. Scrapping or gutting Obamacare strips more than 20 million people of health insurance, which would delight conservatives but piss off 10 percent of the adult population.
Many of us in New York remember when Trump was a Democrat and espoused progressive ideals, including more taxes on America’s highest earners. Going the other way would spike his already sky-high negatives and fan our worst fears. That’s a lot to consider for a man who craves approval and lost the popular vote.
He’s an extreme pragmatist.
Trump’s crazy tweets during the campaign were almost certainly a calculated strategy. They energized the race, commandeered the media coverage and cast himself as this scary but entertaining renegade. I am quite certain he does not believe half of the nonsense he fired off. Lying, posturing, wildly exaggerating — they have always been central to his game. By bashing political correctness and selling himself as an outsider bent on blowing up the Beltway he tapped into the frustrations of those who feel betrayed by the system.
Does he really want to jail Hillary Clinton, whom he praised enthusiastically during his victory speech? Does he really think that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese? That the election was rigged? Almost certainly not. If it was all an act, he grimly stayed the course in the face of daily vilification and entreaties by his advisors to desist. He did what he felt was necessary to achieve the desired result, no matter how often he came off as slimy, craven or disingenuous. It worked.
Now that he’s in office, there’s no benefit to looking like a lunatic bigot.
He dislikes Republicans almost as much as anyone.
Trump’s mocking scorn for them during the primary seemed about as genuine as is possible with him, as well as true to his past. He has unabashedly excoriated Republicans throughout his career. Now, as president, there’s no impediment to him acting in ways they might find objectionable. He could deliberately provoke GOP members or shrug off their laundry list agenda, as long as doing so serves his purposes, whatever they might be.
What’s more, the president-elect goes in without political debts, free of any of the standard entanglements. Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, marginalized characters whose careers in politics were over, are in his debt, not the other way around. The GOP itself did little to help him win. So what’s left is Trump and a crowd of individuals. The dynamic becomes one-on-one, which works greatly in his favor. He’s at his best reading people, sizing them up, figuring out the right angle to benefit himself. When he deals with Congressional leaders in the coming days, he’ll deploy those skills. He will have the advantage because he owes them nothing.
He’s a financial guy.
After improbably projecting himself as champion of the forsaken working class — nevermind that they have nothing in common with a silver-spoon magnate — he now must address their plight. This is an easy one. And no, it’s not about ripping up trade agreements or kicking out immigrants or going Clint Eastwood on the Chinese.
The best way to help those hurt by the economy is to tax the rich. Vast income and wealth disparity is poison to our prospects. Even titans bigger than Trump — Mark Cuban, Nick Hanauer, to name just two — will tell you that. But before you laugh off the idea of a Republican president forcing himself and his fellow billionaires to pay their fair share, consider that the money Trump needs to proceed has to come from somewhere. If he hopes to ease the middle class burden, give breaks to businesses, strengthen the military and reduce the debt, something must give. We know he’s eyeing tax reform, which includes closing loopholes that he and others have relied on to pay nothing. Wouldn’t hurt if he had the feds go after all those cheats who park their millions off shore.
Generating new revenue from his own kind would fund the one big-ticket item he brought up in his victory address: a public-works project to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, which is desperately needed and happens to be his area of expertise. Launching such a populist program would be a grand opening offer to all those angry white voters who got him elected.
He doesn’t care much about international conflicts.
Forget all that bluster of knocking the hell out of ISIS. There’s very little he or anyone else can do that’s more effective than what is already being done. If he tries and fails, he’d look foolish. One can argue pros and cons of pursuing an isolationist foreign policy, but that’s what Trump prefers. War is expensive, divisive and often unpopular. And those costly overseas engagements have battered our men and women in service and left veterans reeling.
My guess is that he plans to use threats — his bravura — to spook other nations, much like Reagan’s hawkish posturing did when he took office. In the Trump cost-benefit analysis, saber rattling is a cheap alternative to troop deployment. Besides, it gives him a stage. It provides him with the chance to negotiate head-to-head, to be the toughest guy in the room.
Whatever heinous qualities might be true about Trump, one trait cannot be denied. He is a crafty negotiator, a natural politician who relies on leverage and manipulative tactics to get his way. He will be the opposite of George W. Bush.
He prefers to avoid intractable problems.
Trump will try to come up with improvements to the Affordable Care Act and the immigration question, his signature campaign promise. Those issues, however, are extremely complicated and require the work of savvy advisors to sort out. He’ll want practical solutions. Tearing up Obamacare without a replacement plan would be a disaster to his favorables, not to mention those 20 million people who now have coverage, many of whom are disadvantaged. Some are even Republicans. The not-so secret reality is that they really like having health insurance and can’t afford to lose it.
Nor do I expect Trump to unleash a swarm of immigration agents to boot our illegals, a hard-line stance on which he has softened in the last few days. Tighten the vetting process for applicants? Sure. That’s a rather easily achieved bureaucratic measure. Target criminals who are already here? More involved, though also feasible and certainly supportable. But massive deportations would be costly, impractical and far too disruptive to industries that are important to Americans, including hospitality and construction. Trump himself has benefited from employing immigrant laborers, and some undoubtedly are working here without permission. He’s not alone. How might Trump feel if his agents deported the trusted nanny or housekeeper of a super-rich buddy?
My own experience with Donald Trump and his comments on 60 Minutes Sunday tell me that he’s already transformed. He no longer needs to float bizarre conspiracy theories or appear to be unhinged. His post-election tweets are still irritating and off-base — “professional protesters”??? — but he now seeks respect and admiration, and that increases our chances of responsible leadership.
I can’t promise that his term is going to be anything more than an abject catastrophe. He could make disastrous cabinet appointments, muzzle the press or simply fail to do a single thing to help the “forgotten men and women” of our country. He might pursue sensible reforms only to find Republican obstruction too entrenched to overcome. Or worse, he could act only in ways to benefit himself financially — cutting taxes on the rich, for example, rather than raising them, or imposing measures meant to boost the bottom line of his businesses. In other words, engaging in the same self-dealing that sparked the rejection vote of this presidential race.
How much loathing would ensue?
The way he behaved during the election was abhorrent. No candidate has ever offended so many so quickly. But that outrageous jackass was mostly a caricature he created to win. Does he harbor a secret and possibly balanced agenda? Or is there some other even more repulsive version of Trump ready to emerge? No one can say. This is historically novel. No one knows with certainty what he will do in the White House or if he will even occupy the White House. (A source close to him has told me that Trump would prefer to not live in Washington but rather spend his nights in New York or Florida, as he did while on the stump.)
He is the nation’s biggest gamble. The electorate was willing to risk nuclear warfare, climate meltdown and racist bloodshed in the hopes of regaining a functioning government, free of the two dominant forces that have prevented it: special interests and partisan intransigence. If we lose, we lose big league. The floor still could be the annihilation of humankind. But the ceiling…perhaps there’s a more encouraging result than most of us expect.
If you care to read a bit more, the following account involves my time with Trump back when I worked as an investigative journalist at the New York Post, which for a long time was his favorite newspaper.
A small group of us had his cell phone number, and one could reach out pretty much any time for a quote. Trump always picked up. He’d loved the paper since 1990, when the Post screamed “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had” in a front-page headline hailing Trump’s presumed bedroom skills. The story had it that Marla Maples, his then paramour, poured forth this praise to her “pals,” one of whom passed it our way. I have no idea if the story was true, but it prompted one observer to note that we’d published the most libel-proof headline ever. Who, after all, was going to step up to dispute this account?
Afterward, Trump made himself available to our newsroom. He got waves of fawning press.
In 2011, I was asked to confirm a tip we’d gotten about the sale of the most expensive Manhattan apartment ever, a 10-bedroom penthouse overlooking Central Park that went for a record $88 million. The buyer was a 21-year-old single woman, the daughter of Dmitry Rybolovlev, a mysterious Russian oligarch. I did some digging and found that Rybolovlev three years earlier dropped $95 million on a sprawling estate in Palm Beach, Florida, called Maison L’Amitie, which he’d bought from The Donald.
Records showed that Trump had purchased the property for $41 million in 2004. I called him and asked how he managed to pocket a $54 million profit after owning the home for just four years. First, he praised the Russian as being one of the smartest men he’d ever encountered. Then he told me, in essence, that he’d fleeced him. “I didn’t do much to the house,” he said. “I just painted it.” Was it true? There was no way to confirm his claim. One other thing stuck in Trump’s mind: the loveliness of Rybolovlev’s then-teen-aged daughter Ekaterina. “The daughter was beautiful,” he told me. “I’m looking forward to them being my neighbors.” Wink, wink.
So there you had much of what cropped up in the election: Trump boasting about his business acumen, reminding our readers that he was wealthy, professing his admiration for a powerful Russian and lusting after a girl a decade younger than his daughter.
Not long after that, another encounter with him revealed more about the man’s way of doing business.
It was August 2012 and Tim Tebow had joined the New York Jets, to compete with and back up the team’s starting quarterback, Mark Sanchez. The paper was interested in Tebow’s personal life. What did he do when not playing or practicing? Where did he live? Did he have a girlfriend? Was this supposedly devout, virginal hunk as wholesome as advertised?
A tipster told me that he’d seen Tebow hanging around the Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, NJ, which was a 25-minute drive from the Jets practice facility in Florham Park. The course had its own village, a cluster of white colonial townhomes around a swimming pool, gardens, fountain and bistro. From Google Earth it looked like something you’d see at a resort in Bermuda. Might he be staying there?
“Yeah, absolutely,” Trump said from his cell. “He’s here all the time. Mark, too.”
“Sanchez?” I said. “Living there?”
“Yeah. Both of them. You should come by and check it out. It’s the most amazing golf course you’ve ever seen.”
I made an appointment to visit the next day at 2 p.m., which was about an hour before the team’s practice concluded. That way, if Tebow showed up, my photographer and I could talk with him and get photos. My editor was enthralled. “They’re battling for the starting job and living right next to each other? A kind of quarterback’s corner.” He was already thinking of a headline. “A quarterback collective? The quarterbacks’ quarters? Be sure to talk to the neighbors. Find out if Tebow’s dating anyone.”
Trump met me and J.C, my photographer, near the course entrance. He drove up in a bulky black Rolls Royce, with bright gold trim and rims. It was singularly ostentatious and ugly. Donald is quite tall. He likes towering over people, and he once avoided shaking their hands because he was deathly afraid of germs. He somehow overcame this phobia.
He got out wearing golf attire and a bright pink baseball cap and ambled our way. As he approached, I stepped up onto a stone embankment to match his height and thrust out my hand. “Good to see you,” he said and shook it. He introduced me to his golf pro, who would be giving us a tour. “Remind me again,” he said. “You’re here for what story? Oh yes, Sanchez.”
“Right. Sanchez and Tebow.”
Donald departed to tee off and our party of three climbed into a golf cart, the pro at the wheel. This man, we quickly realized, was under the impression that I had come to write a glowing feature about the golf course. For the next 90 minutes, we looked at and got a detailed explanation of every hole on the front nine and the clubhouse, too. (For the record, it was not the most amazing golf course I’d ever seen.)
Finally we arrived at the village. The sun was shining and people were swimming. A nattily dressed man came over to ask who we were. He was the head of the New York Real Estate Board. “We’re doing a story about Tebow,” I told him. “You see him around much?”
“Yeah. We understand that he’s living in one of those townhouses.”’
“No. I’ve never even seen him here.”
“Definitely. And I’ve been here every day this summer.”
“Well, what about Sanchez?”
“Mark? Yeah, he lives here. He’s in that unit over there. He’s great. We love Mark. He’s always playing with the kids, running, throwing the ball around.”
Unbelievable, I thought. Trump lied to me. My editor is going to be livid.
The tour continued. Another hour to see the back nine. Every tee box, sand trap and pin placement. Finally, it was time to go. I was worn out and upset. As we rode in the cart back toward the clubhouse, we again approached the village. The golf pro veered off and stopped. “That’s Mark’s truck,” he said and pointed to a black Tacoma. “Let’s go say hi.”
We three got out and clambered down a small embankment. I could see Sanchez sitting outside his home at a table. He and a group of guests had gathered and were eating dinner. As we approached, he spotted the golf pro coming and waved him off, a look of panic on his face. The pro rushed us away. We darted into the bistro, trying to look inconspicuous, and peered out at the Sanchez party through a window. “He, uh, is entertaining and didn’t want me to approach the table. Sorry about that. Maybe some other time.”
J.C. and I continued to look. “Is that Eva Longoria?” the photographer asked.
“Yeah, it is,” said the golf pro. “Problem is we’re going to have to walk right past them again to get back to the cart. So let’s just keep our heads down. Don’t try to talk to him.”
We left. The pro led the way with me following and J.C. behind. It was a coordinated approach. We knew each other well. I never heard the clicking. The pro didn’t suspect a thing. Sanchez was oblivious. J.C’s camera remained down, at his hip. When we three got back to the cart, we didn’t speak. The pro drove us to the visitor’s parking lot, bid us goodbye and wished us well with the story.
“Tell me you got all that,” I said to J.C. when we were by ourselves. He smiled. “Take a look.” He scrolled through the shots, the two of us peering at the small display on the back of his digital Canon. It was all there. Mark and Eva flirting, laughing, feeding each other bites of food.
I called my editor. “Bad news,” I said. “Trump lied to me. Tebow doesn’t live here.”
“Bastard,” he said.
“On the plus side, we spotted Sanchez and he was here having dinner with Eva Longoria.”
“Really?” he said. “We’d heard rumors but nothing was confirmed. This would be a nice exclusive. How are the shots?”
“A little grainy. J.C. had to do it on the sly. But they tell the story.”
“You weren’t anywhere you shouldn’t have been?”
“Not at all. We stayed with our tour guide. Just a lucky break.”
Photo by J.C. Rice via New York Post
Back at the paper, my editor asked me to file a quick story and he began to put the page together. He noted that Sanchez had just finished a miserable preseason, failing to throw a touchdown pass, and yet here he was lounging and laughing with his new girlfriend, a Hollywood star, not a care in the world. A diehard Jets fan, he felt that Sanchez was on the verge of losing his starting job and perhaps should have stayed late at practice, to keep working with his receivers. “Not a single TD in four games!” he said. And that gave him an idea for a headline for the story: “Sanchez Scores — Finally!”
Before it went to print, I had an uncomfortable call to make, to the golf pro to tell him what was coming. “No!” he said. “You can’t do that. We invited you here to do a story about the course. Had nothing to do with Mark.” He made it clear that Sanchez valued his privacy and would be irate about the photos. “We won’t let you use them. You don’t have permission.”
“Well, actually, we don’t need your permission,” I said. “We weren’t trespassing. We were there as your guests. Sure, he lives there. But it’s Donald’s property. He wanted us to come.”
“I’m calling him now,” the pro announced. “He’s going to get the lawyers involved. You are not publishing those photos.”
Trump weighed in. No lawyers were needed. “Well, did they go off on their own?” he asked the golf pro. “Were they hiding when they got the photos?” He told Trump no. “And you were with them the whole time?” Yes, was the answer. “Well, then, there’s nothing we can do about it. If it happened right in front of them, they got the shots fair and square.”
We went to print with the story on the front page. There was fallout — for the paper. Sanchez was so angry he boycotted the Post, whose beat writer for the Jets had developed a friendship with the quarterback’s brother. Sanchez complained bitterly to the management at the golf course. I called the pro to see how he was faring. “It will pass, eventually,” he said and sighed. He sounded shaken as if the scandal had prompted a brutal rebuke. “Just the way things work around here,” he said. “Nothing’s easy.”
I came away from this incident concluding that the only winner was Trump himself.
Because he had lied to me I spent a day chasing a story that wasn’t there. The dumb luck of running into Sanchez and Longoria salvaged what would have been a waste of time. But that didn’t negate my having gotten nowhere on Tebow. The golf pro was also misled. Someone — Trump himself? — told him we were doing a profile on the course, which was never my agreement with Donald, and directed him to host me and J.C. and give us full access. The story that came out angered a key tenant and got the golf pro chewed out. Sanchez felt violated and took it out on the Post, which lost its access to him just as the season was starting. Those photos probably didn’t do much for his relationship with Longoria. The two broke up not long after the shots were published.
Trump didn’t have to deal with any of this. Indeed, he probably could have predicted what was going to happen. It’s not like he wasn’t fully familiar with the paper. And he knew from me what I was looking to get. Whether Sanchez remained as his tenant or not — and he did until getting cut by the team the following season — was of no real consequence compared with all the free publicity for his golf course. How much more revenue came in from players hoping to get a glimpse of the Jets star and his gorgeous girlfriend? The mogul couldn’t have paid to get that kind coverage. None of the other participants in this drama fared as well.
Let’s hope that’s not how the nation feels after Trump leaves office.
He is clearly in it for himself. He wants to be seen as a winner. And to achieve that end he could stomp on the First Amendment, attack reporters who criticize him and prosecute those who dare to protest his policies or denounce his statements. All of which demands that people like me — investigative journalists — do our best in the coming years.
But if in his pursuit of adulation Trump manages to create jobs, keep us safe, defend the planet and help all those struggling citizens desperate for a genuinely great America, we may come out ahead. His winning and our winning aren’t mutually exclusive.
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