New Trump biography offers complex look at man who would be president
Donald Trump flew into Stornoway in Scotland’s windswept Outer Hebrides in 2008 in his Boeing 727 to visit the childhood home of his mother, Mary Anne MacLeod. He was dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, “and a blue tie that hung well below his belt.” He and his cortege climbed into a Porsche Cayenne and two BMW X5s and were driven 7 miles to her modest dwelling. Trump spent all of 97 seconds inside.
“Trump Revealed,’’ a Washington Post book written by two veteran journalists, Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, with the assistance of more than 20 reporters, three editors, and two fact checkers, is crammed with such detail. It presents a portrait of a man “far more complex than his simple language might indicate, [with] motivations and values . . . informed by his parents, his upbringing, his victories and his defeats, and his lifelong quest for love and acceptance.” To arrive at that conclusion, the Post sent staffers not only to the Isle of Lewis, off the Scottish coast, but to almost everywhere that Trump had left a footprint, from Queens in New York to Azerbaijan, Russia, and Panama.
In precise reporting that sadly ends with the angry, disorganized Republican convention in Cleveland in July, Kranish and Fisher focus heavily on the business dealings — highlighting the bankruptcies, the hundreds of lawsuits, the ego trips — that made Trump the best-known billionaire in the country. His father, Fred, who bailed him out a number of times, made millions building middle-income homes and apartments in Queens and Brooklyn, but his son wanted to make his mark in Manhattan. He bought the old, rat-infested Commodore Hotel, refurbished it with the help of underpaid, undocumented Polish workers, and made a go of it. Then he built the Trump Tower, his headquarters today.
Not everything that followed was so successful. Trump tended to pay too much — $407 million for the Plaza Hotel, $365 million for the Eastern Airlines shuttle (promptly renamed the Trump Shuttle) — often investing in businesses he knew nothing about.
His greatest failure surely was his gambling venture in Atlantic City, where he built three glitzy casinos, paying too much and knowing hardly anything about the industry. The Trump Taj Mahal, the glitziest of the three, will be shut down in October. The others closed earlier. Kranish’s and Fisher’s chapter on the business and political machinations around Atlantic City is a highlight, lucid and compelling.
Kranish and Fisher examine Trump’s love life in a chapter called “Best Sex I Ever Had,” a quotation attributed to his second wife, Marla Maples — who Trump began seeing while still married to his first wife, Ivana. The truth is, however, that while Trump has always enjoyed being photographed arm in arm with beautiful women, he really doesn’t have much time for them. “He would crush opponents,” they write. “He would demean ‘losers.’ He would choose to spend time in the office rather than with his wives or children.” It’s the same story with close friends. He doesn’t have many because he hasn’t had time for them either.
The biggest problem with this book, likely the most complete and nuanced life of Trump thus far, is nobody’s fault. It simply ends too soon and leaves unmentioned Trump’s unprecedented meltdown in the days that followed the convention in Cleveland. He insulted Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Muslim parents of Humayun, an Army captain killed by a car bomb in Iraq in 2004. He declared that President Obama is the founder of ISIS. He even hinted that those gun-toting Second Amendment bullies might want to do something about Hillary Clinton, should she be elected.
What happened? The book gives some hints. The first involves meeting and befriending a truly odious lawyer, Roy Cohn, one-time chief counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Trump, Kranish and Fisher write, liked what Cohn taught him — “when attacked, counterattack with overwhelming force.” Trump and his lawyers filed more than 1,000 lawsuits over the years, hoping in many instances to intimidate people who said nasty things about him. In one of their interviews, Trump warned Kranish and Fisher he would sue them if he didn’t like the book.
Nothing boosted Trump’s already enlarged ego more than his starring role in the “You’re fired” NBC reality show, “The Apprentice.’’ It ran for 14 years, and some nights attracted almost 27 million viewers. As the show’s host and executive producer, “Trump got plenty of practice honing a blunt speaking style accentuated by short, declarative sentences” and his taunts of the contestants seeking to win a one-year, $250,000 job with the Trump Organization. None of the shows were scripted.
Cohn’s coaching on how to fire back at critics and the lessons he learned as an anything-goes reality TV star certainly explain a lot about the Donald Trump we watched in amazement, and sometimes in horror, before and during the Cleveland convention. But they don’t fully explain the Donald Trump we see today, after weeks of bluster and wildly intemperate attacks on his critics. Is he crazy? Probably not, but facing the dismal prospect of being labeled a loser, it’s a safe bet this ambitious, driven man who views himself as a brand is very angry.
An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power
By Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher
Scribner, 431 pp., illustrated, $28
James M. Perry, who was for many years chief political writer for The Wall Street Journal, blogs regularly on politics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.