Out of the spotlight, some say there is a softer side of Trump
WASHINGTON — Andrea Lake, who appeared on Season Five of “The Apprentice,” had every reason not to like Donald Trump. He was a bully, she thought. Too brash. His bankruptcies bothered her, and the way he lied about them bothered her more.
But then she met him. Over the course of a lunch in Manhattan, with other contestants on the show, she came to a shuddering realization: She liked the guy.
“He was super charming,” she said. “He was legitimately funny and quick-witted.”
The man who would scream “You’re fired!” in front of the TV cameras would later call some of those same losing contestants on their cellphones to follow up. After firing one contestant on his reality show in Season Six, he even offered her a job in real life.
Interviews with former business colleagues, campaign rivals, and others who have known Trump up close say there is a jarring juxtaposition between the Trump they know and the Trump they see these days on TV.
Trump the presidential candidate is omnipresent, constantly invading TV screens or appearing on stage at big rallies, and it’s hard to see how that arena-sized personality can possibly fit into a meeting room or make small talk with regular folks. It raises the question about who the real Trump is — and how much of his stage persona is a schtick. Also to wonder at is how he manages to condense that outsized personality into someone that many people who’ve met with him describe almost universally as charming — though not the slightest self-effacing. Even in private, he remains his own greatest fan.
While Trump is now the star of a political reality show that has Americans transfixed — or, in some cases, horrified — behind the curtain, he can seem quite a different man. At times, surely, and especially in the company of women, his behavior and remarks can discomfit or offend. He is well known for his blunt comments about women’s bodies, their beauty or the want of it, and was, during his playboy years in the 1990s, no stranger to allegations of unwanted advances.
Still, as Trump begins trying to unite a fractious Republican Party, he is performing some head-spinning shifts, employing the powerful charm many describe to win over today those he insulted yesterday.
Trump — who has called Senator Lindsey Graham a “nut job,” “disgrace,” and “one of the dumbest human beings I’ve ever seen” — was suddenly on the other end of the line last week, in a private conversation with the South Carolina Republican.
“He told a few jokes,” said Graham, who has tossed some choice verbal bombs of his own Trump’s way. “Of all the people running, he’s the guy you’d want to go to dinner with.”
Representative Chris Collins of New York, the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, predicted some of his skeptical colleagues would rally to the real estate mogul once they had the opportunity to meet him one on one. “People will see the Donald Trump I know, not necessarily the one you see in the rallies,” Collins said.
“One on one, Mr. Trump is a listener, not a talker. When he’s got a group of people, he wants to know what’s going on in other people’s districts. . . . He’s a very thoughtful listener, one on one.”
Trump is a man whose public persona can seem like a caricature of himself, and at times it seems like the entire country is privy to his internal monologue — a stream of half thoughts, boasts, unabashed contradiction, and smartly targeted promises. His life has been lived in the tabloids, and he has played up aspects of his life that most people try to downplay, from his antics in the bedroom to the mountain of money in his bank account.
But in private gatherings, he usually doesn’t come on in all caps; he massages the conversation.
“He’s methodical. Not extraordinarily aggressive,” said Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, who has gotten to know Trump over the years. “He’s good at understanding that getting close to people personally is always good first before you go in for the chess move.”
Trump, as he is for those who approach him after rallies, can be intimidating to people meeting him for the first time. He’s the guy that most know as a celebrity. He’s the one who, if TV ratings are to be believed, we can’t seem to stop looking at.
Trump seems aware of his oversized public persona and works to make sure people aren’t intimidated by the version of him they see on television. Conversations with him don’t feel rushed. When he is approached for photos, he’ll pose for several, asking, “Do you have what you need?”
“He has a commanding presence. When he enters the room, you know Donald has entered the room. He’s magnetic,” said Chelsea Cooley, who won the Miss USA pageant in 2005 and later went to Trump for advice for her business.
“He can walk into the room and not say anything, but it’s palpable,” she added. “That is true confidence. His sheer presence is absolutely powerful.”
But quickly, she and others said, he attempts to put those around him at ease. He’s not one for small talk, but he’ll ask about family members. He repeatedly uses the names of the people he’s speaking with and makes his guests feel as if they are close friends, even when meeting him for the first time. It is, surprisingly to some Trump watchers, typically an insult-free space.
“You can’t become a multibillionaire by giving heads of other corporations unfavorable monikers,” said Hogan Gidley, a longtime Republican consultant. “You’ve got to have some savvy, some charm, some ability to be that successful.”
Gidley has met Trump several times. In their first encounter, Trump complimented him profusely, saying “Hogan! That’s a good name, a strong name. I like that very much.”
“He didn’t look past me, he didn’t look around the room,” he said. “He looked directly at me.”
A key element of Trump’s charm appears to be his ability to adapt to his audience.
When he ran into former presidential contender Mike Huckabee at a hotel in Iowa, he blew him an air kiss and said, “I love you, Mike!” When talking with beauty queens, he would speak in softer tones spliced with “sweetie” (an old-fashioned sort of endearment that is sometimes seen as sexist). When talking with contractors and officials in Atlantic City, he was far more coarse, dropping expletives with natural gusto.
“We called him our Teamster Friend,” said Edward Kline, a former state legislator who represented Atlantic City and is now backing Trump’s campaign. “Because he’d talk like a Teamster. He’s a little tough, and the language he would use, it was like you were talking with a Teamster. But you were dealing with Donald Trump.”
Throughout the Republican presidential campaign, he has tapped into an angry, fed-up slice of the electorate. Violent outbursts have occurred at some of his rallies. He is best known for proposing a wall along the border with Mexico, and insulting essentially all Latinos and Muslims, which makes it hard to imagine him building any bridges.
But when he wants to, it seems he can. The Trump who yells at protesters, requesting that police officers remove them from the room, is not the same Trump that those who have been in more intimate settings with him know. There is a diplomatic side to him that rarely comes across at the podium.
“I cringe sometimes,” says Tyana Alvarado, a former contestant from “The Apprentice” who, as a Hispanic and a woman, fits two of the groups that Trump has often insulted.
“I just feel like I know a different side of him and I need to protect him,” she said. “Sometimes the things he says it’s like, ‘God, you’re making it hard for me to protect you.’ But that’s not the Trump that I know.”
Trump makes a remarkable shift as soon as he gets in front of a camera, say those who’ve seen him both on and off screen.
“It’s almost like multiple personalities,” said Liza Wisner, a former contestant on “The Apprentice.” “I think he actually is genuine. But then he gets before the camera, and he puts on this act.”
Shortly after she was fired, coming in third place on Season 10, Trump invited Wisner to an 18-hole outing at one of his golf courses. He drove the golf cart around for several hours, munching on a sandwich and grabbing drinks from an ice chest.
“I think he knows what he’s doing. I truly believe this is part of his whole scheme to getting elected,” Wisner, who is turned off by his campaign but isn’t yet sure if she’ll vote for him. “There are moments I don’t believe we are where we are right now, considering a USA with Donald Trump as president. But anybody who ever meets him in person cannot say they didn’t enjoy meeting him.”
During the Republican primary campaign, most voters saw Trump only from a distance.
Juliana Bergeron, a Republican national committeewoman from New Hampshire, met Trump with a small group a few months back, in Keene, N.H.
In front of a group of more than a dozen locals, he came across as warm. He was likable. And funny. Nothing like how he would present himself later that day at a rally with 4,000 supporters. And some people left with a feeling they didn’t imagine they’d have: They planned to vote for him.
“He was very pleasant. Not as loud. He took time with each person individually,” Bergeron said. “I just would suspect if you and I were privy to his business meetings, they are not at all like what we see of him on CNN.”
Lake, “The Apprentice” contestant who was prepared to dislike Trump when she first met him, says she despises his politics and thinks he would be a terrible president.
She cannot imagine why anyone would vote for him. But she would be happy, thrilled even, to have him over to her house.
“If you met him, even if you think you don’t like him, you would invite him into your home for dinner,” she said. “He’s charming, one on one. He would win you over. He just would.”