WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s top executives pleaded with him to prepare for his grilling by opposing lawyers, a high-stakes moment in a mid-1990s legal dispute over redevelopment of the legendary Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
“He said, ‘No, I don’t need any preparation,’” recalled one of the executives, Barbara Res. “‘No, no, no. No [expletive] way.’”
Eventually, Trump relented, agreeing to give his lawyers two hours to get him ready for the hostile deposition. But even during the allotted time, he kept answering phones and allowing people to enter the office and interrupt.
“He didn’t get prepared,” Res said. “And the next day at the deposition, it was obvious he was not prepared.”
Trump’s disdain for preparation, in this case as part of a losing legal fight over the hotel site, is part of his persona, rooted in his surpassing self-confidence. And thus far, based on his weak performance in the first presidential debate and his sometimes shaky command of policy or facts, it appears to be costing him now in his White House quest.
His approach, rare among presidential contenders, has intensified the pressure heading into the second debate Sunday evening in St. Louis, where he must do a better job of summoning cogent arguments, sticking to a battle plan, and avoiding damaging asides and distractions. The last task, especially, has grown harder after a videotape, obtained by The Washington Post, was released on Friday showing Trump making explicitly lewd comments about women. So far, his apologies have carried a defiant tone, and the topic is certain to come up on Sunday night.
Throughout his life and during his short political career, he has relied on sheer force of personality, confident that he can essentially wing his way through any challenge, relying on his charisma, swagger, and smarts to come out on top.
When he was on “The Apprentice,” he would walk onto the set just in time for the shot, with little indication there was much preparation before the TV cameras came on, according to former contestants. At college, he did well but wasn’t the most studious student, his former classmates have recalled.
He has boasted in his books about relying on his gut instinct — while rejecting advice from consultants.
“There’s two things going on: One is his inability to focus,” said Res, who had been an executive vice president of the Trump Organization, spending 12 years with Trump. “The other is him being convinced that he knows everything.”
Trump cast aside the usual debate prep sessions before the first one. He mostly sat around a table with advisers while batting around ideas, rather than engaging in the customary mock debates and sparring against a stand-in for Clinton.
The town hall format for the St. Louis debate could be a significant challenge for Trump. He virtually eschewed New Hampshire town halls during the GOP primary and instead staged rallies that filled arenas. On Sunday, he and Clinton will face a small room of undecided voters who will pose half of the questions, while the other half will come from moderators Anderson Cooper of CNN and Martha Raddatz of ABC News.
David Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican consultant, said Trump has an opportunity in the debate to capitalize on his message of change. And, he said, most in the political establishment continue to underestimate the thirst for authenticity and a candidate without polish.
“People don’t agree with everything he says, but what’s been working for 40 years isn’t working for them. They want change,” he said. “Part of his strength is that he is not polished, buttoned-down, stick-to-the-talking-points guy. And that appeals to a lot of voters.”
But Trump must find a way to control his worst impulses — or, as Carney puts it, going down “rabbit trails” — particularly the urge to lash out in an undisciplined manner when provoked.
Clinton found ways to get under his skin and knock him off course in the first face-off. She and her team have discovered that mentioning the multimillion-dollar loan Trump got from his father to start his business provokes an emotional response, because it undercuts Trump’s image as a self-made billionaire.
Other suggestions that he does not measure up also seem to throw him off balance. So Clinton again Sunday likely will slam his business record, scorn him for not releasing tax returns like other presidential candidates, and needle him for his demeaning statements directed at women, including perhaps the vulgarities in the released video.
“Part of his composure is this need to never back down, never apologize, and attack any perceived slight. He can’t absorb a hit. He has to respond to every attack, no matter how small it is, 100 times bigger,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican consultant.
“There’s a direct correlation between his outbursts and how well his campaign is doing at any given time,” Williams added. “He lashes out when things aren’t going well.”
Trump has been watching tapes of his last debate, trying to learn from his inability to keep the focus on Clinton. “He learned from those tapes that he was trying to answer the questions as they were asked, and Mrs. Clinton was there really trying to get out those five or six zingers she had rehearsed,” Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said Thursday on “Good Morning America.”
“This time I think that Donald Trump, in a town hall format — it’s one in which he’s very comfortable,” she added. “He enjoys sitting there one-on-one, he enjoys engaging with the audience.”
On Thursday night, Trump held a town hall in Sandown, N.H., but it lacked any of the markings of a true town hall. Those in the room were pre-screened, the questions were written out, and they were delivered by a friendly moderator, conservative commentator Howie Carr.
Even that event was minimal preparation compared to candidates of the past who drilled extensively before going head-to-head with their opponents on live TV.
Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, had complete replicas built of the debate stage. In a hotel ballroom, while on the campaign trail, he would hold practice sessions at the exact hour the debate would be held — with his advisers acting as stand-ins for undecided voters to give him hostile questions.
“The town hall format really requires preparation — because of the intimate nature of the setting and because so much of the conversation is dictated by voters that you can’t really do research on,” said Kevin Madden, a veteran Republican consultant who participated in Romney’s preparations. “It requires a level of a much greater universe of scenarios that you have to anticipate.”
The event on Sunday will be different from the raucous GOP primary debates with multiple candidates and boisterous crowds.
“These town hall formats are much more sedate and much more intimate. That’s going to be a new environment for him,” Madden said. “If you haven’t prepared for it, it’ll be the longest 90 minutes of the campaign for him.”