Trump Revealed: An American Journey of Ambition, Ego, Money, and Power is the most thorough and wide-ranging examination of Donald Trump’s public and private lives to date, from an award-winning team of Washington Post journalists. Below is the prologue:
He was the front-runner now, and for his next act, he would become presidential. His son and his daughter and his wife had told him he had to do this, had to show his more thoughtful, calmer side. And he had told them, “I can be very presidential.” He had laughed and said, “I can be more presidential than any president that this country has ever had, except for Abraham Lincoln, because . . . you can’t out-top Abraham Lincoln.” And now here he was, in the nation’s capital, in the belly of the beast, showing them all that he could do this. He would meet with a US senator—a senator who was supporting him, the kid from Queens, the bad boy of New York real estate—at the offices of one of the capital’s top law firms. He would talk foreign policy with a roomful of Washington wonks. He would read a speech from a teleprompter, the tool he’d long made fun of, the crutch that political losers used. He would name some of the insiders who would advise him in the White House, even though he would, of course, remain his own chief adviser, because he knew this stuff better than anyone else. On one crystalline spring day in 2016, the leader in the race for the Republican nomination for president of the United States would field whatever sharp questions the editorial board of the Washington Post might throw at him. He’d address the tough crowd at AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the most influential lobbies in the most important city in the world, a group whose members were increasingly calling his campaign frightening, even demagogic. And just because he was in Washington—where he was, by the way, building what would be one of his company’s signature hotels—he’d lead the jackals of the media through the construction site, showing off the thick granite and the top-shelf marble. He would beam and jut his jaw as he announced that his hotel was coming in way ahead of schedule and under budget, “and we have almost three hundred rooms, superluxury,” and “we are going to employ substantially more than five hundred people, at least five hundred people.”
It would be an important day in the grand campaign to Make America Great Again. He would show just how multifaceted he was, now the populist man of the moment, egging on huge crowds in everbigger arenas, complimenting them for bursting out of silent-majority status and becoming “a very, very aggressive, very, very noisy, loud majority,” and then, the next day, he would be the elegant, serious, principled—yes, presidential—front-runner. This is the real deal, he was saying, and there would be no denying the will of the people. Donald Trump—scion of a self-made man who built modest homes for the middle class, brash kid who crossed the bridge and took Manhattan, braggadocian developer who plated everything with gold, the man who made Atlantic City great again (until it collapsed again), the entertainer who was a self-described “ratings machine”—stood now in the biggest room in the nation’s capital, delivering an address, every word of which would be examined as if he were already the president. Trump—the fringe candidate who turned the Republican Party upside down, the billionaire who persuaded millions of Americans that he best understood their frustrations and aspirations—this political novice, this proud outsider, had outsmarted the experts and the consultants and the insiders, the whole cabal of the powerful and the self-righteous who had driven this city into an embarrassing paralysis. In weeks, the sideshow had become the main event. Now he was the star of just the kind of day that there would be hundreds of once he became President Trump, days devoted to “making this a country again,” taking it back, making it great, bringing back the jobs, keeping out the Mexicans and the Muslims, “winning, winning, winning.” “Bam!” he’d say at his raucous rallies. Bam!—and the evil terrorists of ISIS would be wiped out. Bam!—and the same companies that had exported American jobs would bring them back. Bam!—and Mexico would pay for the wall to keep illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States. Bam!—a great country, again.
HE’D BEEN IN THE spotlight nearly all of his adult life. He was still in his thirties when he became a single-name celebrity, like Madonna or Beyoncé, like a rock star or a president, his name, in ALL CAPS, gold plated, on buildings and airplanes and shirts and wine bottles (even though he says he’s never had a drink in his life). He was the rare billionaire who shunned privacy, who invited cameras to focus on the ego wall in his office. He flaunted his wealth, spent ostentatiously, worked the media to keep himself on the gossip pages and the business pages and the sports pages and the front pages. He would, his detractors said, attend the opening of an envelope.
He was, almost from the start, his own brand. He got there in good part by making a close study of everything said about him. He started his days with a sheaf of press clippings, his daily mentions. Even now, running for the most powerful position on the planet, a job that relies almost entirely on the power to persuade those around you, a job heavy on running a team and winning loyalty, even now Donald J. Trump said he made most of his decisions by himself, consulting no one: “I understand life,” he said. “And I understand how life works. I’m the Lone Ranger.”
He knew how to be famous, he knew how to win numbers, get ratings, make people take notice. More than three decades before he decided he wanted to be president, he showed up on Gallup’s list of the ten men Americans most admired, running behind only the pope and some presidents. He’d made a lifelong study of how to create buzz. He had a hierarchy of attention in his mind. Glitz was one level up from flash, he said. Good PR was better than bad PR, but both were good. He was a curious, perhaps unique, blend of savvy showman and petulant, thin-skinned street brawler. He promoted himself with abandon, generating both fawning and ridicule. He was as likely to sue his critics as he was to tout his achievements. He was a proud, boastful winner who had also failed at more businesses than many moguls start in a lifetime. He took pride in demanding respect. He was rarely seen without jacket and tie. Even people who had worked closely with him for decades addressed him as “Mr. Trump.”
Yet his language could shock people and he consistently laced his perceived enemies—and especially women—with slashing, coarse insults. His language sometimes seemed a string of slogans and simple, declarative sentences delivering simplistic ideas. This led some people to conclude that he was boorish, unthinking. He kind of liked that; it was the sort of thing he expected from the elitists who had sneered at him all his life. He boasted about a great deal, but he mostly kept quiet about what was going on deep inside. That came out only rarely, such as when he talked about the movies he loved. When he was asked about Citizen Kane, the Orson Welles classic about an idealistic newspaper owner who acquires great wealth and loses his soul, Trump said, “Citizen Kane was really about accumulation, and at the end of the accumulation, you see what happens, and it’s not necessarily all positive. Not positive . . . In real life, I believe that wealth does in fact isolate you from other people. It’s a protective mechanism. You have your guard up, much more so than you would if you didn’t have wealth.”
He fancied himself a man of the people, more interested in the praise of cabdrivers and construction workers than in accolades from the rich and the powerful. The people knew him and admired him, he said, and so he had always thought maybe the ultimate move might be to the White House. “Because I’ve had great success,” he said. “I’ve been very successful for a long period of time. I’ve always maybe had it in the back of my mind . . . always toward making the country better, or, as we say, making the country great again, right? . . . A very good slogan, which I came up with.”
ONE YEAR EARLIER, to the day, this was all a dream, a fantasy. Trump was doing what he’d done just about every election cycle for decades, toying with the reporters, making the rounds of the radio talk shows and TV newscasts, hinting, teasing, smirking at the incompetent politicians, tantalizing audiences with the idea that he might bring his talent to bear on the woes of the world. On that March day in 2015, exactly one year before he would make his first “presidential” rounds in Washington, DC, the first wave of Republican wannabes had started to declare their intentions, and Trump was mentioned eightysix times in the press. The Chicago Sun-Times asked him to weigh in on a local controversy about the possible landmarking of a skyscraper; Trump hated the idea of hemming in his fellow developers—if they, like Trump, wanted to make changes in historic buildings, they should be allowed to. In Palm Beach, Trump was lining up with homeowners to oppose an airport runway extension that would result in noisy jets roaring above his Mar-a-Lago estate. In Scotland, Trump reversed course and announced he was going ahead with a hotel and golf course development. At home in New York, an entertainment company staging a music, dance, and fashion show at Radio City Music Hall put out word that the performances would include a “celebrity video cameo” by Donald Trump.
But in March 2015, Trump’s usual array of business controversies and promotional forays was starting to be crowded out by a gathering storm of political murmurs and putdowns. On MSNBC that day, host Chris Matthews offered “a little comic relief ” in the form of a discussion about Trump’s presidential hopes. “Let’s not treat Donald Trump like a serious candidate,” replied Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page. “He’s a marketing genius, and that’s what he’s doing.” Over on CNN, analyst Jeffrey Toobin rejected the topic: “Donald Trump is engaging in one of his fictional presidential campaigns.” A Washington Post rundown of the Republican field lumped Trump in “a growing swarm of longshot contenders” with Carly Fiorina, Senator Lindsey Graham, Ohio governor John Kasich, and former New York governor George Pataki. BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins, speaking on MSNBC, dismissed Trump’s talk of running as “this pageant of pretend presidential ambitions” and stated, “I still would bet my entire year’s salary that he will not actually be on a ballot in Iowa.” And on the online gambling sites, oddsmakers were betting on the inevitability of Jeb Bush and the absurdity of Trump. Bush on that day in 2015 was riding on 4–1 odds; Trump was at the bottom of the heap, at 150–1.
But away from the country’s media centers of New York and Washington, the first murmurs of a different tune were coming through. In the New Hampshire Union Leader, publisher Joe McQuaid wrote that other candidates and the news media “underestimate Donald Trump at their peril. People are so tired of glib talk and polished images and position papers that they may find to their liking a guy who goes against the grain and gets dissed by the talking head know-it-alls.” Trump himself appeared on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News program, and when she asked “whether you’re just a tease,” he replied, “I see everything through. Everything in my life, I’ve seen through. . . . I love what I’m doing, but I love the country more. And I can straighten it out.”
Nine months later, in the last days of 2015, Trump was nobody’s idea of a tease. In a packed arena on a cold, rainy night in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he stood before a massive American flag, beaming as his supporters—many wearing his red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN baseball caps, “Made in U.S.A.” and available on the shop.donaldjtrump.com website for $25—chanted his name. The first primary was still a few weeks off, and already Trump’s opponents were falling away. Trump opened the rally by noting that Lindsey Graham had dropped out that day: “He was nasty to me. Everybody that goes against me, X, X,” and he drew X’s in the air, X‑ing out the losers as the crowd inside the DeltaPlex Arena roared. “That should happen with our country,” Trump said. “Everybody goes against us, down the tubes.” Another roar.
Already, dozens of rallies into his campaign, his routine was set. There was no script, but rather a small menu of stories that he deployed between riffs about the day’s events and narrations of the removal of protesters from the room. (The crowds never minded hearing stories they’d heard before, such as the one about how Ford was building a big plant in Mexico, and President Trump would make them bring those jobs back. “Has anyone heard that story?” Trump asked.
“Yes!” the people shouted.
“Do you want to hear it again?”
“Yes! Yes!” they cried.)
On this day, Trump had some new zingers, some new cuts of red meat for a crowd that relished his every shot against the powerful and the pompous. Today, the first target was news reporters. Trump noted that Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, had been quoted saying that Trump was brilliant. Trump smirked at American media accounts suggesting it maybe wasn’t a great thing for a presidential candidate to be praised by the autocratic leader of one of the country’s most difficult rivals. “Oh, isn’t it terrible that Putin said nice things?” Trump mocked. “That’s not terrible, that’s good. . . . Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along with people?” Reporters were forever twisting his words, making it sound as if Trump supported Putin, he said. “By the way, I hate some of these ‘reporters’. But I’d never kill them. I hate them.” The cheers reached a new pinnacle, and Trump, his voice rising with the crowd’s lusty shouts, added, “Some of them are such lying, disgusting people, it’s true, it’s true. But I would never kill them.”
He would insist on his right, his obligation, to tell it straight. His language, the belittling little “bye-bye” wave he gave when security guards ushered out protesters who shouted, “You’re a bigot!”—Trump would never apologize for that. He explained to the crowd, “I went to an Ivy League school. I’m very highly educated. . . . I don’t have to be plainspoken. I have, like, this incredible vocabulary. But, honestly, how can I describe our leaders better than the word stupid? . . . I used to say ‘grossly incompetent,’ but stupid’s stronger, isn’t it?”
The crowd agreed, with gusto. “Trump, Trump, Trump,” they shouted. “USA, USA, USA,” they chanted. The candidate joined in. Then he ordered the newspeople to “turn the cameras” around and show the crowd, pan the room because “there’s so much love in the room.” He kept at it, pestering them over and over to turn their cameras, and finally some of them did, and the crowd roared its approval, and another protester shouted something, and Trump directed the guards to “Get him out,” adding, with a mischievous smile, “Don’t hurt him! Be very nice!”
He turned back to the audience: “Look, is there more fun than a Trump rally?”
It was a happy crowd, even if they had queued up in the rain for hours, wrapped around the arena; even if a few dozen protesters, standing in silent witness, waved placards saying NO TO HATE, NO TO TRUMP and HEIL TRUMP, AMERICAN FASCIST. Most people were glad finally to hear Trump for themselves, not because they loved the guy, or even thought he’d make a fine president, but because they were glad someone was finally saying what he was saying. Kevin Steinke was fifty-three and had been finding lately that he sometimes had to make decisions about paying for health care or paying the mortgage. He came to the rally and brought his two teenaged sons with him so they could hear for themselves, understand that other people were also struggling and that maybe there was a way to get things back to how they used to be. Trump’s language, Steinke said, was a little strong, but “he’s hitting the nerve. People are getting frustrated by the fact that we don’t seem like we’re getting anywhere as a nation. A lot of us feel like we’re going backwards.” Steinke, a college graduate, and his wife, a music teacher, weren’t doing as well as they once had, and though he was neither a left-winger nor a right-winger, and though he’d never been to a political rally before, he liked the idea of Trump as a CEO for the country, someone who wouldn’t divide “us against them,” but would change the atmosphere so that people could “say what you think and not feel like you’re Islamophobe or homophobe or add a word on the front for -phobe.” Trump was scary enough that he was “causing some of the establishment people to panic, and I kind of like that,” Steinke said. “Donald just says it in plain English, a little too plain. For me, it’s refreshing.”
Steinke was under no illusion that Trump was “squeaky-clean— nobody is.” And he thought some of the things Trump said were “a little too far on the edge, and he can’t always walk them back like he wants.” But Steinke liked hearing Trump talk tough about dealing with foreign leaders, because America didn’t need to win everything, but did need to be “a little more forceful on that stage, to say we need to be the leaders. We’re not going to be, ‘We’re sorry that we’re Americans.’ That’s really what it feels like: parenting gone wrong, with no consequences across the globe.” Trump, Steinke said, “knows how to trade off: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. So I think as much as his rhetoric is hot air out-front, when he gets behind closed doors, he wants to make a deal.”
On this day, Trump came up with a new line about Hillary Clinton and what a loser she was, having gotten “schlonged” by Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries. Trump needled Clinton over her use of the rest room midway through the last Democratic candidates’ debate, calling it “disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it.” He explained that he’d once gotten along well with her, back “in my previous job,” where “a guy gives you five million bucks and . . . you know, you sort of feel obligated.” Now, though, he was not taking big donations, he was funding his own campaign, “and it’s very hard for me to say no, ’cause all my life I take. I take money, I love money, I take money. Now I’m telling these people I don’t want your money. Because I know what happens.”
And the people cheered, louder now, because he was saying what they’d been saying, he was admitting what the glad-handing, platitudemouthing politicians would never admit. He just said it: “The truth is, the American Dream is dead.” The people cheered, not because they were pessimists or cynics, but because they were hurting and they’d been betrayed and finally someone acknowledged that. He finished with a promise, a big one, one they chose to believe: that American Dream was dead, but not gone. “I’m going to make it bigger and better and stronger than ever before. Ever before. Bigger, and better, and stronger.”
AND NOW IT WAS three months later, in March 2016, a fine spring day in Washington, and Trump had victory after victory under his belt, well on his way to the presidential nomination, all but two of his opponents gone. The party bosses were holding secret meetings to talk about how they might turn the summer convention against Trump, and the same pundits who had dismissed him a year earlier were saying that his nomination appeared all but inevitable. He was still holding several rallies a week, and going on TV and radio all day, mixing the usual promises of revival and greatness with new bursts of political incorrectness. When women get abortions, “there has to be some form of punishment,” he said one day, and then he backtracked a few hours later. He was confident enough of victory now that he said that if the party denied him the nomination, “I think you’d have riots.” He was sure enough that he decided it was time to start showing the pivot that he’d long said he would make after the rough-and-tumble of the primary campaign was over. He’d prove, easily and quickly, he said, that “I can be very presidential.”
And so Trump went with a more conservative navy-blue tie, more muted than the flashy reds he favored at rallies. At the Washington Post’s editorial board, his voice was calmer, gentler, too. His rhetoric was toned down—he went out of his way to praise one of the paper’s political reporters (though Trump also noted, “I’ve been treated very, very badly by the Washington Post ”) and even offered kudos to the federal agency that controls the DC building, next door to the IRS, that Trump was converting into a hotel. Trump had readily agreed to do the hour-long interview entirely on the record—a break from the editorial board’s usual custom of keeping its conversations with candidates private to maximize frank discussion as the board decided whom to endorse. In Trump’s case, no one on the board was kidding himself or herself about any chance that the Post, with its traditionally Democratic editorial page, would seriously consider backing a candidate whom its editorials had been blasting in unusually strong language, calling him a threat to American democracy. So the only value of the interview would be to see if the editors and columnists could press Trump on his more extreme statements and test whether he really knew his stuff.
The board members had discussed in advance a strategy designed to home in on Trump’s command of tough foreign policy issues, and to push him on why he chose to be so inflammatory. Now it was showtime. Trump walked in and extended his hand—doughy, with surprisingly rough skin—to each editor. This was perfectly ordinary for most visitors, but something new for Trump, who spent much of his life avoiding handshaking because, as he put it, “Guys come in, they have a bad cold, you shake their hands, you have a cold.” (Becoming a candidate required a change, he said, because people expect a handshake: “You know, it’s very rude if somebody comes and wants to shake and you won’t do it, so you do it, you shake it. I wash my hands as much as possible . . . and that’s not an insult to anybody, it’s a fact: you get germs on your hands and you catch colds.”) At the Post, Trump’s tone remained even and his sentences grew longer and more complex than they’d been in debates or TV appearances. But he would not be pushed. Six times, his questioners tried to get him to talk about whether police treat blacks more harshly than whites.
“You know, I feel very strongly about law enforcement,” Trump replied. “Law enforcement, it’s got to play a big role.”
Asked again if he believed there were racial disparities in law enforcement, Trump replied, “I’ve read where there are and I’ve read where there aren’t. I mean, I’ve read both. And, you know, I have no opinion on that.”
The conversation turned to Trump’s frequent incendiary comments at his rallies, urging security officers to remove protesters, commands such as “Knock the crap out of him.” Don’t such remarks condone violence?
“No, because what I am referring to is, we’ve had some very bad people come in. We had one guy . . . he had the voice . . . and I said, ‘Boy, I’d like to smash him.’ You know, I said that. I’d like to punch him. This guy was unbelievably loud. He had a voice like Pavarotti. I said if I was his manager, I would have made a lot of money for him, because he had the best voice. I mean, the guy was unbelievable, how loud he was.”
The news coming out of the meeting was about Trump saying that maybe the United States didn’t need to put so much money into NATO, the core of the European-American security alliance since the Cold War—the kind of statement that might win nods or applause at a rally, but sparked shock and ridicule in the corridors of think tanks and policy shops in Washington. Was Trump just winging it? Was he toying with the self-serious policy wonks? Or did he really have an informed, thought-out position?
“NATO was set up when we were a richer country,” Trump said. “We’re not a rich country. We’re borrowing, we’re borrowing all of this money.”
But you do know, editorial writer Charles Lane said, that South Korea and Japan pay half of the administrative cost of keeping the American military in those countries, right?
“Fifty percent?” Trump asked.
“Yeah,” Lane confirmed.
“Why isn’t it one hundred percent?”
Trump never sounded angry in the meeting. His face didn’t turn red the way it did in heated moments at debates. The editors who wanted more than anything else to figure out how much of Trump’s campaign manner was shtick and how much was real venom emerged thinking that they had seen the genuine Trump—a man certain of his views, hugely confident in his abilities, not terribly well informed, quick to take offense, and authentically perplexed by suspicions that he had motives other than making America great again.
A few weeks later, Trump would hire a new chief strategist, a seasoned Washington lobbyist named Paul Manafort, who would quickly assure the Republican National Committee that Trump was only playing a role on the campaign trail. “The part that he’s been playing is now evolving into the part that you’ve been expecting,” Manafort said. But Trump himself wasn’t buying that line, and neither were members of the Post’s editorial board. Strangely enough, the least presidential moments of the visit persuaded some of the Post’s editors that Trump wasn’t putting on an act for them. Fred Hiatt, the paper’s editorialpage editor, had to ask, How could a man running for president justify going on a nationally televised debate and talking about the size of his penis? “You are smart and you went to a good school,” the editor said. “Yet you are up there and talking about your hands and the size of your private parts.”
“No,” Trump said, Marco Rubio had brought up the issue of Trump’s hands. “He started it.”
“You chose to raise it,” said columnist Ruth Marcus.
“No, I chose to respond.” Trump stuck out his jaw. “I had no choice.”
“You chose to raise it during a debate,” Marcus persisted. “Can you explain why you had no choice?”
“I don’t want people to go around thinking that I have a problem.”
He started it. Like a schoolyard taunt. And Trump had reacted. He had no choice. He’d never been one to stand down in a battle, not as a kid in military school, and certainly not on the national stage. So, yes, he was a fighter, and a winner, he’d tell anyone who asked. But he was also loyal, respectful, chivalrous.
On the way out of the meeting, Trump stopped to shake hands with one of the editors, Karen Attiah, who had asked him a question about his divisive rhetoric and its impact on a country that is getting browner and blacker. “I really hope I answered your question,” Trump said. Then he smiled, looked directly at Attiah, and added, “Beautiful.” He wasn’t talking about her question.
Attiah didn’t respond. Astonished that a candidate for president would remark on her looks, she wasn’t angry, “just stunned,” she said. “He’d been charming, charismatic, not cagey or reluctant. I thought about what he said, and I remembered, this is the guy at the beauty pageants, who parades his wife and daughter around, who said if she wasn’t his daughter, he might be dating her. And I concluded, well, we got the full Trump experience.”
A few blocks away, at the sports arena where the Washington Wizards and Capitals play, thousands of Jewish activists gathered for Trump’s long-awaited speech to AIPAC on his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate. Dozens of rabbis and others had announced plans to boycott the event, both because Trump had pledged to be “neutral” in talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and because Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States struck many Jews as a frightening echo of the policies that their own parents and grandparents had faced in Europe. Even though Trump’s daughter Ivanka had married an Orthodox Jew and converted to Judaism, the candidate had alienated many Jews with comments at a Republican Jewish Coalition meeting where he said he might not win the support of many in the room because he did not want their money. Trump said he was best-positioned to get a Middle East peace deal because he’s a negotiator, “like you folks.”
So Trump had some repair work to do. He took no chances. Though he’d said that teleprompters should be banned on the campaign trail, he now used one, his eyes darting from one screen to the other. This time, he was squarely on Israel’s side. He railed against the Palestinians’ demonization of Jews. He reminded the crowd that he’d lent his personal jet to New York mayor Rudy Giuliani when he visited Israel weeks after the 9/11 attacks and that he’d been grand marshal of the Israel Parade in New York in 2004, at the height of violence in the Gaza Strip. He made sure everyone noted that Ivanka would soon give birth to a “beautiful Jewish baby.”
But before Trump’s speech won repeated standing ovations, at the start of his remarks, six rows from the stage, one rabbi wearing a Jewish prayer shawl stood up and shouted in solitary protest, “This man is wicked. He inspires racists and bigots. He encourages violence. Do not listen to him.” Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who leads an Orthodox congregation in Washington, did not rise out of any passion of the moment. He had wrestled with this decision for days. He consulted with his own mentor rabbi, with his lawyer, with his wife and seven children. He told his kids that he felt obliged to say something, “to say ‘we know who you are, we see through you.’ ” His children asked him not to stage his protest because he might get hurt, but Herzfeld concluded that he had no choice. He knew he would lose members of his synagogue (and he did). He knew he would be accused of taking an inappropriately political stance (and he was). But he had concluded that Trump posed “an existential threat to our country. I’ve never seen this type of political figure in my life. He’s shameless in inspiring violence. He used vile language about people from other countries. He’s opened a space for ugliness to come out of the shadows.”
Herzfeld was immediately ushered out of the arena and Trump continued speaking without incident. But the next day, AIPAC’s president, choking back tears, apologized for the Trump speech, saying that it had violated the group’s rules against personal attacks. Trump had been unusually restrained in his language, but he had called President Obama “maybe the worst thing to happen to Israel,” and he’d slipped an unscripted “Yeah!” into the part of his address in which he noted that Obama was in his final year in the White House. He could appear in presidential settings, but he was still Trump being Trump.
Indeed, the only appearance that day where Trump looked and sounded like the plain-speaking billionaire of the people that he’d been on the campaign trail—by turns playful, angry, passionate, persuasive—was a wholly different kind of event, a sales pitch at the ornate old post office building on Pennsylvania Avenue that he was rapidly transforming into the Trump International Hotel. An hour before Trump was to appear, the queue for media credentials to cover the event stretched around the block. A couple of hundred reporters showed up, and only maybe a handful of them had any interest in the renovation of a nineteenth-century federal office building into a luxury hotel five blocks from the White House. The bait was the chance to toss questions at Trump.
The ringing of hammers on steel and the whir of power tools sounded until just before Trump was due to appear. Then the men in hard hats and orange vests melted away, leaving only placid piano music, a striking departure from the aggressive, pulse-pumping playlists Trump deployed to amp crowds at his rallies. Trump’s motorcade arrived, two gleaming black SUVs preceded by four DC police squad cars and several motorcycle cops. Trump—followed by more than a dozen aides in dark suits, a rotund man in chef ’s whites, two construction workers, and lots of hotel executives—stepped into the atrium over a pathway of plywood and settled in front of two American flags. The hotel, he promised, would be “incredible, with beautiful marble from different parts of the world, with . . . I think it’s a great thing for the country, it’s a great thing for Washington.”
For forty minutes, reporters peppered Trump with questions, none of which had to do with the post office project. They wanted to talk, instead, about delegate counts, Middle East policy, NATO, violence at Trump rallies. Trump took all comers, then asked if anyone might like to see that great, great ballroom. A throbbing clot of reporters and camera people, a mass bristling with boom mics and cameras held aloft, squeezed through a doorway, surrounding Trump like amoebas. Trump seemed not to notice. He stopped, peered up the building’s Romanesque Revival exterior, and pointed: “That window is from 1880. Hard to believe, right? It’s special glass. It has a kind of patina.” Building materials weren’t what this crowd had come to study, but this was what he knew. This was where he lived. The rest of this—the throngs, the people chanting his name, the politics of the nation gone topsy-turvy—was all new and exciting, and unsettling, too. He was the front-runner now, and for his next act, some people told him he should be presidential, and yet he knew he would be what he’d always been.