Authors: Michael Wolff
Paul Manafort, the international lobbyist and political operative who Trump retained to run his campaign after Lewandowski was fired—and who agreed not to take a fee, amping up questions of quid pro quo—had spent thirty years representing dictators and corrupt despots, amassing millions of dollars in a money trail that had long caught the eye of U.S. investigators. What’s more, when he joined the campaign, he was being pursued, his every financial step documented, by the billionaire Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who claimed he stole $17 million from him in a crooked real estate scam.
For quite obvious reasons, no president before Trump and few politicians ever have come out of the real estate business: a lightly regulated market, based on substantial debt with exposure to frequent market fluctuations, it often depends on government favor, and is a preferred exchange currency for problem cash—money laundering. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Jared’s father Charlie, Trump’s sons Don Jr. and Eric, and his daughter Ivanka, as well as Trump himself, all supported their business enterprises to a greater or lesser extent working in the dubious limbo of international free cash flow and gray money. Charlie Kushner, to whose real estate business interests Trump’s son-in-law and most important aide was wholly tied, had already spent time in a federal prison for tax evasion, witness tampering, and making illegal campaign donations.
Modern politicians and their staffs perform their most consequential piece of opposition research on themselves. If the Trump team had vetted their candidate, they would have reasonably concluded that heightened ethical scrutiny could easily put them in jeopardy. But Trump pointedly performed no such effort. Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political adviser, explained to Steve Bannon that Trump’s psychic makeup made it impossible for him to take such a close look at himself. Nor could he tolerate knowing that somebody else would then know a lot about him—and therefore have something over him. And anyway, why
take such a close and potentially threatening look, because what were the chances of winning?
Not only did Trump disregard the potential conflicts of his business deals and real estate holdings, he audaciously refused to release his tax returns. Why should he if he wasn’t going to win?
What’s more, Trump refused to spend any time considering, however hypothetically, transition matters, saying it was “bad luck”—but really meaning it was a waste of time. Nor would he even remotely contemplate the issue of his holdings and conflicts.
He wasn’t going to win! Or losing was winning
Trump would be the most famous man in the world—a martyr to crooked Hillary Clinton.
His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared would have transformed themselves from relatively obscure rich kids into international celebrities and brand ambassadors.
Steve Bannon would become the de facto head of the Tea Party movement.
Kellyanne Conway would be a cable news star.
Reince Priebus and Katie Walsh would get their Republican Party back.
Melania Trump could return to inconspicuously lunching.
That was the trouble-free outcome they awaited on November 8, 2016. Losing would work out for everybody.
Shortly after eight o’clock that evening, when the unexpected trend—Trump might actually win—seemed confirmed, Don Jr. told a friend that his father, or DJT, as he called him, looked as if he had seen a ghost. Melania, to whom Donald Trump had made his solemn guarantee, was in tears—and not of joy.
There was, in the space of little more than an hour, in Steve Bannon’s not unamused observation, a befuddled Trump morphing into a disbelieving Trump and then into a quite horrified Trump. But still to come was the final transformation: suddenly, Donald Trump became a man who believed that he deserved to be and was wholly capable of being the president of the United States.
n the Saturday after the election, Donald Trump received a small group of well-wishers in his triplex apartment in Trump Tower. Even his close friends were still shocked and bewildered, and there was a dazed quality to the gathering. But Trump himself was mostly looking at the clock.
Rupert Murdoch, heretofore doubtlessly certain Trump was a charlatan and a fool, said he and his new wife, Jerry Hall, would pay a call on the president-elect. But Murdoch was late—quite late. Trump kept assuring his guests that Rupert was on his way, coming soon. When some of the guests made a move to leave, Trump cajoled them to stay a little longer.
You’ll want to stay to see Rupert
. (Or, one of the guests interpreted, you’ll want to stay to see Trump with Rupert.)
Murdoch, who, with his then wife, Wendi, had often socialized with Jared and Ivanka, in the past made little effort to hide his lack of interest in Trump. Murdoch’s fondness for Kushner created a curious piece of the power dynamic between Trump and his son-in-law, one that Kushner, with reasonable subtly, played to his advantage, often dropping Murdoch’s name into conversations with his father-in-law. When, in 2015, Ivanka Trump told Murdoch that her father really, truly was going to run for president, Murdoch dismissed the possibility out of hand.
But now, the new president-elect—after the most astonishing upset in American history—was on tenterhooks waiting for Murdoch. “He’s one of the greats,” he told his guests, becoming more agitated as he waited. “Really, he’s one of the greats, the last of the greats. You have to stay to see him.”
It was a matched set of odd reversals—an ironic symmetry. Trump, perhaps not yet appreciating the difference between becoming president and elevating his social standing, was trying mightily to curry favor with the previously disdainful media mogul. And Murdoch, finally arriving at the party he was in more than one way sorely late to, was as subdued and thrown as everyone else, and struggling to adjust his view of a man who, for more than a generation, had been at best a clown prince among the rich and famous.
* * *
Murdoch was hardly the only billionaire who had been dismissive of Trump. In the years before the election, Carl Icahn, whose friendship Trump often cited, and who Trump had suggested he’d appoint to high office, openly ridiculed his fellow billionaire (whom he said was not remotely a billionaire).
Few people who knew Trump had illusions about him. That was almost his appeal: he was what he was. Twinkle in his eye, larceny in his soul.
But now he was the president-elect. And that, in a reality jujitsu, changed everything. So say whatever you want about him, he had done this. Pulled the sword from the stone. That meant something.
The billionaires had to rethink. So did everyone in the Trump orbit. The campaign staff, now suddenly in a position to snag West Wing jobs—career- and history-making jobs—had to see this odd, difficult, even ridiculous, and, on the face of it, ill-equipped person in a new light. He had been elected president. So he was, as Kellyanne Conway liked to point out, by definition, presidential.
Still, nobody had yet seen him be presidential—that is, make a public
bow to political ritual and propriety. Or even to exercise some modest self-control.
Others were now recruited and, despite their obvious impressions of the man, agreed to sign on. Jim Mattis, a retired four-star general, one of the most respected commanders in the U.S. armed forces; Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil; Scott Pruitt and Betsy DeVos, Jeb Bush loyalists—all of them were now focused on the singular fact that while he might be a peculiar figure, even an absurd-seeming one, he had been elected president.
We can make this work, is what everybody in the Trump orbit was suddenly saying. Or, at the very least, this
In fact, up close, Trump was not the bombastic and pugilistic man who had stirred rabid crowds on the campaign trail. He was neither angry nor combative. He may have been the most threatening and frightening and menacing presidential candidate in modern history, but in person he could seem almost soothing. His extreme self-satisfaction rubbed off. Life was sunny. Trump was an optimist—at least about himself. He was charming and full of flattery; he focused on you. He was funny—self-deprecating even. And incredibly energetic—
Let’s do it
whatever it is,
let’s do it
. He wasn’t a tough guy. He was “a big warm-hearted monkey,” said Bannon, with rather faint praise.
PayPal cofounder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel—really the only significant Silicon Valley voice to support Trump—was warned by another billionaire and longtime Trump friend that Trump would, in an explosion of flattery, offer Thiel his undying friendship.
Everybody says you’re great, you and I are going to have an amazing working relationship, anything you want, call me and we’ll get it done!
Thiel was advised not to take Trump’s offer too seriously. But Thiel, who gave a speech supporting Trump at the Republican Convention in Cleveland, reported back that, even having been forewarned, he absolutely was certain of Trump’s sincerity when he said they’d be friends for life—only never to basically hear from him again or have his calls returned. Still, power provides its own excuses for social lapses. Other aspects of the Trump character were more problematic.
Almost all the professionals who were now set to join him were
coming face to face with the fact that it appeared he knew nothing. There was simply no subject, other than perhaps building construction, that he had substantially mastered. Everything with him was off the cuff. Whatever he knew he seemed to have learned an hour before—and that was mostly half-baked. But each member of the new Trump team was convincing him- or herself otherwise—because what did they know, the man had been elected president. He offered something, obviously. Indeed, while everybody in his rich-guy social circle knew about his wide-ranging ignorance—Trump, the businessman, could not even read a balance sheet, and Trump, who had campaigned on his deal-making skills, was, with his inattention to details, a terrible negotiator—they yet found him somehow
. That was the word. He was a force of personality. He could make you believe.
“Is Trump a good person, an intelligent person, a capable person?” asked Sam Nunberg, Trump’s longtime political aide. “I don’t even know. But I know he’s a star.”
Trying to explain Trump’s virtues and his attraction, Piers Morgan—the British newspaper man and ill-fated CNN anchor who had appeared on
and stayed a loyal Trump friend—said it was all in Trump’s book
The Art of the Deal
. Everything that made him Trump and that defined his savvy, energy, and charisma was there. If you wanted to know Trump, just read the book. But Trump had not written
The Art of the Deal
. His co-writer, Tony Schwartz, insisted that he had hardly contributed to it and might not even have read all of it. And that was perhaps the point. Trump was not a writer, he was a character—a protagonist and hero.
A pro wrestling fan who became a World Wrestling Entertainment supporter and personality (inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame), Trump lived, like Hulk Hogan, as a real-life fictional character. To the amusement of his friends, and unease of many of the people now preparing to work for him at the highest levels of the federal government, Trump often spoke of himself in the third person. Trump did this. The Trumpster did that. So powerful was this persona, or role, that he seemed reluctant, or unable, to give it up in favor of being president—or presidential.
However difficult he was, many of those now around him tried to
justify his behavior—tried to find an explanation for his success in it, to understand it as an advantage, not a limitation. For Steve Bannon, Trump’s unique political virtue was as an alpha male, maybe the last of the alpha males. A 1950s man, a Rat Pack type, a character out of
Trump’s understanding of his own essential nature was even more precise. Once, coming back on his plane with a billionaire friend who had brought along a foreign model, Trump, trying to move in on his friend’s date, urged a stop in Atlantic City. He would provide a tour of his casino. His friend assured the model that there was nothing to recommend Atlantic City. It was a place overrun by white trash.
“What is this ‘white trash’?” asked the model.
“They’re people just like me,” said Trump, “only they’re poor.”
He looked for a license not to conform, not to be respectable. It was something of an outlaw prescription for winning—and winning, however you won, was what it was all about.
Or, as his friends would observe, mindful themselves not to be taken in, he simply had no scruples. He was a rebel, a disruptor, and, living outside the rules, contemptuous of them. A close Trump friend who was also a good Bill Clinton friend found them eerily similar—except that Clinton had a respectable front and Trump did not.
One manifestation of this outlaw personality, for both Trump and Clinton, was their brand of womanizing—and indeed, harassing. Even among world-class womanizers and harassers, they seemed exceptionally free of doubt or hesitation.
Trump liked to say that one of the things that made life worth living was getting your friends’ wives into bed. In pursuing a friend’s wife, he would try to persuade the wife that her husband was perhaps not what she thought. Then he’d have his secretary ask the friend into his office; once the friend arrived, Trump would engage in what was, for him, more or less constant sexual banter.
Do you still like having sex with your wife? How often? You must have had a better fuck than your wife? Tell me about it. I have girls coming in from Los Angeles at three o’clock. We can go upstairs and have a great time. I promise . . .
And all the while, Trump would have his friend’s wife on the speakerphone, listening in.
Previous presidents, and not just Clinton, have of course lacked
scruples. What was, to many of the people who knew Trump well, much more confounding was that he had managed to win this election, and arrive at this ultimate accomplishment, wholly lacking what in some obvious sense must be the main requirement of the job, what neuroscientists would call executive function. He had somehow won the race for president, but his brain seemed incapable of performing what would be essential tasks in his new job. He had no ability to plan and organize and pay attention and switch focus; he had never been able to tailor his behavior to what the goals at hand reasonably required. On the most basic level, he simply could not link cause and effect.