This interview ran in the March 1990 issue of Playboy magazine.
Donald Trump sits alone. He hasn’t slept in 48 hours.
At six a.m., perched high in the bronze-coated jewel of his empire, Trump Tower, he’s bent over a mammoth Brazilian-rosewood desk, scrutinizing spread sheets. No insomnia, no gnawing worries.
“Pressure,” he surmises, sipping an iced Coke, “doesn’t upset my sleep,” a standard four hours nightly.
“I like throwing balls into the air–and I dream like a baby.”
Three hours later, blond hair marshaled, he announces, with standard chutzpah, his seven-and-a-half-billion-dollar bid to gobble down the nation’s premiere airline, American. On the strength of his $120-a-share bid, the stock vaults from $16 to $99. The 43-year-old billionaire, who owns huge blocks of American Airlines stock, smiles broadly.
A week later, with the market tumbling 190 points, he withdraws his offer, perhaps temporarily. Despite some reports that insinuated his American raid was only cardboard, a ploy to rattle up his stock, Trump stares into space:
“Nope. I want it.”
Yup. If it’s the best, and it’s for sale, Donald Trump’s stomach begins to growl.
He captured troubled Saudi financier Adnan Khashoggi’s onyx-and-gold-plated yacht for a mere $29,000,000–now it’s worth $100,000,000. Then he bought the Eastern Shuttle for $365,000,000 and transformed it overnight into the Trump Shuttle, complete with comfortable cabins and stewardesses rustling in virgin wool and pearls.
A year earlier, he had bought the Plaza Hotel for $400,000,000 and is now lovingly restoring her without a name change. Her make-over will be supervised by the Czech mistress of Trump’s kingdom, Ivana, a former Olympic skier and fashion model. At home, Ivana presides over a 100-room Trump Tower triplex, recently expanded from 50 rooms (“Better closet space,” she jokes). Trump, proud of the salmon-marbled atrium of Trump Tower, where no expense was spared, says, “I bought the whole damn mountain! You’ve never seen that color before. Ivana suggested it because it makes people look better.”
The couple also has a 47-room country house on ten acres in Greenwich, Connecticut, and the well-publicized 118-room Mar-a-Lago Marjorie Merriweather Post estate in Palm Beach, their commute time shortened by the 727 jet and the French-made military Puma helicopter.
The Trump Princess, or the Khashoggi “boat,” as Trump now calls it, has gotten cramped, so a Dutch shipyard is confecting not a Princess but a full-fledged Queen costing more than $175,000,000.
Such ostentation, despite a catalog of charities and good deeds done for sick kids, has predictably yielded a rich crop of snipers. Spy magazine, the New York–based humor monthly, cheerfully carries on a scabrous vendetta against the Trumps, comparing them to Dickensian monsters. Time did a cover story on the decay of Atlantic City and chided Trump for helping create a crime-plagued urban blight divided between welfare cases and high rollers. On the Upper West Side, Manhattanites attack him for his proclaimed desire to build an enormous complex, Trump City, complete with a 150-story sky-scraper; Phil Donahue charges that Trump’s casinos pillage the gullible; an aide close to outgoing mayor Ed Koch calls Trump “the most arrogant s.o.b. who has ever stepped onto the earth.”
Ah, well. To be young, blond and a billionaire.
It doesn’t seem to matter. The most daunting entrepreneur since the Astors, Vanderbilts and Whitneys, Donald John Trump has made his “art of the deal” work–not just for making money but for crushing adversaries, too.
Case in point: Merv Griffin. Ten months after Griffin bought Trump’s Resorts International Inc. for $365,000,000, for which Trump had paid $101,000,000 the year before, Griffin found himself holding a busted balloon. Not only had he inherited the hotel-casino’s. $925,000,000 debt but he embarrassingly had to report first-half losses of $46,600,000. There’s now talk of a possible bankruptcy for Merv and a possible lawsuit against Trump.
Looking beyond his one-billion-dollar Taj Mahal opening in Atlantic City next month, Trump has plenty to consider. There are rumors of his building casinos in Nevada and his buying Tiffany’s, NBC, the New York Daily News or the Waldorf Hotel (“I’ve got to have the Waldorf,” he coos jokingly into the phone. “I can’t sleep without it”). And the Presidency? No, that takes an election, and it is clear that Trump is not that patient. Too much to do!
The billion-dollar baby was born in the exclusive Jamaica Estates in Queens, New York, on June 14, 1946, to a mere millionaire, real-estate developer Fred Trump, who had racked up his $20,000,000 fortune building low-to-middle-priced homes and apartments in Brooklyn and Queens.
Among the five little Trumps, only Donald seemed to have a passion for mortar and bricks, riding around construction sites with his father–“who ruled all of us with a steel will”–and showing younger brother Robert, now a low-profile V.P. in the Trump organization, who was boss in their 23-room house.
At the age of eight, little Donald borrowed Robert’s cherished toy blocks, glued them together into one giant skyscraper and never returned them, thereafter exercising his fantasies about changing Manhattan’s skyline.
His father, who harped on the importance of “knowing how to make a buck,” regarded mop-haired Donald as “rough and wild,” shipped him off to the New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson and, some say, forever instilled in him a gnawing sense of inadequacy that fueled the boy’s ambition. There followed two years at Fordham and two years at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance, then a few years diddling in middle-income housing until, at the age of 28, Trump delivered the punch that launched him. Taking a hard look at Manhattan’s troubled fortunes, he fastened onto the bankruptcy of the Penn Central Railroad as his ticket into the big time and nimbly plucked options on Penn’s Hudson River railroad yards, now the site of New York’s Convention Center, and its 59-year-old Commodore Hotel, now the Grand Hyatt.
The coup was in his persuading bankers to lend him $80,000,000 and in talking politicians into awarding him a $120,000,000 tax abatement.
Persuasion, hype and chutzpah thereafter defined the Trump style, welded to a scrupulous management technique.
In 1979, at the age of 33, he snapped up the Fifth Avenue site of the old Bonwit Teller for $20,000,000, won a $140,000,000 tax abatement and three years later finished Trump Tower, a 68-story dazzler that includes a six-story atrium and today draws 100,000 visitors daily, with residents such as Johnny Carson and Steven Spielberg.
Amassing a fortune his father never dreamed possible–a cash hoard of $900,000,000, a geyser of $50,000,000 a week from his hotel-casinos, assets thought to total 3.7 billion dollars–Trump soon became as captivated by mystique-making as by money-making.
As the snooty ads running around New York proclaimed, “Everything does seem to be very Trump these days.” There are his residential buildings, Trump Parc and Trump Plaza and the soon-to-be-finished Trump Palace; Trump Castle in Atlantic City and the soon-to-be-finished Taj Mahal; his book “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” written with Tony Schwartz, which held on to the number-one spot, on the New York Times best-seller list longer than any business book since “Iacocca”; his high-rise board game named–you guessed it–Trump (reported to be a flop); his upcoming TV game show–you guessed it again–“Trump Card”; and the bike race named Tour de Trump, which, as he points out, sure beats its old name–Tour de Jersey. And–well–you get the picture.
“Vision is my best asset,” he says without a shred of modesty. “I know what sells and I know what people want.”
Along the way, Trump even found time to attend the 1976 Montreal Olympics, marry his match, Ivana Zelnicek (who has vowed never to look a day over 29), and produce his own little Trumps–Donald, Jr., 12, Ivanka, eight, and Eric, six.
Notwithstanding the good fortune that seems to have attended Trump’s business moves, he and his family have not escaped life’s darker side. While sisters Maryanne, a Federal judge in New Jersey, and Elizabeth, an administrative assistant for Chase Manhattan, have found their niches, Trump’s older brother, Fred, hated the real-estate business, became an airline pilot took to drink and died an alcoholic in 1981 at 43.
Trump was also recently shaken when, last October, three key executives died in a helicopter crash; the boss reportedly narrowly missed death, deciding at the last minute that he was too busy to travel. “I never realized,” says Trump today, “how deaths outside the family could have such a profound effect on me. It’s a tragic waste.” As for himself, he’s fatalistic: “I work, I don’t worry and I protect myself as well as anybody can. But ultimately we all end up going to hopefully greener pastures.”
To check out his present-day pastures, we sent New York Daily News celebrity interviewer and syndicated columnist Glenn Plaskin to talk with him. This interview had long been in the works, including two earlier starts. But Plaskin finally got Trump to sit down with him over a period of nearly 16 weeks. His report:
“For our first session at Trump Tower, after being visually frisked by a troop of basketball-player-tall bodyguards, I entered the inner sanctum. There was Donald Trump, as he would be for most of our sessions, slumped behind the cinnamon-colored desk, slung comically low in his chair, clipping his fingernails. ‘I think best this way,’ he’d deadpan.
"As the weeks went by, I found I liked, poking through the hooded dare-me eyes with rapid-fire changes of topic, watching for surprise. Often he parried with rehearsed answers, but we spent enough time together that we entered genuinely fresh territory. When I asked for his stand on abortion, he frowned, pouted and asked me to turn the recorder off. He didn’t really have an opinion–what the hell was mine? It was a very human moment.
"Supervising his office like an exceedingly well-run vaudeville show, executive assistant Norma Foerderer would wander in with another gold-framed magazine cover to put up on his wall–or with a seven-pound cheese-cake or a stuffed skunk. Trump would lake calls during our interview–never for more than a few minutes–that invariably ended with, 'OK, baby, you’re the greatest.’ Then secretary Rhona Graff would walk in, bearing little yellow slips of paper announcing calls waiting: down-on-his-luck financier Adnan Khashoggi, asking to have lunch; a hotel executive, dickering to sell yet another big hotel…. By the time Duchess Fergie called about borrowing his brand-new accident-proof helicopter, and Don Johnson to borrow his city-size yacht, I was dizzy.
"To get away from it all, we began our first session hovering above the East River in the cobalt Darth Vader helicopter. Donald Trump was strapped into taupe leather, good-naturedly hyping his empire below.”
You aren’t known for being shy at promotion; let’s start by playing a little game. Trump Tower is ______?
The finest residential building anywhere.
The Taj Mahal in Atlantic City is going to be ______?
The most spectacular hotel-casino anywhere in the world.
And the Trump Shuttle will be ______?
Easily the number-one service to Washington and Boston.
Your apartment sales are ______?
The best. Trump Tower and Trump Parc have seventy percent of the top sales in New York per square foot.
Simple: People know they’re going into a building where no expense is spared, where the level of materials and finishes will be the best, where the location will be the best. Many European and Japanese investors literally give their subordinates instructions to buy apartments only in Trump buildings. A Japanese investor just paid me twenty million bucks for seven apartments he’s turning into one.
OK. But here we are at the start of a new decade. How do you respond when people call you ostentatious, ego-ridden and a greedy symbol of the Eighties?
Rich men are less likely to like me, but the working man likes me because he knows I worked hard and didn’t inherit what I’ve built. Hey, I made it myself; I have a right to do what I want with it.
With so much poverty on the city streets, isn’t it embarrassing for you to flaunt your wealth?
There has always been a display of wealth and always will be, until the depression comes, which it always does. And let me tell you, a display is a good thing. It shows people that you can be successful. It can show you a way of life. Dynasty did it on TV. It’s very important that people aspire to be successful. The only way you can do it is if you look at somebody who is.
And for you, sitting snugly inside the one hundred and eighteen rooms of your Palm Beach mansion– People understand that the house in Florida is business. I use it very seldom. I could be happy living in a studio apartment.
Oh, come on.
I mean it; the houses, the planes and the boat are just investments. I paid twenty-nine million dollars for the Khashoggi yacht; two years later, I’ll be selling it for more than one hundred million dollars and getting a bigger one.
Why in the world do you need a bigger yacht?
I don’t. But the Khashoggi boat is worth more only if I sell it. This new one will–believe it or not–be even more spectacular and bring tremendous acclaim to Trump properties in Atlantic City.
What is it that attracts you to all this glitz?
I have glitzy casinos because people expect it; I’m not going to build the lobby of the IBM office building in Trump Castle. Glitz works in Atlantic City, and yet the Plaza Hotel has been brought back to its original elegance of 1907. So I don’t use glitz in all cases. And in my residential buildings, I sometimes use flash, which is a level below glitz.
Then what does all this–the yacht, the bronze tower, the casinos–really mean to you?
Props for the show.
And what is the show?
The show is “Trump” and it is sold-out performances everywhere. I’ve had fun doing it and will continue to have fun, and I think most people enjoy it.
Do you think the ones who hate it are jealous?
They could be whatever–but the vast majority dig it.
Calvin Klein, who doesn’t have a fraction of your wealth, has often said he feels guilty about his. Do you? It’s not overriding, but I do have it.
You don’t sound guilty at all.
I do have a feeling of guilt. I’m living well and like it, I know that many other people don’t live particularly well. I do have a social consciousness. I’m setting up a foundation; I give a lot of money away and I think people respect that. The fact that I built this large company by myself–working people respect that; but the people who are at high levels don’t like it. They’d like it for themselves.
Do you see yourself as greedy?
I don’t think I’m greedy. If I were, I wouldn’t give to charities. I run the Wollman Skating Rink in New York City for nothing and I gave away the royalties from my book. I give millions for charity each year. If I were really greedy….
You mean like Leona Helmsley, the convicted hotel queen?
Yes, like Leona Helmsley. She is a vicious, horrible woman who systematically destroyed the Helmsley name. I know Leona better than anybody does but Harry [Helmsley]. If Harry had one fault, it was giving her too much leeway.
When I was twenty, Harry was the big guy in town. I once drove my car down the street in Manhattan, saw him at a corner, stopped and introduced myself and offered him a ride. When I pulled over on the left side of the street, with traffic on the right, he asked me to get out of the car so he could get out on the left side. I thought to myself, This is a highly conservative guy. He never would have evaded taxes on his own. But Leona pushed and pushed him. He needed that money like you need fifty-six cents in your pockets, I’m telling you.
Also, Leona was not a great business-woman but a very bad one. She sold me the St. Moritz Hotel and a few years later, I made more than a hundred million dollars on it. She ran that hotel badly. She set the women’s movement back fifty years. She is a living nightmare, and to be married to her must be like living in hell.
Leona Helmsley set the women’s movement back fifty years. She is a living nightmare, and to be married to her must be like hell.
On the other hand, your wife, Ivana, is doing a great job running the Plaza, right?
Well, I have told Ivana, “Whatever Leona would do, do the opposite. [Laughs] Be nice to everybody.” And she is nice, anyway.
Was it simple greed with Leona?
Much more than greed. She’s out of her mind. Leona Helmsley is a truly evil human being. She treated employees worse than any human being I’ve ever witnessed and I’ve dealt with some of the toughest human beings alive
What do you do to stay in touch with your employees?
I inspect the Trump Tower atrium every morning. Walk into it … it’s perfect; everything shines. I go down and raise hell in a nice way all the time because I want everything to be absolutely immaculate. I’m totally hands-on. I get along great with porters and maids at the Plaza and the Grand Hyatt.
I’ve had bright people ask me why I talk to porters and maids. I can’t even believe that question. Those are the people who make it all work…. If they like me, they will work harder … and I pay well.
You lost some valued employees in a recent helicopter crash.
Yes. I lost not only brilliant, key players in my company but true friends–and I couldn’t believe it. At first, I was shocked, called their wives, just kept functioning…. My own sense of optimism and life was greatly diminished. I never realized how deaths outside the family could have such a profound effect on me.
What did you think when the shock wore off?
[Pauses] It’s a tragic waste. I was also angry in that it was an event that I didn’t want to happen. Here was this press conference, a very mediocre event announcing a minor boxing match. I told these guys that they didn’t need to go, but they wanted to be there…. They gave their lives for something so unimportant. It’s been a rough time. [Pauses]
What do you think of rich people in general?
Rich people are great survivors and, by nature, they fall into two categories–those who have inherited and those who’ve made it. Those who have inherited and chosen not to do anything are generally very timid, afraid of losing what they’ve got, and who can blame them? Others are great risk takers and produce a hell of a lot more or go bust.
As Merv Griffin did? After buying Resorts International from you, the company may be facing bankruptcy. What happened there?
Merv is a good guy who I have really just gotten to know; we were both judges on the Miss America Pageant after our deal. I don’t want to bug him, but prior to buying Resorts, he was telling everybody what a great deal he made and, by inference, what a bad deal Trump made.
But, in fact, you didn’t make such a bad deal.
Well, let’s just say he didn’t out-Trump Trump. He has a huge amount of debt. But he is very efficient and has very good PR people. Business Week wrote a story titled How Donald Taught Merv the Art of the Deal. I was angry. And equally angry when People and Time magazines, with no goddamned research and no knowledge, incompetently reported that Merv had bested Donald. Can you imagine? They didn’t do any research. They just listened to PR people. Well, now they know the truth and have asked about following up or correcting stories. I said, “Forget it–it doesn’t matter.”
What satisfaction, exactly, do you get out of doing a deal?
I love the creative process. I do what I do out of pure enjoyment. Hopefully, nobody does it better. There’s a beauty to making a great deal. It’s my canvas. And I like painting it.
I like the challenge and tell the story of the coal miner’s son. The coal miner gets black-lung disease, his son gets it, then his son . If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination–or whatever–to leave their mine. They don’t have “it.”
“It” is an ability to become an entrepreneur, a great athlete, a great writer. You’re either born with it or you’re not. Ability can be honed, perfected or neglected. The day Jack Nicklaus came into this world, he had more innate ability to play golf than anybody else.
You obviously have a lot of self-confidence. How do you use that in a business deal?
I believe in positive thinking, but I also believe in the power of negative thinking. You should prepare for the worst. If I’m doing a deal, I want to know how bad it’s going to be if everything doesn’t work rather than how good it’s going to be. I have a positive outlook, but I’m unfortunately also quite cynical. So if all the negatives happened, what would my strategy be? Would I want to be in that position? If I don’t, I don’t do the deal. My attitude is to focus on the down side because the up side will always take care of itself. If a deal is going to be great, it’s just a question of, How much am I going to make?
How far are you willing to push adversaries? I will demand anything I can get. When you’re doing business, you take people to the brink of breaking them without having them break, to the maximum point their heads can handle–without breaking them. That’s the sign of a good businessman: Somebody else would take them fifteen steps beyond their breaking point.
What if your pushing results in losing the deal?
Then I pushed him too far. I would have made a mistake. But I don’t. I push to the maximum of what he can stand and I get a better deal than he gets.
Another aspect of your deal making is how you handle the media. You managed to suppress an unflattering TV documentary about you funded by your archnemesis, [New York businessman and publisher] Leonard Stern. Do you also claim victory over him?
Total victory, yes. But I don’t want to dwell on triumph or defeat.
That may sound magnanimous, but, in fact, you’re known to exact revenge on people you think have tried to pull something on you.
I think I’m fair, not tough, in business. But if somebody is trying to do an injustice to me, I fight back harder than anybody I know. When somebody tries to harm you or your family, you have an absolute right to fight back.
Do you hate Stern?
No. Stern is a nonentity to me. He obviously dislikes me enough to spend close to a million dollars trying to make a negative documentary
You have a lot of enemies in New York City, among them a group that opposes your building a huge Trump City on the Hudson that will include the world’s tallest building–on the theory that it will ruin the West Side and cause unbearable congestion. What do you say to them?
Point one: There were more people living on the West Side of New York in the Forties than there are today. Very few people understand that. Point two: Trump City is going to be an architectural masterpiece. Point three: The city desperately needs the taxes, the housing and the shopping that will produce billions of dollars in revenue. Yet that community group [West Pride] fights every job.
Those people fight for the sake of fighting. I honestly believe that if I proposed an eighty-acre park, they would come out and fight me. Selfishly, they like what they have and don’t want to give it to anybody else. We need another Rockefeller Center–especially now that Mitsubishi has bought most of the one we had.
Among other things, West Pride claims the largest building in the world would cast a mammoth shadow across the West Side, blocking out light and wrecking the ambience of the neighborhood.
[Angrily] Every building casts a shadow, for God’s sake! I want this job to be dramatic. I strive for that. I don’t want it to be contextual, blending into everything else. It shouldn’t be like getting a haircut and telling the barber I don’t want anyone to know I’ve gotten one. I am competing here with the state of New Jersey, which is sucking the life-blood out of New York City. They’re beating us up. Trump City would take the play away from the development of the New Jersey waterfront. There will be nothing in New York to compete with Trump City!
So you’re going to build it, come what may?
I’ll build it, though it may not be now. I’ll wait until things get bad in the city, because every city in every nation has its ups and downs. If I had tried to get the zoning for Trump City in 1975, I would have gotten everything I wanted, because the city was absolutely at a low point. I may now wait for construction to stop, for interest rates to go up–then the city will desperately need Trump City.
You often say that the key to your success is being a good deal maker and a good manager. Why?
I’ve seen great deal makers go down the tubes because they haven’t known how to manage what they’ve had. Take [Saudi financier indicted for a felony] Adnan Khashoggi: He was a great deal maker but a bad businessman. Time will tell if Merv is a good manager. He is going to have to be.
When you were growing up in Queens, your father was supposedly a harsh taskmaster. It has been theorized that your father instilled in you a great sense of inadequacy. True?
That’s one hundred percent wrong. I was always very much accepted by my father. He adored Donald Trump and I’ve always known that. But I did want to prove to my father and other people that I had the ability to be successful on my own.
You’ve often said that your father made you work as a teenager and taught you the value of the buck.
My father never made me work. I liked to work during summers. I don’t understand these teenagers who sit home watching television all day. Where’s their appetite for competition? Working was in my genes.
Still, your father was one tough son of a bitch, wasn’t he?
He was a strong, strict father, a no-nonsense kind of guy, but he didn’t hit me. It wasn’t what he’d ever say to us, either. He ruled by demeanor, not the sword. And he never scared or intimidated me.
Your older brother, Fred, who died from heart failure brought on by acute alcoholism, had a more difficult time with him, didn’t he?
Take one environment and it will work completely differently on different children. Our family environment, the competitiveness, was a negative for Fred. It wasn’t easy for him being cast in a very tough environment, and I think it played havoc on him.
I was very close to him and it was very sad when he died … toughest situation I’ve had….
What did you learn from his experience?
[Pauses] Nobody has ever asked me that. But his death affected everything that has come after it…. I think constantly that I never really gave him thanks for it. He was the first Trump boy out there, and I subconsciously watched his moves.
And the lesson?
I saw people really taking advantage of Fred and the lesson I learned was always to keep up my guard one hundred percent, whereas he didn’t. He didn’t feel that there was really reason for that, which is a fatal mistake in life. People are too trusting. I’m a very untrusting guy. I study people all the time, automatically; it’s my way of life, for better or worse.
I am very skeptical about people; that’s self-preservation at work. I believe that, unfortunately, people are out for themselves. At this point, it’s to many people’s advantage to like me. Would the phone stop ringing, would these people kissing ass disappear if things were not going well?
I enjoy testing friendship…. Everything in life to me is a psychological game, a series of challenges you either meet or don’t. I am always testing people who work for me.
I will send people around to my buyers to test their honesty by offering them trips and other things. I’ve been surprised that some people least likely to accept a trip from a contractor did and some of the most likely did not. You can never tell until you test; the human species is interesting in that way. So to me, friendship can be really tested only in bad times.
I instinctively mistrust many people. It is not a negative in my life but a positive. Playboy wouldn’t be talking to me today if I weren’t a cynic. So I learned that from Fred, and I owe him a lot…. He could have ultimately been a happy guy, but things just went the unhappy way.
How large a role does pure ego play in your deal making and enjoyment of publicity?
Every successful person has a very large ego.
Every successful person? Mother Teresa? Jesus Christ?
Far greater egos than you will ever understand.
And the Pope?
Absolutely. Nothing wrong with ego. People need ego, whole nations need ego. I think our country needs more ego, because it is being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies; i.e., Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, etc. They have literally outegotized this country, because they rule the greatest money machine ever assembled and it’s sitting on our backs. Their products are better because they have so much subsidy.
We Americans are laughed at around the world for losing a hundred and fifty billion dollars year after year, for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about fifteen minutes if it weren’t for us. Our “allies” are making billions screwing us.
How do you feel about Japan’s economic pre-eminence?
Japan gets almost seventy percent of its oil from the Persian Gulf, relies on ships led back home by our destroyers, battleships, helicopters, frog men. Then the Japanese sail home, where they give the oil to fuel their factories so that they can knock the hell out of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford. Their openly screwing us is a disgrace. Why aren’t they paying us? The Japanese cajole us, they bow to us, they tell us how great we are and then they pick our pockets. We’re losing hundreds of billions of dollars a year while they laugh at our stupidity.
The Japanese have their great scientists making cars and VCRs and we have our great scientists making missiles so we can defend Japan. Why aren’t we being reimbursed for our costs? The Japanese double-screw the U.S., a real trick: First they take all our money with their consumer goods, then they put it back in buying all of Manhattan. So either way, we lose.
You’re opposed to Japanese buying real estate in the U.S.?
I have great respect for the Japanese people and list many of them as great friends. But, hey, if you want to open up a business in Japan, good luck. It’s virtually impossible. But the Japanese can buy our buildings, our Wall Street firms, and there’s virtually nothing to stop them. In fact, bidding on a building in New York is an act of futility, because the Japanese will pay more than it’s worth just to screw us. They want to own Manhattan.
Of course, I shouldn’t even be complaining about it, because I’m one of the big beneficiaries of it. If I ever wanted to sell any of my properties, I’d have a field day. But it’s an embarrassment, I give great credit to the Japanese and their leaders, because they have made our leaders look totally second rate.
A group of Japanese visitors to New York was recently asked if there were anything in the U.S. they would like to buy. The answer: towels.
That’s fair trade: They’ll take the towels and we’ll buy their cars. It doesn’t sound like a good deal to me. They have totally outsmarted the American politician; they have no respect for us, because they’re getting a free ride. Of course, it’s not just the Japanese or the Europeans–the Saudis, the Kuwaitis walk all over us.
The Arabs also spend plenty of money in your casinos, don’t they?
They lose a million, two million at the tables and they’re so happy because they had such a great weekend. If you lost a million dollars, you’d be sick for the rest of your life, maybe. They write me letters telling me what a wonderful time they had.
You have taken out full-page ads in several major newspapers that not only concern U.S. foreign trade but call for the death penalty, too. Why?
Because I hate seeing this country go to hell. We’re laughed at by the rest of the world. In order to bring law and order back into our cities, we need the death penalty and authority given back to the police. I got fifteen thousand positive letters on the death-penalty ad. I got ten negative or slightly negative ones.
You believe in an eye for an eye?
When a man or woman cold-bloodedly murders, he or she should pay. It sets an example. Nobody can make the argument that the death penalty isn’t a deterrent. Either it will be brought back swiftly or our society will rot away. It is rotting away.
For a man so concerned about our crumbling cities, some would say you’ve done little for crumbling Atlantic City besides pull fifty million dollars a week out of tourists’ pockets.
Elected officials have that responsibility. I would hate to think that people blame me for the problems of the world. Yet people come to me and say, “Why do you allow homelessness in the cities?” as if I control the situation. I am not somebody seeking office.
What about using your influence in Atlantic City to help the disadvantaged?
Everybody has influence, but it is a Governmental problem. I take out those ads to wake up the Government about how Japan and others are ripping our country apart—
Wait. Doesn’t it seem that with all your influence in Atlantic City you could do more to combat crime and corruption and put something back into the community?
Well, crime and prostitution go up, and Atlantic City administrations are into very deep trouble with the law, and there are lots of problems there, no question about it. But there is a tremendous amount of money going to housing from the profits of the casinos.
As somebody who runs hotels, all I can do, when you get right down to it, is run the best places, bring in as much money as possible, which in turn goes out for taxes. I contribute millions a year to various charities. Finally, by law, I’m not allowed to have Governmental influence; but if they passed legislation that allowed me to get more involved, I’d be very happy to do it. In the meantime, I have the most incredible hotels in the world in Atlantic City. The Taj Mahal will be beyond belief. And if I can awaken the government of Atlantic City, I have performed a great service.
We’ve talked about building low-income housing; what have you done about that in other locations?
I did that during the years I worked with my father; I did build both low-income housing and housing for the elderly. And now I’m going to be building more of it. The problem is, that stuff never gets written about.
On the other hand, you were invited to consider building a luxury hotel in Moscow a few years ago. What was your trip to Moscow like?
It was not long after the Korean plane was shot down over Russia. There I am up in my plane when my pilot announces, “We are now flying over the Soviet Union,” and I’m thinking to myself, What the hell am I doing here?
Then I look out the window and see two Russian fighter planes … I later found out, guiding us in. I had insisted on having two Russian colonels flying with me–I felt safer, and my pilot doesn’t speak great Russian, which is putting it mildly, and I didn’t want problems in radio communications.
Once you got to Moscow, how did the negotiations go?
I told them, “Guys, you have a basic problem. Far as real estate is concerned, it’s impossible to get title to Russian land, since the government owns it all. What kind of financing are you gonna get on a building where the land is owned by the goddamned motherland?”
They said, “No problem, Mr. Trump. We will work out lease arrangements.”
I said, “I want ownership, not leases.”
They came up with a solution: “Mr. Trump, we form a committee with ten people, of which seven are Russian and three are your representatives, and all disputes will be resolved in this manner.”
I thought to myself, Shit, seven to three–are we dealing in the world of the make-believe here or what?
When students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they horrible, but they put it down straight.
What were your other impressions of the Soviet Union?
I was very unimpressed. Their system is a disaster. What you will see there soon is a revolution; the signs are all there with the demonstrations and picketing. Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.
You mean firm hand as in China?
When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak … as being spit on by the rest of the world—
Why is Gorbachev not firm enough?
I predict he will be overthrown, because he has shown extraordinary weakness. Suddenly, for the first time ever, there are coal-miner strikes and brush fires everywhere–which will all ultimately lead to a violent revolution. Yet Gorbachev is getting credit for being a wonderful leader–and we should continue giving him credit, because he’s destroying the Soviet Union. But his giving an inch is going to end up costing him and all his friends what they most cherish–their jobs.
Besides the real-estate deal, you’ve met with top-level Soviet officials to negotiate potential business deals with them; how did they strike you?
Generally, these guys are much tougher and smarter than our representatives. We have people in this country just as smart, but unfortunately, they’re not elected officials. We’re still suffering from a loss of respect that goes back to the Carter Administration, when helicopters were crashing into one another in Iran.
That was Carter’s emblem. There he was, being carried off from a race, needing oxygen. I don’t want my President to be carried off a race course. I don’t want my President landing on Austrian soil and falling down the stairs of his airplane. Some of our Presidents have been incredible jerk-offs. We need to be tough.
A favorite word of yours, tough. How do you define it?
Tough is being mentally capable of winning battles against an opponent and doing it with a smile. Tough is winning systematically.
Sometimes you sound like a Presidential candidate stirring up the voters.
I don’t want the Presidency. I’m going to help a lot of people with my foundation–and for me, the grass isn’t always greener.
Well even if I ever ran for office, I’d do better as a Democrat than as a Republican—and that’s not because I’d be more liberal, because I’m conservative. But the working guy would elect me. He likes me.
But if the grass ever did look greener, which political party do you think you’d be more comfortable with?
Well, if I ever ran for office, I’d do better as a Democrat than as a Republican–and that’s not because I’d be more liberal, because I’m conservative. But the working guy would elect me. He likes me. When I walk down the street, those cabbies start yelling out their windows.
Another game: What’s the first thing President Trump would do upon entering the Oval Office?
Many things. A toughness of attitude would prevail. I’d throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country and on all Japanese products, and we’d have wonderful allies again.
Would you rescue our remaining hostages in Lebanon?
Number one, in almost all cases, the hostages were told by our Government not to be there. If a man decides to become a professor at Beirut University, when he was told not to be there, and that person is captured—
He deserves it?
You feel very bad for him, but you cannot base foreign policy on his capture. With that being said, when they killed our Colonel Higgins, I would have retaliated militarily immediately. I would have hit something vital to them. And hit it hard. In any other case, I would let the takers of hostages know that they’d have one week to return that hostage. And after that week, all bets would be off. You would not have any more hostages taken, believe me. Weakness always causes problems.
Do you think George Bush is soft?
I like George Bush very much and support him and always will. But I disagree with him when he talks of a kinder, gentler America. I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist. I think if we had people from the business community–the Carl Icahns, the Ross Perots–negotiating some of our foreign policy, we’d have respect around the world.
What would President Trump’s position on crime be? I see the values of this country in the way crime is tolerated, where people are virtually afraid to say “I want the death penalty.” Well, I want it. Where has this country gone when you’re not supposed to put in a grave the son of a bitch who robbed, beat, murdered and threw a ninety-year-old woman off the building? Where has this country gone?
What would be some of President Trump’s longer-term views of the future?
I think of the future, but I refuse to paint it. Anything can happen. But I often think of nuclear war.
I’ve always thought about the issue of nuclear war; it’s a very important element in my thought process. It’s the ultimate, the ultimate catastrophe, the biggest problem this world has, and nobody’s focusing on the nuts and bolts of it. It’s a little like sickness. People don’t believe they’re going to get sick until they do. Nobody wants to talk about it. I believe the greatest of all stupidities is people’s believing it will never happen, because everybody knows how destructive it will be, so nobody uses weapons. What bullshit.
Does any of that fuzzy thinking exist around the Trump office?
On a much lower level, I would never hire anybody who thinks that way, because he has absolutely no common sense. He’s living in a world of make-believe. It’s like thinking the Titantic can’t sink. Too many countries have nuclear weapons; nobody knows where they’re all pointed, what button it takes to launch them.
The bomb Harry Truman dropped on Hiroshima was a toy next to today’s. We have thousands of weapons pointed at us and nobody even knows if they’re going to go in the right direction. They’ve never really been tested. These jerks in charge don’t know how to paint a wall, and we’re relying on them to shoot nuclear missiles to Moscow. What happens if they don’t go there? What happens if our computer systems aren’t working? Nobody knows if this equipment works, and I’ve seen numerous reports lately stating that the probability is they don’t work. It’s a total mess.
And how would President Trump handle it?
He would believe very strongly in extreme military strength. He wouldn’t trust anyone. He wouldn’t trust the Russians; he wouldn’t trust our allies; he’d have a huge military arsenal, perfect it, understand it. Part of the problem is that we’re defending some of the wealthiest countries in the world for nothing…. We’re being laughed at around the world, defending Japan—
Wait. If you believe that the public shares these views, and that you could do the job, why not consider running for President?
I’d do the job as well as or better than anyone else. It’s my hope that George Bush can do a great job.
You categorically don’t want to be President?
I don’t want to be President. I’m one hundred percent sure. I’d change my mind only if I saw this country continue to go down the tubes.
More locally, one of your least favorite political figures was Mayor Ed Koch of New York. You two had a great time going after each other: He called you “piggy, piggy, piggy” and you called him “a moron.” Why do you suppose he lost the election?
He lost his touch for the people. He became arrogant. He not only discarded his friends but was a fool for brutally criticizing them. The corruption was merely a symptom of what had happened to him: He had become extremely nasty, mean-spirited and very vicious, an extremely disloyal human being.
When his friends like Bess Myerson and others were in trouble, he seemed to automatically abandon them, almost before finding out what they’d done wrong. He could think only about his own ass–not the city’s. That was dumb: The only one who didn’t know his administration was crumbling around him was him. Power corrupts.
You probably have more power than Koch did as mayor. And you’re getting more of it all the time. How about power’s corrupting you?
I think power sometimes corrupts–“sometimes” has to be added.
Also on the local scene, there’s a report that you wanted to be an owner of a New York–area baseball team in a proposed new baseball league–despite your bad experience as owner of the New Jersey Generals in the short-lived United States Football League.
That’s not true anymore. It’s not a passion of mine. The sports business is a lousy business. If a player gets hurt or doesn’t perform, he wants to get his money anyway; if he performs better than expected, he wants to renegotiate his contract. I like boxing better.
A clean, forthright sport. As one of Mike Tyson’s promoters, what can you tell us about him?
I know Mike better than anybody and have strong opinions, pro and con. But it’s too early for me to say. I understand his obsessions, everything. And no, I don’t begrudge Don King if he’s able to get Mike Tyson to sign a contract to the benefit of Don King.
You got to know him during his marriage to Robin Givens, didn’t you?
Yeah; I loved it when Robin said she didn’t want any money and then sued him. He won the case against her. She was killed when she started in with the law, when she filed for divorce. Historically, this has been the case with champions. The champ can do no wrong.
How is your marriage?
Just fine. Ivana is a very kind and good woman. I also think she has the instincts and drive of a good manager. She’s focused and she’s a perfectionist.
And as a wife, not a manager?
I never comment on romance…. She’s a great mother, a good woman who does a good job.
How did you feel when José Torres wrote his book, excerpted in Playboy, about Tyson’s sex life–the charges that he beat up women and had wild sexual escapades?
It’s unfortunate for one of the great fighters in history to have all this crap hanging over his head. Or for politicians, for that matter. We’re living in an age when there are no boundaries left, which is unfortunate for our country. The problem is, we’re going to lose good talent because somebody likes looking at pretty women or pretty men.
Somebody’s sex life may mean absolutely nothing to the job at hand, but when the written word gels out, we lose somebody good and the country goes to hell. I know politicians who love women who don’t even want to be known for that–because they might lose the gay vote. OK? If this is the kind of extreme we’re heading toward, we’re really in trouble.
What is marriage to you? Is it monogamous?
I don’t have to answer that. I never speak about my wife–which is one of the advantages of not being a politician. My marriage is and should be a personal thing.
I know politicians who love women who don’t even want to be known for that—because they might lose the gay vote. We’re really in trouble.
But you do enjoy flirtations?
I think any man enjoys flirtations, and if he said he didn’t, he’d be lying or he’d be a politician trying to get the extra four votes. I think everybody likes knowing he’s well responded to. Especially as you get into certain strata where there is an ego involved and a high level of success, it’s important. People really like the idea that other people respond well to them.
You and your wife are often a subject of very biting satire for magazines such as Spy, which calls you a “short-fingered vulgarian” and recently published a horrendous close-up photograph of your wife on its cover. How do you feel about that?
Ten years ago, bad publicity was much harder for me to take than it is now. It is almost irrelevant.
That’s all you can say about Spy?
It’s a piece of garbage.
We assume you take Forbes magazine more seriously; it claims you’re worth one point five billion dollars. But you say three point seven billion dollars. What’s the right figure?
I don’t say anything. Business Week and Fortune have numbers much higher than Forbes’s. I know many people on the Forbes list who shouldn’t be there. It’s a very inaccurate survey. Malcolm Forbes seems to keep me low. Business Week and Fortune don’t have boats and they couldn’t care less.
Speaking of Malcolm Forbes, why didn’t you accept his invitation to the Morocco bash?
I wish I could have gone, but I couldn’t because of a schedule conflict.
Would you spend three million dollars on a party for yourself?
It was a great investment for Malcolm. He got fifty million dollars’ worth of free publicity. I think he should do it every day of his life. That’s like people who can’t understand why I’m building an even more spectacular boat than the Trump Princess. It’s going to be world class, beyond belief.
Let’s talk about your main interest–buildings. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger of The New York Times hasn’t been kind to Trump buildings, panning them as garish and egotistical.
Paul Goldberger has extraordinarily bad taste. He reviews buildings that are failures and loves them. Paul suffers from one malady that I don’t believe is curable. As an architecture critic, you can’t afford the luxury of having bad taste.
The fact that he works for the Times, unfortunately, makes his taste important. And that’s why you see some monster buildings going up. If Paul left the Times or the Times left him, you would find that his opinion meant nothing.
But it’s not just the architecture critics who criticize you for stamping your name on everything you own. Are you going to continue doing that forever?
No. I own the Grand Hyatt Hotel; I don’t call it the Trump Hotel. I own the Plaza Hotel, not the Trump Plaza. But I will say that from a marketing point of view, putting my name on buildings is a plus. I’m now building Trump Palace and if I called it something else, I would get hundreds of dollars less per square foot. On the Trump Shuttle, I’ve owned it for six months and we are already taking over fifty percent of the market in Washington, Boston and New York. If I called it anything but the Trump Shuttle, it wouldn’t be nearly so successful. The Tour de Trump was actually going to be called the Tour de Jersey. We had four hundred and seventy-three reporters at a news conference for a damn bicycle race; how many would have been there for the Tour de Jersey? We would have gotten nowhere.
You’re involved in so many activities, deals, promotions–in the deep of the night, after the reporters all leave your conferences, are you ever satisfied with what you’ve accomplished?
I’m too superstitious to be satisfied. I don’t dwell on the past. People who do that go right down the tubes. I’m never self-satisfied. Life is what you do while you’re waiting to die. You know, it is all a rather sad situation.
Life? Or death?
Both. We’re here and we live our sixty, seventy or eighty years and we’re gone. You win, you win, and in the end, it doesn’t mean a hell of a lot. But it is something to do–to keep you interested.
Do you agree with the T-shirt that says, WHOEVER HAS THE MOST TOYS WINS?
Depends on your definition of winning. Some of my friends are unbelievably successful and miserable people. I truly believe that someone successful is never really happy, because dissatisfaction is what drives him. I’ve never met a successful person who wasn’t neurotic. It’s not a terrible thing … it’s controlled neuroses.
What do you mean?
Controlled neuroses means having a tremendous energy level, an abundance of discontent that often isn’t visible. It’s also not oversleeping. I don’t sleep more than four hours a night. I have friends who need twelve hours a night and I tell them they’re at a major disadvantage in terms of playing the game.
And when you’re up at night, you’re totally alone?
Yeah, yeah, because it’s a little tough to find anyone up at four in the morning.
You mentioned that you have to be born with “it.” Do you suppose your children inherited “it” from you?
Statistically, my children have a very bad shot. Children of successful people are generally very, very troubled, not successful. They don’t have the right shtick. You never know until they’re tested. But I do well with my children.
Do you think they will have to make it?
I would love them to be in business with me, but ninety-five percent of those children fail in a sophisticated big business. It takes confidence, intelligence, shtick. If any one of these traits is missing, you’re not going to make it.
You’ve always said that you earned, not inherited, your empire, that adversity and uphill struggles made you stronger. What kind of adversity can your children experience?
I’m a strong believer in genes, that my kids can be brought up without adversity and respond well if they have the genes. I have a friend who is extraordinarily smart. But he never became successful, because he couldn’t take pressure. He was buying a home and it was literally killing him–a man of forty with an I.Q. of probably a hundred and ninety. He called me one day for the umpteenth time, worrying about his mortgage and I was sitting in my chair, thinking to myself, Here I am, buying the shuttle, the Plaza Hotel, and I don’t lose an ounce of sleep over any of it. That’s lucky genes.
Even with good genes, how can your kids ever feel they’ve lived up to what you’ve accomplished?
I don’t know that they’ll have to. I would be happier if they were able to preserve rather than build. I’m not looking to have a great deal maker as a son, though I’d certainly like everything to run beautifully when I’m not around. I’d be happier if my son became a great manager rather than a great entrepreneur.
My kids are extremely well adjusted. But I wonder what they think when they walk into Mar-a-Lago and see ceilings that rise to heights that nobody’s ever seen before. And when my daughter’s date picks her up at Trump Tower in a few years and sees the living room, how will he feel when he takes her out and tries to impress her with a studio apartment?
Knowing all this, are you taking any precautions?
It’s somewhat late. And I don’t think a paper route would work. But my son works on the boat.
When you think about role models from history, what figures particularly inspired you?
I could say Winston Churchill, but … I’ve always thought that Louis B. Mayer led the ultimate life, that Flo Ziegfeld led the ultimate life, that men like Darryl Zanuck and Harry Cohn did some creative and beautiful things. The ultimate job for me would have been running MGM in the Thirties and Forties–pre-television.
There was incredible glamour and style in those days that’s gone now. And that’s when you could control situations. In those days, when your great actor was an alcoholic, and nobody ever found out–that was having tremendous control over things, which would be impossible today.
You talk about glamour and style being gone–but isn’t that what you tried to bring back to New York?
Yes, but not in show business, in my business. The Plaza Hotel is far more valuable than any movie I could make. If I put together a string of movies that were all hits, I couldn’t have made anywhere near what I made in real estate. I believe I’ve added show business to the real-estate business, and that’s been a positive for my properties and in my life.
So building that second huge yacht isn’t an act of gaudy excess but another act in the show?
Well, it draws people. It will be the eighth wonder of the world and will create an aura that seems to work. It will cost me two hundred million dollars. But I don’t need it! I could be very happy living in a one-bedroom apartment. I used to live that life. In the early Seventies, I lived in a studio apartment overlooking a water tank.
If you were starting over again, in what business would you choose to make your fortune?
Good question…. There’s something about mother earth that’s awfully good, and mother earth is still real estate. With the right financing, you’ve essentially invested no money. Publishing, movies, broadcasting are tougher, and there aren’t too many Rupert Murdochs, Si Newhouses, Robert Maxwells and Punch Sulzbergers. I’ll stick to real estate.
When someone tries to sucker-punch me, when they’re after my ass, I push back a hell of a lot harder than I was pushed in the first place.
What about the stock market?
It’s a crap shoot. Real estate is something solid. It’s brick, mortar.
Do you regret your statements to the press after the October 1987 crash, when you seemed to gloat about getting out in time when others were wiped out?
No. I didn’t gloat. Somebody reported that I was out of the market and I confirmed it. I don’t know if that’s talent or luck or instinct. I then went back into the market after the crash. I think the cash market is the great one right now–cash is king, and that’s one of the beauties of the casino business.
You seem very pleasant and charming during interviews, yet you talk constantly about toughness. Do you put on an act for us?
I think everybody has to have some kind of filtering system. I’m very fair and I have had the same people working for me for years. Rarely does anybody leave me. But when somebody tries to sucker-punch me, when they’re after my ass, I push back a hell of a lot harder than I was pushed in the first place. If somebody tries to push me around, he’s going to pay a price. Those people don’t come back for seconds. I don’t like being pushed around or taken advantage of. And that’s one of the problems with our country today. This country is being pushed around by everyone—
About your own toughness….
Well, as I said, I study people and in every negotiation, I weigh how tough I should appear. I can be a killer and a nice guy. You have to be everything. You have to be strong. You have to be sweet. You have to be ruthless. And I don’t think any of it can be learned. Either you have it or you don’t. And that is why most kids can get straight A’s in school but fail in life.
Is there a master plan to your deal making or is it all improvisational?
It’s much more improvisational than people might think.
As you continue to make more deals, as you accumulate more and more, there’s a central question that arises about Donald Trump: How much is enough?
As long as I enjoy what I’m doing without getting bored or tired … the sky’s the limit.