Authors: Mark Singer
Copyright Â© 2016 by Mark Singer
Foreword copyright Â© 2016 by David Remnick
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
“Madonna” originally appeared, in different form, in the May 19, 1997, issue of
The New Yorker
. It also appeared in Mark Singer's
first published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July 2005.
TIM DUGGAN BOOKS and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Singer, Mark, author.
Title: Trump and me / Mark Singer.
Description: First edition. | New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2016.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016021039| ISBN 9780451498595 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780451498601 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Trump, Donald, 1946â | Presidential candidatesâUnited StatesâBiography. | Trump, Donald, 1946âFriends and associates. | United StatesâPolitics and governmentâ2009â | Singer, Mark.
Classification: LCC E901.1.T78 S57 2016 | DDC 333.33092 [B]âdc23
LC record available at
Cover design by Christopher Brand
Cover illustration by Tom Bachtell, first published in
The New Yorker
For Ellen, the best
For decades, the problem posed by Donald Trump to writers, whether it was a daily tabloid reporter or a more high-minded scribe for what used to be known as “the qualities,” was that he was beyond parody. A man of rampaging ego, sufficient funds, and a neediness greater than that of an infant, Trump bestrode New York City, littering the press with one fantastical quotation after another. He was the reliable La Rochefoucauld of our city. But instead of “Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue,” we got “I have so many fabulous friends who happen to be gay, but I am a traditionalist.”
In the pages of the satirical magazine
or in the
Trump was, in the '80s and '90s and later, a constant. He would not have wanted it any other way. He was a real-estate marketer and he sold himself wherever he could: there he was in the corner for a World Wide Wrestling match, or humiliating wannabe Trumps on
or demeaning half the human race on
The Howard Stern Show.
This was a gentleman who went on the radio to say of his former wife, “Nice tits, no brains.” His vulgarity was unstoppable and without limit. He didn't much care if he came off as a little crude. He knew you couldn't resist listening. “You know,” he said, “it doesn't really matter what they write as long as you've got a young and beautiful piece of ass.”
Not only was Trump beyond insult or parody, he seemed a distinctly local product, like the smell of a Times Square subway platform in mid-August. In 1960, A. J. Liebling,
The New Yorker
's polymathic reporter of midcentury, set out for Louisiana to write about Governor Earl Long, Huey's more erratic brother, with a similar conviction that his subject was not for export. “Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly,” he wrote. “By the time they reach New York, they are like Golden Bantam that has been trucked up from Texasâstale and unprofitable.” This was the problem with Trump in reverse.
I suspect that these factors were at the root of my friend and colleague Mark Singer's initial reluctance to write about Donald Trump when, in 1996, his editor, Tina Brown, more or less commanded him to do so. I can vouch for the genuineness of Mark's initial reluctance. I have seen him when he is captivated by a subjectâa bank collapse in his home state of Oklahoma, the wonders of the magician and scholar Ricky Jayâbut he took a long time to warm to this one. But I am glad he felt the lash of editorial compulsion and moved ahead, if grudgingly, because, as it turned out, he provided us with the best, most insightful, and funniest portrait of Trump. Just as Liebling managed to make an export literary product out of half-mad Earl Long, so, too, did Singer find a way to write with freshness and wit about Trump. His profile is a classic of the form.
We just did not know that it would be of such value at this late date, for, as I write, Donald Trump is no longer interested merely in accruing another gold-plated tower in Manhattan; he intends to take occupancy of the White House. He intends to command the nation's armed forces and be in possession of its nuclear codes.
I'll never be sure, but I think I was in the room when Trump might have made his fateful determination to run for President. He had verbally and publically teased us with the idea for many years, but we always figured it was a publicity vehicle, like Trump Steaks. But I think at least some part of his decision to go forward was rooted in humiliation. At the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner, a springtime ritual of low moment, the press and the capital's politicians squeezed their egos into the biggest ballroom at the Hilton to preen, feed, and determine, yet again, who is funnier: the President of the United States or the hired-hand comedian invited to the dance.
That night President Obama, with the help of his speechwriters, decided the time was right to take off after Trump, who had been leading the effort to de-legitimize him by questioning his place of birth. Earlier in the week, the State of Hawaii had released Obama's “long-form” birth certificate, confirming, if anyone believed otherwise, that he had been born in a hospital in Honolulu. In his speech, Obama joked that he was now ready to go “a step further” and release his “birth video.” What the crowd at the Hilton saw was a clip from
The Lion King.
Obama knew that Trump was in the ballroom, seated at a table hosted by the
Company. The onslaught was prolonged.
“I know that he's taken some flack latelyâno one is prouder to put this birth-certificate matter to rest than The Donald,” Obama said, as many hundreds of eyes turned to Trump. “And that's because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter, like: Did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”
Trump's eyes narrowed. He clenched his jaw, pursed his lips. He was intensely displeased. Not for him the custom of smiling and taking it on the chin. This was easy to see. (I was just a couple of tables away.)
“All kidding aside, obviously, we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience,” Obama said, thrusting the shiv deeper. “For exampleâno, seriouslyâjust recently, in an episode of
at the steakhouse the men's cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around. But you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership. So ultimately you didn't blame Lil Jon or Meat Loaf. You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir!”
Seth Meyers, the comedian on duty that night, also came up with Trump material. His most memorable one-liner was: “Donald Trump has been saying he would run for President as a Republican. Which is surprising since I just assumed that he was running as a joke.”
Again, I cannot be sure that this was the decisive night that resentment and jealousy turned to determined planning. Trump has denied it. Besides, no one paid much attention. The Trump moment at the dinner was eclipsed within hours when Obama announced that a team of Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden.
This election season is surely the most preposterous and disheartening that we have experienced in decades. And Donald Trump's demagoguery, and his undeniable success in winning many more votes than anyone might have imagined, is the central reason. It is well worth going back to Mark Singer's profile to experience what it was to observe and think about the man when the stakes were so much lower and he was little more than my beloved city's semi-harmless buffoon.
It's the fall of 1996. I've been a staff writer at
The New Yorker
since 1974, I've worked for a number of editors, and at this point Tina Brown is the editor. Those proverbial tales of adversarial relationships between writers and editors?âI've managed to avoid all that. I like Tina. She and I have a clear working understanding. I've just spent four years writing a book that was supposed to have taken me a year and a half, during which I haven't been available to write many pieces for the magazine. So our understanding is that in Tina's office, in her desk, there is a special drawer. In that drawer is a jar. In that jar are my testicles.
One morning my phone ringsâTina: “Trump! Donald Trump! I've just had breakfast with him at the Plaza. You're going to write a profile of him. You're absolutely going to love him. He's totally full of shit, you'll love him! I've told him he'll love you. You're doing it!”
Which indicates that I am doing it.
I get to work. This takes several months. I go places with Trump. I try to understand his ways of doing businessâthe nuts and bolts, the smoke and mirrors. Early on, we reach our own working understanding: I tacitly accede to his assumption that I am his tool. It's Trump's world. I may watch and listen and occasionally ask questions. When permitted, I am a fly on a wall. Otherwise, as far as he's concerned, I don't really exist. This, by the way, I regard as optimal working conditions.
Unaccustomed though I am, I have to take Donald Trump seriously. Among other tasks, I must read many books with his name and photograph on the cover, ghostwritten books ostensibly composed by Trump. The overarching theme of this oeuvre would echo several years later, greatly amplified, in
We both know that you're a complete putz, but you're at least allowed to fantasize about what my life is like.
And that is in fact what I want to do. During our first encounter, in his office in Trump Tower, I grasp that, whoever or whatever I had previously imagined Trump to be, he is foremost a performance artist. Appearance is never not, at some level, artifice. My objective is to apprehend the person within the persona.
Many books and hundreds of articles have also been written about Trump, and I read those, too. There's no point in asking Trump questions he's answered in print already. Anyway, I can come up with a few new onesâsay, does Donald Trump have an interior life? No one's ever asked him that, I bet.
One Saturday in the winter of 1997, he and I spend a morning and afternoon one on one, touring construction projects, in Manhattan (office building) and north of New York City, in Westchester County (golf courses). He drives and I sit in the death seat, taking notes. As we cruise up I-684, I ask about his early-morning routines.
What time do you wake up?
What time do you arrive at your desk in the Trump Tower?
Seven or seven-thirty.
How do you spend your time before leaving for the office?
Reading the newspapers, etc.
“O.K.,” I say. “You're basically alone. Your wife is still asleep”âhe was then married, but not for much longer, to his second wife, Marla Maplesâ“you're in the bathroom shaving and you see yourself in the mirror. What are you thinking?”
From Trump, a look of incomprehension.
“I mean, are you looking at yourself and thinking, âWow. I'm Donald Trump'?”
Trump remains puzzled.
“O.K., I guess I'm asking, do you consider yourself ideal company?”
(At the time, I deemed Trump's reply unprintable. But that was then.)
“You really want to know what I consider ideal company?”
“A total piece of ass.”
On other occasions, for different reasons, I'm baffled by particular Trumpian locutions. He prefaces certain statements with “off-the-record but you can use it.” This makes as much sense as his taxonomy of the real estate he sells: “Luxury, Super Luxury, and Super Super Luxury.”
Spring arrives and the profile is almost finished. I have everything but an ending. I also have a deadline. Late on a Thursday night, I fax the storyâten thousand words, still no endingâto my editor. Ready for bed, I tap the clock radio on my night table, which is tuned to an all-news station. Top of the hour, the headline is: Donald Trump and Marla Maples are separating.
Inconveniently, I've seen none of this coming. Conveniently, my article has abruptly become timely. Trump agrees to meet with me in his office the following Monday, and my reward is an ending, an opening scene, and a crystalline certainty about his interior life. Given his domestic vicissitudes, is he happy? Regretful? Self-reflective? His demeanor gives away nothing. Previously, he's told me that in times of distress he confides in no one. Meanwhile, I've interviewed dozens of Trump associates and acquaintances, among them a securities analyst who observes, “Deep down, he wants to be Madonna.”
All of which informs my conclusion that he does not have an interior life. The penultimate line: “He had aspired to and achieved the ultimate luxury, an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”
Evidently, Trump does not appreciate what I've written. I don't hear from him directly, but he writes a spurned lover's complaint to Tina: “Don't ever ask me to do another story. You said, âIt will be great, you'll love it'âyou lied!” The nerve.
Later that year, I gain a finer appreciation of his feelings toward me. He publishes
Trump: The Art of the Comeback,
ghostwritten by Kate Bohner, and devotes a few pages to Tina and me. He recounts that, years earlier, when Tina was the editor of
she had assigned Marie Brenner (“an unattractive reporter”) to write about him. For whatever reason, Trump omits what he once told me about how he'd exacted revengeâby pouring red wine down Marie's dress at a charity dinner.
There I am on page 181, in the chapter “The Press and Other Germs.” (On the facing page is a photograph of Trump with Liberace, and the caption “Liberace was a great performer and a great man. We all miss him dearly.” How true.)
Tina Brown was at it again, asking me to agree to a profile. She is a very persuasive woman. She told me, “You will love the piece, you'll absolutely love it!”
After listening a while, I agreed. I thought, how many editors call someone for breakfast in order to convince him to do a story that they could write without him anyway?
The next day I got a call from
's reporter, Mark Singer. When he came into the office, I immediately sensed that he was not much of anything, nondescript, with a faint wiseguy sneer and some kind of chip on his shoulder.
Singer reminded me a bit of Harry Hurt, a guy who wrote an inaccurate book about me. While Singer was slightly more physically attractive than Harry Hurt (which, by the way, wasn't difficult), Singer had
written all over him.
Reading (and re-reading and re-reading!) this affirms, incontrovertibly, that my life has meaning. Other than the births of my children, nothing remotely this wonderful has ever happened. Should all else fall through or fade away, I will still have
Trump: The Art of the Comeback
Now it's 2005. I publish a book,
, that includes my reporting on Trump. In the Sunday
New York Times,
it's reviewed by Jeff MacGregor, who strikes me as a terrifically perceptive fellow, though he does have one quibble: “The only instance in which Singer throws and lands a sucker punch is in a 1997 profile of the pre-âApprentice' Donald Trump, in which his tone becomes a little arch. That Trump is already a caricature of a caricature makes him too easy a target, with neither the foot speed nor the wit to defend himself.”
Think again, MacGregor. Three weeks later, the
features a letter from Trump about this review. A few days before the letter's publication, I learn that it's coming and decide to check my sales on Amazon. Alas,
is No. 45,638 on the best-seller list. No matterâTrump's letter is sublimely deranged:
To the Editor:
I can remember when Tina Brown was in charge of
The New Yorker
and a writer named Mark Singer interviewed me for a profile. He was depressed. I was thinking, O.K., expect the worst. Not only was Tina Brown dragging
The New Yorker
to a new low, this writer was drowning in his own misery, which could only put me in a skeptical mood regarding the outcome of their combined interest in me. Misery begets misery, and they were a perfect example of this credo.
Jeff MacGregor, the reviewer of
a collection of Singer's
profiles, including the one about me, writes poorlyâ¦.Maybe he and Mark Singer belong together. Some people cast shadows, and other people choose to live in those shadows. To each his own. They are entitled to their choices.
Most writers want to be successful. Some writers even want to be good writers. I've read John Updike, I've read Orhan Pamuk, I've read Philip Roth. When Mark Singer enters their league, maybe I'll read one of his books. But it will be a long timeâhe was not born with great writing abilityâ¦Maybe he shouldâ¦try to develop himself into a world-class writer, as futile as that may be, instead of having to write about remarkable people who are clearly outside of his realm.
I've been a best-selling author for close to 20 years. Whether you like it or not, facts are facts. The highly respected Joe Queenan mentioned in his article “Ghosts in the Machine” (March 20) that I had produced “a steady stream of classics” with “stylistic seamlessness” and that the “voice” of my books remained noticeably constant to the point of being an “astonishing achievement.”
This was high praise coming from an accomplished writer. From losers like Jeff MacGregor, whom I have never met, or Mark Singer, I do not do nearly as well. But I'll gladly take Joe Queenan over Singer and MacGregor any day of the weekâit's a simple thing called talent!
I have no doubt that Singer's and MacGregor's books will do badlyâthey just don't have what it takes. Maybe someday they'll astonish us by writing something of consequence.
Within forty-eight hours, several fellow scribblers solicit advice on how to provoke Trump into attacking them, my book rockets to No. 385 on the Amazon list, and I hear my mother's voice reminding me to write a thank-you note. But I want to acknowledge my appreciation with more than a mere note. What should I send Trump? What does he like?
I decide to send him a thousand dollars.
Then it occurs to me that I don't have a thousand dollars. I come up with another figure.
Thank you so much for that wonderful letter to
The New York Times Book Review.
A number of friends have called or written to say that it's one of the funniest things they've read in a long time.
Though I'm sure that you, as an author, are aware that it's considered bad form to pay the people who review one's books, I nevertheless enclose a check for $37.82, a small token of my enormous gratitude. You're special to me.
Also, I enclose a couple of Band-Aids. Because you seem unable to stop picking at this particular scab, these should come in handy.
I suspect that's not going to be the end of it and, indeed, ten days later I receive an envelope embossed with the Trump Organization logo and return address. Inside is my letter. Trump has returned it, inscribed in thick black all-caps:
“MARK, YOU ARE A TOTAL LOSER! AND YOUR BOOK (AND WRITINGS) SUCKS! BEST WISHES, DONALD. P.S. AND I HEAR IT IS SELLING BADLY.”