Read Trump and Me Online

Authors: Mark Singer

Trump and Me (5 page)

A small convoy of limousines greeted us on the runway in Palm Beach, and during the ten-minute drive to Mar-a-Lago Trump waxed enthusiastic about a “spectacular, world-class” golf course he was planning to build on county-owned land directly opposite the airport. Trump, by the way, is a skilled golfer. A source extremely close to him—by which I mean off the record, but I can use it—told me that Claude Harmon, a former winner of the Masters tournament and for thirty-three years the club pro at Winged Foot, in Mamaroneck, New York, once described Donald as “the best weekend player” he'd ever seen.

The only formal event on Trump's agenda had already got under way. Annually, the publisher of
Forbes
invites eleven corporate potentates to Florida, where they spend a couple of nights aboard the company yacht, the
Highlander,
and, during the day, adroitly palpate each other's brains and size up each other's short games. A supplementary group of capital-gains-tax skeptics had been invited to a Friday-night banquet in the Mar-a-Lago ballroom. Trump arrived between the roast-duck appetizer and the roasted-portabello-mushroom salad and took his seat next to Malcolm S. (Steve) Forbes, Jr., the erstwhile Presidential candidate and the chief executive of
Forbes,
at a table that also included
les grands fromages
of Hertz, Merrill Lynch, the C.I.T. Group, and Countrywide Credit Industries. At an adjacent table, Marla Maples Trump, who had just returned from Shreveport, Louisiana, where she was rehearsing her role as co-host of the Miss U.S.A. pageant, discussed global politics and the sleeping habits of three-year-old Tiffany with the corporate chiefs and chief spouses of AT&T, Sprint, and Office Depot. During coffee, Donald assured everyone present that they were “very special” to him, that he wanted them to think of Mar-a-Lago as home, and that they were all welcome to drop by the spa the next day for a freebie.

Tony Senecal, a former mayor of Martinsburg, West Virginia, who now doubles as Trump's butler and Mar-a-Lago's resident historian, told me, “Some of the restoration work that's being done here is so subtle it's almost not Trump-like.” Subtlety, however, is not the dominant motif. Weary from handling Trump's legal work, Jay Goldberg used to retreat with his wife to Mar-a-Lago for a week each year. Never mind the tapestries, murals, frescoes, winged statuary, life-size portrait of Trump (titled
The Visionary
), bathtub-size flower-filled samovars, vaulted Corinthian colonnade, thirty-four-foot ceilings, blinding chandeliers, marquetry, overstuffed and gold-leaf-stamped everything else, Goldberg told me; what nudged him around the bend was a small piece of fruit.

“We were surrounded by a staff of twenty people,” he said, “including a footman. I didn't even know what that was. I thought maybe a chiropodist. Anyway, wherever I turned there was always a bowl of fresh fruit. So there I am, in our room, and I decide to step into the bathroom to take a leak. And on the way I grab a kumquat and eat it. Well, by the time I come out of the bathroom the
kumquat has been replaced
.”

As for the Mar-a-Lago spa, aerobic exercise is an activity Trump indulges in “as little as possible,” and he's therefore chosen not to micromanage its daily affairs. Instead, he brought in a Texas outfit called the Greenhouse Spa, proven specialists in mud wraps, manual lymphatic drainage, reflexology, shiatsu and Hawaiian hot-rock massage, loofah polishes, sea-salt rubs, aromatherapy, acupuncture, peat baths, and Japanese steeping-tub protocol. Evidently, Trump's philosophy of wellness is rooted in a belief that prolonged exposure to exceptionally attractive young female spa attendants will instill in the male clientele a will to live. Accordingly, he limits his role to a pocket veto of key hiring decisions. While giving me a tour of the main exercise room, where Tony Bennett, who does a couple of gigs at Mar-a-Lago each season and has been designated an “artist-in-residence,” was taking a brisk walk on a treadmill, Trump introduced me to “our resident physician, Dr. Ginger Lea Southall”—a recent chiropractic-college graduate. As Dr. Ginger, out of earshot, manipulated the sore back of a grateful member, I asked Trump where she had done her training. “I'm not sure,” he said. “Baywatch Medical School? Does that sound right? I'll tell you the truth. Once I saw Dr. Ginger's photograph, I didn't really need to look at her résumé or anyone else's. Are you asking, ‘Did we hire her because she'd trained at Mount Sinai for fifteen years?' The answer is no. And I'll tell you why: because by the time she's spent fifteen years at Mount Sinai, we don't want to look at her.”

• • •

My visit happened to coincide with the coldest weather of the winter, and this gave me a convenient excuse, at frequent intervals, to retreat to my thousand-dollar-a-night suite and huddle under the bedcovers in fetal position. Which is where I was around ten-thirty Saturday night, when I got a call from Tony Senecal, summoning me to the ballroom. The furnishings had been altered since the
Forbes
banquet the previous evening. Now there was just a row of armchairs in the center of the room and a couple of low tables, an arrangement that meant Donald and Marla were getting ready for a late dinner in front of the TV. They'd already been out to a movie with Eric and Tiffany and some friends and bodyguards, and now a theater-size screen had descended from the ceiling so that they could watch a pay-per-view telecast of a junior-welterweight-championship boxing match between Oscar De La Hoya and Miguel Angel Gonzalez.

Marla was eating something green, while Donald had ordered his favorite, meat loaf and mashed potatoes. “We have a chef who makes the greatest meat loaf in the world,” he said. “It's so great I told him to put it on the menu. So whenever we have it, half the people order it. But then afterward, if you ask them what they ate, they always deny it.”

Trump is not only a boxing fan but an occasional promoter, and big bouts are regularly staged at his hotels in Atlantic City. Whenever he shows up in person, he drops by to wish the fighters luck beforehand and is always accorded a warm welcome, with the exception of a chilly reception not long ago from the idiosyncratic Polish head-butter and rabbit-puncher Andrew Golota. This was just before Golota went out and pounded Riddick Bowe into retirement, only to get himself disqualified for a series of low blows that would've been perfectly legal in
Bloodsport.

“Golota's a killer,” Trump said admiringly. “A stone-cold killer.”

When I asked Marla how she felt about boxing, she said, “I enjoy it a lot, just as long as nobody gets hurt.”

• • •

When a call came a while back from Aleksandr Ivanovich Lebed, the retired general, amateur boxer, and restless pretender to the Presidency of Russia, explaining that he was headed to New York and wanted to arrange a meeting, Trump was pleased but not surprised. The list of superpower leaders and geopolitical strategists with whom Trump has engaged in frank and fruitful exchanges of viewpoints includes Mikhail Gorbachev, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff. (He's also pals with Sylvester Stallone and Clint Eastwood, men's men who enjoy international reputations for racking up massive body counts.) In 1987, fresh from his grandest public-relations coup—repairing in three and a half months, under budget and for no fee, the Wollman skating rink in Central Park, a job that the city of New York had spent six years and twelve million dollars bungling—Trump contemplated how, in a larger sphere, he could advertise himself as a doer and dealmaker. One stunt involved orchestrating an “invitation” from the federal government to examine the Williamsburg Bridge, which was falling apart. Trump had no real interest in the job, but by putting on a hard hat and taking a stroll on the bridge for the cameras he stoked the fantasy that he could rebuild the city's entire infrastructure. From there it was only a short leap to saving the planet. What if, say, a troublemaker like Muammar Qaddafi got his hands on a nuclear arsenal? Well, Trump declared, he stood ready to work with the leaders of the then Soviet Union to coordinate a formula for coping with Armageddon-minded lunatics.

The clear purpose of Lebed's trip to America, an unofficial visit that coincided with the second Clinton Inaugural, was to add some reassuring human texture to his image as a plainspoken tough guy. Simultaneously, his domestic political prospects could be enhanced if voters back home got the message that Western capitalists felt comfortable with him. Somewhere in Lebed's calculations was the understanding that, to the nouveau entrepreneurs of the freebooter's paradise that is now Russia, Trump looked and smelled like very old money.

Their rendezvous was scheduled for midmorning. Having enlisted as an interpreter Inga Bogutska, a receptionist whose father, by coincidence, was a Russian general, Trump decided to greet his visitor in the lobby. When it turned out that Lebed, en route from an audience with a group of
Times
editors and reporters, was running late, Trump occupied himself by practicing his golf swing and surveying the female pedestrians in the atrium. Finally, Lebed arrived, a middle-aged but ageless fellow with a weathered, fleshy face and hooded eyes, wearing a gray business suit and an impassive expression. After posing for a
Times
photographer, they rode an elevator to the twenty-sixth floor, and along the way Trump asked, “So, how is everything in New York?”

“Well, it's hard to give an assessment, but I think it is brilliant,” Lebed replied. He had a deep, bullfroggy voice, and his entourage of a half-dozen men included an interpreter, who rendered Inga Bogutska superfluous.

“Yes, it's been doing very well,” Trump agreed. “New York is on a very strong up. And we've been reading a lot of great things about this gentleman and his country.”

Inside his office, Trump immediately began sharing with Lebed some of his treasured possessions. “This is a shoe that was given to me by Shaquille O'Neal,” he said. “Basketball.
Shaquille O'Neal
. Seven feet three inches, I guess. This is his sneaker, the actual sneaker. In fact, he gave this to me after a game.”

“I've always said,” Lebed sagely observed, “that after size 45, which I wear, then you start wearing trunks on your feet.”

“That's true,” said Trump. He moved on to a replica of a Mike Tyson heavyweight-championship belt, followed by an Evander Holyfield glove. “He gave me this on my fiftieth birthday. And then he beat Tyson. I didn't know who to root for. And then, again, here is Shaquille O'Neal's shirt. Here, you might want to see this. This was part of an advertisement for Versace, the fashion designer. These are photographs of Madonna on the stairs at Mar-a-Lago, my house in Florida. And this photograph shows something that we just finished and are very proud of. It's a big hotel called Trump International. And it's been very successful. So we've had a lot of fun.”

Trump introduced Lebed to Howard Lorber, who had accompanied him a few months earlier on his journey to Moscow, where they looked at properties to which the Trump moniker might be appended. “Howard has major investments in Russia,” he told Lebed, but when Lorber itemized various ventures none seemed to ring a bell.

“See, they don't know you,” Trump told Lorber. “With all that investment, they don't know you. Trump they know.”

Some “poisonous people” at the
Times,
Lebed informed Trump, were “spreading some funny rumors that you are going to cram Moscow with casinos.”

Laughing, Trump said, “Is that right?”

“I told them that I know you build skyscrapers in New York. High-quality skyscrapers.”

“We are actually looking at something in Moscow right now, and it would be skyscrapers and hotels, not casinos. Only quality stuff. But thank you for defending me. I'll soon be going again to Moscow. We're looking at the Moskva Hotel. We're also looking at the Rossiya. That's a very big project; I think it's the largest hotel in the world. And we're working with the local government, the mayor of Moscow and the mayor's people. So far, they've been very responsive.”

LEBED:
“You must be a very confident person. You are building straight into the center.”

TRUMP:
“I always go into the center.”

LEBED:
“I hope I'm not offending by saying this, but I think you are a litmus testing paper. You are at the end of the edge. If Trump goes to Moscow, I think America will follow. So I consider these projects of yours to be very important. And I'd like to help you as best I can in putting your projects into life. I want to create a canal or riverbed for capital flow. I want to minimize the risks and get rid of situations where the entrepreneur has to try to hide his head between his shoulders. I told the
New York Times
I was talking to you because you are a professional—a high-level professional—and if you invest, you invest in real stuff. Serious, high-quality projects. And you deal with serious people. And I deem you to be a very serious person. That's why I'm meeting you.”

TRUMP:
“Well, that's very nice. Thank you very much. I have something for you. This is a little token of my respect. I hope you like it. This is a book called
The Art of the Deal,
which a lot of people have read. And if you read this book you'll know the art of the deal better than I do.”

The conversation turned to Lebed's lunch arrangements and travel logistics—“It's very tiring to meet so many people,” he confessed—and the dialogue began to feel stilted, as if Trump's limitations as a Kremlinologist had exhausted the potential topics. There was, however, one more subject he wanted to cover.

“Now, you were a boxer, right?” he said. “We have a lot of big matches at my hotels. We just had a match between Riddick Bowe and Andrew Golota, from Poland, who won the fight but was disqualified. He's actually a great fighter if he can ever get through a match without being disqualified. And, to me, you look tougher than Andrew Golota.”

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