I was inspired to write this piece after watching an intriguing Netflix documentary on Donald Trump. The intention was to write a short article, but the more I researched the topic, the more I discovered. Like many, I never took Trump seriously until he became the front-runner for the Republican Party. Even then I thought surely this guy couldn’t become President of the most powerful country on the planet?
Compared to the smooth, diplomatic, charismatic and intelligent Obama, Trump seemed brash, crude and with a limited understanding of the main political issues. How is it that the same country that elected Obama would elect Trump I asked? I knew it was a distinct possibility, however, as America had, after all, elected and re-elected George W Bush (Dubya).
My assessment of him as he won the Republican nomination and then campaigned for President was he would follow ‘Dubya’s’ template: he would struggle with the intricacies of domestic politics, of health, education and the economy, would find the job frustrating and would look for a war to improve his declining political ratings. Alas, defying the odds Trump was declared President in December 2016, being inaugurated in January 2017.
New York and the Early Days
Trump came to prominence in 1970’s New York (apparently a dark and difficult time for the city) when he purchased and renovated the iconic Commodore Hotel. He was ambitious and realised if he could complete the project successfully it would put him in the ‘big leagues’. The Mayor of New York at the time was a gentleman called Abe Beame, a friend of Trump’s father, Fred. According to one of Trump’s biographers, Beame described his relationship to the Trumps as ‘whatever my friends Fred and Donald want they get.’ Realising the city was in desperate need of investment Trump asked for an unprecedented and extraordinary 40-year tax abatement from the city. He got what he wanted but not without an act of deceit.
Whilst having the necessary connections Trump didn’t have much money at hand. He reached an option agreement with the bankrupt Penn Central, which owned the hotel, but couldn’t cover the $250,000 he needed to secure it. So, he cheated. He falsely announced to the press that the option had been agreed and tricked the city administration with a bureaucratic sleight of hand. When city officials asked for a copy of his agreement with Penn Central, he sent them the paperwork, minus the signatures that would have made it binding. This omission was either unnoticed or no-one cared because the bureaucracy moved forward as if the parties had signed and Trump had paid. The deception worked for Trump, but it may have cost the city millions as they had to forgo $4 million a year over a period of 40 years.
Even at this early stage, Trump began to show certain familiar traits. He was willing to do whatever it took to reach his goal, demonstrating a complete lack of honesty, integrity, and ethics in the process. He also showed little concern for the welfare of the people of New York whom he was willing to deny a significant amount in tax.
Trump was right that completing this project would take him into the ‘big league’. On the back of this success, he built his First Trump Tower also in New York. Although it was innovative and cutting edge in design, some who worked on it said the interiors were cheap and shoddy. The cement for the construction apparently came from Mafia sources. Once again, He requested a tax abatement, but on this occasion, he faced resistance from mayor Ed Koch who refused. Trump sued the city for the abatement and won.
During this period Trump’s lawyer was a man called Ray Cohn. Their relationship reveals much about Trump’s character and methods. Cohn was not only Trump’s lawyer but became a close friend and confidante. Some described Cohn as one of the most reviled men of the 20th century. Cohn showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear: attack, counter-attack and never apologise. Trump clearly remembered the lesson well as evidenced by his attacks on Barack Obama over his birth certificate, the parents of Hamayun Khan, Hilary Clinton, his fellow Republican nominees and many more.
Cohn gained notoriety in the 1950’s as Chief Counsel to Senator McCarthy and the brains behind his communist ‘witch-hunts’. In time he moved to New York and into law. He was very influential often using his political and media connections to assist his clients. His clients included the heads of the leading New York crime families. Trump would often remark ‘If anyone threatens me I get Ray on them’.
Cohn agreed to represent Trump and his father against Justice Department allegations that they had systematically discriminated against black people at their family owned or managed properties. Cohn decided to hit back hard while seeking to influence public opinion. The Trumps decided to countersue the government for a $100 million in damages for the Justice Departments ‘irresponsible and baseless allegations’. A federal judge dismissed the countersuit and two years later after a string of theatrics and hyperbole by Cohn Donald and his dad settled the case without admitting guilt. They signed a consent decree prohibiting them from ‘discriminating against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling.’ Following Cohn’s lead, Trump declared victory.
Having faced indictments for much of his career-which he often evaded through guile and his connections- Ray’s legal behaviour finally caught up with him. He was barred from legal practice by the New York supreme court for ‘dishonesty, fraud, deceit, and misrepresentation’.
Trump’s closeness to Ray Cohn demonstrates evidence of at least two themes that would recur throughout his life: racism and willingness to work with anyone (whatever their moral standing) to further his objectives. The fact that Trump is a racist is beyond doubt. Some people hold bigoted views but evolve, particularly as society evolves. This hasn’t been the case with Trump. His racism and bigotry have, in fact, have been a constant and recurring feature of his life as manifested in his attacks on Mexicans (calling them rapists,) his pronouncement that white extremists were ‘fine’ people, his ‘Muslim ban’, his attacks on London’s Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan. He has also retweeted videos from a proscribed racist/Islamophobic British group (Britain First) and made representations in favour of British fascist and convict Tommy Robinson. As President, Trump has created a genuinely hostile environment for minorities, empowered fascist and racist groups, and overseen an increase in hate crime against minorities.
Perhaps the most potent example of his racism was the case of the Central Park five. In 1989 a white female banker was brutally attacked, raped and left for dead in New York’s Central Park. That same night some youths from minority backgrounds engaged in some random criminality in the vicinity; hurling rocks at cars, assaulting and mugging passers-by. The police arrested five of them; four were black and one Latino: they came to be known as the Central Park Five (they were all minors). The police felt they had their suspects. The five later denied any involvement in criminality that evening and argued they were forced to confess by the police.
Given the race and social class of the victim New York erupted (The case of a black woman raped the same day in Brooklyn by two men who then threw her from the top of a four- storey building received scant media attention). Two weeks later before the Central Park, five had even come to trial Trump intervened. He took out advertising space in four of the city’s newspapers calling for them to be executed. All five minors had already been paraded in front of cameras and had their names and addresses published. Trump’s intervention exacerbated the death threats. One of them now in his 40’s relates;
” We were all afraid. Our families were afraid. Our loved ones were afraid. For us to walk around as if we had a target on our backs, that’s how things were.”
At the trial the following year all five pleaded not guilty. The prosecution’s case rested on their prior confessions. The eldest who was 16 was sentenced as an adult. They all received sentences of between 5-15 years. One of their lawyers had no doubt that Trump’s intervention helped secure a conviction.
In 2002, a violent serial rapist and murderer already serving a life sentence came forward and confessed to the rape. DNA evidence proved it was him. Trump got his wish the death penalty was reinstated in New York in 1995 at a significant cost to the state. It was subsequently abolished in 2007 without a single execution during this period. Trump never apologised.
Trump prides himself on his business record and used this as a platform to launch his Presidential bid. As noted above after doing well in construction projects in New York Trump decided to foray into the Casino business. After enjoying some early success in this arena, he decided (apparently against his father’s advice) to develop a truly grand and opulent casino in Atlantic City called the Taj Mahal. The cost to build this casino according to some estimates was close to $1billion. Turned down for finance by big named banks Trump decided to find the necessary funds by selling junk bonds at an interest rate of 14%. Just when there was an expectation that Trump would consolidate his businesses and focus on the Taj he recklessly launched other ventures. A short while later the value of his junk bonds tanked, and Wall Street firms such as Salomon Brothers put “sell” recommendations on them. Many who had purchased Trump’s bonds on his assurances lost fortunes.
During this period there was an episode that showed another familiar Trump characteristic: His vindictiveness and aversion to criticism. In 1990, a little-known analyst Marvin Roffman, specialising in appraising the financial prospects of the Atlantic City gaming industry argued that the Taj Mahal would ultimately flop stating that ‘once the cold winds blow from October to February, it won’t make it,’ ‘The market just isn’t there.’ Trump threatened his company with a lawsuit and had him fired.
Lo and Behold in November of that year-a month after Roffman predicted-the Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy. Soon the entire Trump Casino Empire tumbled into the bankruptcy court. The Taj Mahal’s misfortune alone led to the loss of approximately 11,000 jobs. Many creditors lost their money and in the five years following the collapse of Trump’s Casino Empire the city’s tax revenue apparently fell by 70%. In other words, Trump left a complete wreckage in Atlantic City. He himself, however, came out relatively unscathed and even boasted of making money from the calamity. Far from having the ‘Midas touch’, he claims for long periods almost everything that Trump touched became a disaster even if he personally made money from them. Some were nothing short of a scam.
He apparently played a pivotal role in the collapse of the United States Football League after he wasn’t allowed to buy a team in the NFL. In 2004, he also decided to launch Trump University, a for-profit education company that collapsed amid allegations it had defrauded thousands of people. There were also allegedly many housing developments to which he lent the Trump name, people invested, he made his cut then the developments weren’t built. Trump claimed innocence; after all, it wasn’t him who was responsible for the construction of the developments. At one-point Trump’s debts were in the billions, and many creditors refused to business with him (this may have compelled him to seek more murkier sources of funding: see Russia section below). It was his foray into television and the Apprentice from 2004 onwards that may have saved him and the Trump brand.
Trump’s business record-despite having a clear head start due to his father’s wealth and connections-is at best patchy, at worst it’s a complete disaster. The popular journal Newsweek argues ‘He’d have done better if he’d never gone into business’. In 1982, Trump reported to New York regulators a personal net worth of $321 Million (money that came mainly from his father and loans). If ‘Trump had never done any deals and instead sold all of his assets back in 1982 and invested them in a fund based on the Standard & Poor’s 500 index he would be worth more than $13 billion (by 2016) nearly three times what Forbes estimated his wealth to be’. To quote:
“In other words, if the Republican nominee had done nothing but mow his lawn for the past 35 years, he would be a dramatically wealthier man than he is today. The huge bonus in that scenario: Thousands of people would not have been ridiculed, ripped off or otherwise have suffered from encounters with Donald J. Trump”
“Trump’s career has been much of the same kind of scam. He demands applause and annihilates those who refuse to give it. He preens about successes he obtained only by destroying the wealth, careers and reputations of other people. He takes credit for the victories of others and denies any blame for his many failures. In his impulsive pursuit of self- aggrandizement, his victims are legion.”
Perhaps Marco Rubio was right when he said if it wasn’t for his father’s inheritance Trump would be selling watches. It is also worth noting that unlike other prominent Billionaires such as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg Trump has virtually no history of philanthropy; speaking volumes about his character.
Trump’s private life also sheds light on his character and is no less controversial (if not more so). In some respects, Trump’s private life is typical of some wealthy men. He has had three wives and five kids. However, once again there is a track record of dishonesty, cheating and at times flagrant disrespect to his partners. When married to Ivana, for instance, he began an affair with Marla Maples. He would often parade Marla openly to his friends and business associates. On at least two occasions Marla was in the same vicinity or the same event with Trump and Ivana. He was effectively making a mockery of his wife. He would also cheat on Marla apparently with Carla Bruni (later to become the wife of French President Nicholas Sarkozy). Melania is his third wife.
He has cheated on Melania as well in often scandalous fashion. He had an affair with adult entertainer Stormy Daniels and playboy model Karen Mcdougal. Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen allegedly paid both ‘hush’ money to keep these affairs from going public during his presidential campaign. These transactions are being investigated by US attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York as they may have violated campaign finance laws.
There is more. At least 16 women have accused Trump of varying inappropriate behaviour including allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. His first wife Ivana accused him of marital rape in their divorce litigation an allegation she apparently later retracted. Given, Trump is on video talking about trying to kiss a married woman and commenting ‘when you’re a star they (women) let you do it. You can do anything. Whatever you want. Grab them by the p****y’ it is very likely that at least some of these allegations are true.
There are further even more disturbing allegations. Trump was known to attend the parties of billionaire and known paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. A woman called Katie Johnson says that one of these parties Trump took her virginity when she was only 13! and being held by Epstein as a slave. She alleges that Trump and Epstein threatened her and her family with physical harm if she did not meet their disgusting demands.
The picture one gets of Trump from his personal life is of a man who is arrogant, entitled, hugely disrespectful, a misogynist, a cheat, who has no respect for the sanctity of marriage and has no moral boundaries or limits. Stormy Daniels, for example, relates that on one occasion before sexual intercourse he said to ‘you remind me of my daughter (Ivanka).’
Trump’s relationship with Russia and Vladimir Putin has taken up many a column inch. With what we know so far Trump’s dealing with Russia appear to be far from innocent. So, what has been established to date? We know that the Russian’s meddled in the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favour. Russia’s intervention was so worrying it gained the interest of the FBI which in 2017 led to the former director of the FBI Robert Mueller being appointed Special Counsel to investigate possible collusion between Russia and the Trump Campaign.
As of mid-July 2018, Robert Mueller’s investigation had either indicted or obtained guilty pleas from 32 people and 3 Russian companies. These include four former Trump advisers, 26 Russians, one California man, and a London based lawyer. Five of these (including three former Trump aides) have already pleaded guilty. Michael Flynn, a former general and NSA adviser to Trump plead guilty to lying to FBI about his contacts with Russia and agreed to cooperate with Mueller. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, is facing charges that include money laundering, failing to register as a foreign agent, bank fraud and filing false tax returns. In June a judge revoked Manafort’s bail and sent him to jail to await trial, citing new charges that he sought to the influence the testimony of two government witnesses.
Trump first traveled to what was then the USSR in 1987. Jonathan Chait, a writer for the New York magazine, has written a plausible piece raising the possibility that Trump may have been a Russian intelligence asset from this period onwards. The British newspaper The Financial Times (FT) carried out a 10-month investigation into the funding of Trump Tower Toronto. Having examined legal documents, signed statements and interviews with people who were knowledgeable about the project the FT found the ‘venture connects Trump with a shadowy post-Soviet world where politics and personal enrichment merge’. Trump apparently carries out no due diligence on funding for his projects. Some of the money flows according to the FT:
“Raise questions about Trump’s vulnerability to undue influence now that he is in the White House. These include evidence that Trump’s billionaire partner in the Toronto project authorised a secret $100 million payment to a Moscow-based fixer representing Kremlin- backed investors. That payment was part of a series that generated millions for the backers of the Toronto venture-a project that in turn made millions for the future President.”
As President Trump has certainly pursued an agenda with which the Russians would be very happy. He has called for Russia to be allowed back into the G7 (even though they were barred for good reason; invading the Crimea). He has upset the United States traditional allies like the EU and Canada, put pressure on NATO allies and has even gone as far as suggesting he may leave NATO; an outcome the Russian’s would love. He supports the British exit (Brexit) from the European Union something the Russian’s have also allegedly worked towards in a similarly underhand way to helping his election. He has introduced unilateral and perhaps ill-advised tariffs against the United States traditional allies.
In a recent meeting with Putin in Helsinki, he suspiciously held an approximately two-hour one on one meeting with Putin (except for him and Putin only translators were present). At the press conference after the summit, he was extraordinarily subservient towards Putin. His performance at the press conference stunned many in the US, including fellow Republicans and was even described in some quarters as ‘treasonous’. Given Trump’s complex and multi-faceted links with Russia and Russian individuals going back to the 1980’s (and Vladimir Putin’s background in intelligence) it is a safe assumption that at the very least the Russians have some leverage and/or Kompromat on Trump.
His friend and associate Jesse Ventura (the former wrestler) inspired Trump’s interest in political office when he ran successfully as reform party for Governor of Minnesota in 1999. Trump went to visit his friend in Minnesota to understand his electoral strategy. One of Ventura associates recollects Trump wasn’t very interested in the core issues just how they won. Ventura and his campaign manager explained to Trump in detail their anti-establishment, anti-media, anti-career politician strategy. Trump clearly absorbed their advice. In October of that year, Trump launched a bid to challenge Pat Buchanan for the Reform Party Presidential nomination. His bid saw him deploy familiar tactics where ironically and absurdly he accused Buchanan of being a racist. A few months later Trump abandoned his bid for the Reform party nomination.
In 2011 he once again dabbled into politics when Barack Obama announced he was running for re-election. Trump picked up on the ‘birther’ (whether Obama was born in the United States) controversy and used that repeatedly despite its obvious racial connotations against Obama. This ironically helped Trump’s popularity. Obama was to get his revenge however after he invited Trump to the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. Obama’s witty roasting of Trump humiliated him. The following month Trump said he would not be joining the candidates seeking the Republican nomination. Some say it may all have been a publicity stunt to further the Trump brand.
In June 2015 he entered the bid to be the Republican nominee presenting himself much like his friend Jesse Ventura as the Anti-Establishment ‘outsider’. Much to many people’s surprise and after a nasty and personal campaign (which saw many of Trump’s familiar attacks on his opponents) he won the Republican candidature. In a similarly ugly back and forth with Hilary Clinton-and despite her receiving more of the popular vote-he became the 45th President of the United States in November 2016.
To conclude what are to make of Donald Trump from this survey of his life and career? There is no denying his drive, determination, ambition, tenacity, and self-belief. However, he is also a congenital liar, a misogynist, unethical, insecure, a racist, hugely egotistical, arrogant, petty, vindictive and a narcissist. Like all narcissist he struggles to handle criticism; he is the archetypal ‘con artist.’ He has throughout his life shown a willingness to work with anyone (no matter what their moral standing) to further his goals, unprincipled opportunism and at times extraordinary recklessness. He has very likely committed sexual assault and maybe engaged in paedophilia. In his attacks on the likes of the Central Park five and his political opponents, he has demonstrated a willingness to ruin people’s lives or their reputations to achieve his objectives.
If the American dream is to lie, cheat and bully one’s way to the top then that is indeed what Trump embodies. However, dreams can also just as easily become nightmares, and in choosing Trump as President, America may have made a decision that it long regrets.
By Faisal Khan
1. We would see similar bluster and trickery from Trump many years later when as President he would meet with North Korean leader. After the summit, Trump announced a historic deal which entailed North Korean de- nuclearization. At the time of writing, it seems the North Koreans didn’t quite see it like that (to put it mildly).
2 ‘The Trump Files: How Donald Tricked New York Into Giving him his First Huge Deal’ Mother Jones (July 11th, 2016)
3 ‘The man who showed Donald Trump how to exploit power and instil fear’. The Washington Post (June 17 th , 2016)
4 ‘A mentor in shamelessness: the man who taught Trump the power of publicity’ The Guardian (20 th April, 2016)
5 ‘Donald Trump and the Central Park Five: the racially charged rise of a demagogue.’ (The Guardian 17th February 2016)
6 ‘Donald Trump and the Central Park…..’
7 Much of this section draws on ‘A people’s History of Donald Trump’s busts and countless victims’ (Newsweek October 18, 2016).
8 Both quotes from ‘A people’s History…’
9 ‘Will Trump be meeting with his counterpart or his handler? A plausible theory of mind-boggling collusion.’ New York Magazine (8 th July 2018)
10 ‘Tower of secrets: the Russian money behind a Donald Trump skyscraper.’ The Financial Times (11th July, 2018)