If you want to understand how Donald Trump became Donald Trump, you could do worse than talk to the reporter who's been following him since he was an eager-to-charm young man in a "modest" apartment.
In the late 1970s, when Trump was a hotshot young real estate developer trying to make his mark on New York City, Wayne Barrett was a hotshot young Village Voice reporter trying to do the same thing. Trump invited Barrett to his Fifth Avenue apartment.
"It was ... beige," Barrett recalls. "And it was a very simple apartment. I think it was just a couple of rooms."
Their relationship deteriorated shortly thereafter, when Barrett published an in-depth examination into Trump's business practices — which ultimately led to Trump's first federal grand jury investigation.
Barrett has been circling Trump ever since. It would be an overstatement to say that their destinies have been intertwined — but not a huge one.
Barrett's 1992 book, Trump: The Deals and the Downfall, is the gold standard account of Trump's first act in real estate and business. The out-of-print book is currently going for more than $80 on Amazon; the publisher has rushed out a Kindle edition with a new introduction, Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Deals, The Downfall, the Reinvention, to cover Trump's presidential campaign.
Vox talked to Barrett in May to get the insider's view: What made Trump Trump?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Dara Lind: Trump seems to have a kind of co-dependent relationship with the press: There's resentment, but there's also constant approval seeking. Do you recognize that Donald Trump?
Wayne Barrett: He was extremely chummy with me at the start. He was the one who called me. I was on the reporting trail about him, and he found out that I was. And he reached out to me, "Wayne, we gotta get together, we gotta meet," very chummy with me. The minute you put any tough material in front of him, you can see him just flip on a dime.
I met him too early. I used to teach at Columbia Journalism School and talked to a lot of young journalists, and I used my interactions with Trump as an example of what not to do. If you're doing an investigative piece on someone you want to circle them a bit, and when you sit down with them, you have to go into an interview with the subject thinking, "This may be the only time I get to talk to him, because if I ask him a couple of tough questions he could just not take my calls anymore, not sit down anymore." I've always urged journalists, young journalists, to always save the subject for way up the road.
Until I got to some tough questions, which was in about the third interview I had with him, he was quite chummy and engaging.
He believes in the power of seduction, especially his own. And it's not just women he thinks he can seduce. But if the seduction isn't working, the threat is always there. He doesn't begin to take you seriously until you show him a reason.
DL: What do you mean?
WB: The early pieces that I wrote about him resulted in a federal grand jury in the Eastern District. He could see what I had found about his two earliest deals. By the time we closed out the interviews, he was aware that I'd caught him in a few things that could be very disturbing to the public image he was then trying to craft. Obviously he didn't get indicted, but I had the goods enough to raise real ethical questions about his conduct.
That's when he started taking me seriously; up to there, I think he just thought I was a guy he could play with. He got a lot less chatty. And then we get the libel letter — Roy Cohn sent a libel letter to the Voice before the first piece was published. So that was the one-two punch.
DL: One of the interesting things about the reissue of your book is that some of the incidents that might have seemed minor to his business career kind of take on a new resonance in his political career.
Take the housing discrimination suit the Department of Justice filed against the Trumps in the early 1980s. In the original book, you present the housing discrimination suit as a minor annoyance to him, something he wanted to spend as little time on as possible. And it seems to have acquired new resonance in the context of a presidential cycle that's been very racially based.
What role did race play in the political environment Trump was coming up in? Is this a continuation of something he's exploited for a long time?
WB: I thought the most interesting part of the race case was that he claimed he had nothing to do with the rental of the apartments. And clearly they had a whole racially discriminatory pattern that was first seen by the Justice Department and ultimately that they signed a consent decree to correct.
But as I found, he had applied for real estate broker licenses at the same time, with the secretary of state of New York, and he had to submit sworn statements about why he was qualified for this license. And he said that, in fact, he was in charge personally of the rental of all of Fred's apartments.
The pattern that we see now so much on the campaign trail, this was in the early '70s, when he was a real kid, not a developer yet himself, he hadn't moved to Manhattan yet, and he was already in the middle of totally contradictory statements, both of which were sworn! The capacity to manufacture started at a very early age.
Now, whether or not there was race discrimination in the Trump company, I think, is a settled fact. But whether or not Donald is authentic about his racism in the campaign — I don't know if he's authentic about anything.
I can't state this, I shouldn't call it a fact, it's a surmise on my part: I know of no black person who has ever played a significant role in his business. He talks about thousands and thousands of employees that he had. At an executive level, and certainly at the time I was covering him intensely, there were no black people at the highest levels of the business.
He claims he's employed thousands of Hispanics. I don't know where he would have employed thousands of Hispanics, because there are virtually no Hispanics in Atlantic City. Certainly out in Nevada where he has a casino he would have employed some, but he doesn't really run that casino, and he didn't build it.
I was recently in Trump Tower, and all of the security that I could see, and there was a lot of it in the lobby, was white. Now, that's hard to do in New York! That's really hard to do.
So I think if you look at his employment track record, my memory, going way back years, is that he has an extremely limited record [of diversity]. In fact, the consent decree did not just deal with tenants; it dealt with employment. They signed a consent decree saying they would employ some minorities in the Trump Organization way back in the '70s. It's deeply rooted.
DL: But in terms of his business tactics, it doesn't look like race was something he used as a businessperson in the same way he's used it to his advantage as a candidate. And it's not as if race was a non-issue in municipal politics at the time.
Was that a weapon he deliberately declined to use in pushing through his various deals; he had opportunities to exploit racial prejudices and didn't?
WB: The first project he ever wanted to do but didn't do was the West Side Yards; that ultimately became Riverside South. He needed the support of the West Side Manhattan community, which is probably the most liberal predominantly white community in the United States. And he had to deal with, constantly, all these West Side activists to try to get their support for the various West Side projects that he came up with over time.
But this was his life dream. When he was in such trouble with the banks in 1990 and 1991, he essentially said to the banks, "You can take anything from me, but don't take the West Side Yards." So this was his dream, dream project.
So even when David Dinkins came along, a black candidate for mayor in 1989 who surprised a lot of people and won, Donald maintained a fairly decent relationship with the Dinkins administration, contributed to it and so forth. The West Side of Manhattan was a big part of Dinkins's base. He had to recognize that politics and mute himself to a certain degree about that.
And then, with the casinos down there [in Atlantic City], he had to establish relationships with Don King and Mike Tyson. That was a big moneymaker for him in the casinos; he had to get the biggest heavyweight fights. That was a time when boxing was much more prominent than it is now.
He had business reasons to have some relationships with major black figures. For a period of time there, I don't think anybody would have regarded him as someone who was progressive on many of these questions, but he was pretty muted. In the '80s, to befriend Don King, he became one of the biggest givers to Al Sharpton's organization, called the National Youth Movement at the time. Don King and Don Trump were the two biggest donors to it. He played some of those games in that era, but it was intensely political.
DL: This was how Trump did everything, though, right? You've shown in your work that basically everything Trump did was because he'd made the right friends in New York government. Was this just the way that government worked at the time?
WB: It was the way city government worked at the time — he was just better at it, and his father was just better at it, than most.
I have called them both "state capitalists," going way back to the '70s when I started writing about them. The father's projects were all FHA financed or state Mitchell-Lama financed; he never built anything that didn't receive some form of governmental subsidy.
The son — immediately, his debut in New York politics and in New York real estate was with a project that received benefits that had never before been granted by the city or state of New York. They, in fact, created an economic development program precisely for his project: the Hyatt Hotel, the conversion of the Commodore. He was extremely good.
Now, his father had intricate relationships in Brooklyn politics. For example, I interviewed Joe Sharkey at one point, who was the Democratic leader of Kings County, Brooklyn, which was then the most powerful machine in the state of New York. And Joe Sharkey told me that when he was named party leader, Fred Trump furnished his office and set up the telephones. Same thing happened with Hugh Carey, a governor of New York who was elected in '74: Fred Trump provided the phones and furniture for his initial headquarters office.
I don't mean to suggest that they were just utility providers. I mean that that is like the tip of the iceberg. They were gigantic givers, Donald and Fred.
And they hired all the right people. One of the first things Donald did in securing the support of the Carey administration for the Hyatt tax abatement and other benefits was to hire Louise Sunshine, who had been the top fundraiser for Gov. Carey, and put her on his staff.
He hired Roy Cohn as one of his primary attorneys, and Stanley Friedman, who was the deputy mayor under Abe Beame that steered the Hyatt project through all of its hurdles, walked out of City Hall on the last day of the Beame administration and became a partner in Roy Cohn's law firm that was already representing Donald. On December 31, the final day of the Beame administration, he delivered a series of benefits to the Hyatt project, and the next week he was working for Donald's lawyer!
These are the kinds of relationships he cultivated from the very beginning. He was a kid developer who played every edge and understood exactly how to make things happen. His father came out of the same political club, the Madison Club in Brooklyn, that Abe Beame, the mayor, came out of. This was just a small group of a few hundred people, and the speaker of the New York State Assembly came out of the same club. So it was just a cross-current of relationships that undergirded both Fred and Donald that propelled him to the success of the first Hyatt project and others.
DL: What I find fascinating about this is that Trump has sort of admitted all this in his presidential campaign. He's bragging about it — but it seems like he's oversimplifying it.
The way he talked about it at least in his primary campaign, he wasn't taking donations from anyone — he was self-funding, or at least he said he was self-funding — because he knew that people gave donations to politicians as a way to buy things, and he knew that because he'd done it himself, donated to politicians to get them to do what he wanted.
But the way you're talking about it, it seems like it wasn't that straightforward of a transaction — that getting what he wanted out of politicians wasn't just about donations.
WB: Donations were just a weapon in the arsenal, and a significant weapon at some times. At times he was the biggest donor in New York City politics; he was a major, major donor. So donations were a major part of his arsenal in terms of bringing these projects to fruition.
Ed Koch had been a lawyer before he was elected mayor, and his law partner, Alan Schwartz, was probably one of Koch's three or four closest personal friends. And Koch had made him the corporation counsel of the city of New York, its top lawyer. And when he had left that job, Donald hired him. Even though they had had many tortured exchanges between the Koch administration, he hired one of Koch's closest friends and top lawyer.
He played every angle. He hired Andrew Cuomo when Mario Cuomo was governor. I don't think he invented this manner of leverage, but it was certainly more than just donations. Whatever it took to compromise a public official.
Joe Anastasio was Mario Cuomo's bodyguard, essentially. Mario never left Joe; he was by his side all the time. When he left state service, who hired him? Donald Trump!
It was a series of relationships like that that Donald used to help put together this empire. He is an expert at compromising politicians.
It would seem to me that that would more likely be viewed by voters as a disqualifier rather than a qualifier.
DL: At the same time, it seems like you have — not quite a grudging respect, but a recognition that Trump has gotten where he is because he really is quite good at some things. In your view, what's the particular genius of Donald Trump?
WB: His building skills. Particularly with the early projects like the Hyatt, which was his first project. He was there every day; he was extremely detail-oriented. Now, almost everybody on every side of the political ledger says he doesn't appear to be detailed as a presidential candidate. But that was really not the case in his early career as a builder and developer; he was extremely focused, as his father was.
His father was a very successful builder, built 20,000 units of real housing for real people all over Brooklyn and Queens. And I say that simply because Donald's projects are not exactly for real people — they're for real rich people. Some of his projects have not really reached the middle class in the way his father's did, ordinary people.
He was a very successful builder when he was a builder — which is really the early phase of his career. He didn't build a lot of projects, but the ones he did were very successful.
He could assemble a site with genius. He could obtain zoning and other governmental approvals that made the projects instant successes financially. And he was extremely skilled in terms of his political networking, both here and in New Jersey. I think those were really the skills that propelled the creation of the brand.
He certainly has enormous marketing skills. The Times did a front-page story a couple of months ago [February 24] about how comparatively small his Manhattan real estate empire is, and yet most of America thinks he's, like, the No. 1 builder in New York! He has managed to market the brand in such a way that everyone thinks it's a lot bigger than it actually is.
DL: But it seems like he's marketing himself as much as he's marketing any putative empire.
WB: Most rich people don't behave the way Donald does. A lot of working-class people seem to admire ostentatious expenditure by rich people. He's made himself the embodiment of a certain kind of wealth, a boorish kind of wealth.
This is a way in which he is totally different from his father. He grew up, and his father lived, in a house in Jamaica Estates, which is sort of, I don't even know if you'd call it upper middle class. It wasn't a modest house, but it was certainly not ostentatious. He was not an in-your-face rich man, proclaiming his wealth at every turn.
The splash, the glamour, especially seemed to arise when he entered the casino business. He thought that would help attract casino customers, give his places a certain élan. He's gone out of his way to create this caricature.
The stud brand is apparently a brand that works, still, to a certain degree, in this country. He projected his business life that way, I think, and he projected himself as a presidential candidate.
You know, I don't think he's ever thrown a punch in his life, and I don't think he's ever taken one. But he stands there before thousands of people and says, "I wanna punch him in the face!"
I can't imagine the guy's ever been in a fight. And you know it's all hollow macho conduct. But it seems to work.
DL: Because if he had been in a fight, you would probably know about it, right?
WB: He would have told us! It would have been "the biggest punch ever landed."