What's it like to have a face-to-face meeting with Donald Trump?
Mark Singer wrote a profile piece of the billionaire for 'The New Yorker' in 1996. In this extract from his new memoir, the journalist recalls his face-to-face meetings with Trump and how the resulting article got the tycoon riled up
Published 10/07/2016 | 02:30
It's the autumn of 1996. I've been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1974, and at this point the editor is Tina Brown. 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 rings.
Tina: "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!"
Early on, Trump and I reach our own working understanding: I tacitly accede to his assumption that I am his tool. It's Trump's world. 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.
Among other tasks, I must read many ghostwritten books ostensibly composed by Trump. The overarching theme of this oeuvre would echo several years later, greatly amplified, in The Apprentice (the American version): we both know that you're a complete putz, but you're at least allowed to fantasise 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. My objective is to apprehend the person within the persona. Does Donald Trump have an interior life?
One Saturday in the winter of 1997, he and I spend a morning and afternoon one-on-one, touring construction projects. He drives and I sit in the death seat, taking notes.
"OK," I say. "You're basically alone. Your wife is still asleep" - he was then married to his second wife, Marla Maples - "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, 'Wow. I'm Donald Trump'?"
Trump remains puzzled.
"OK, I guess I'm asking, do you consider yourself ideal company?"
At the time, I deemed Trump's reply unprintable. But that was then. Trump says: "You really want to know what I consider ideal company?"
Trump: "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 story - 10,000 words, still no ending - to my editor. Ready for bed, I tune into an all-news radio 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 me in his office the following Monday.
Given his domestic vicissitudes, is he happy? Regretful? Self-reflective? His demeanour 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, 'It will be great, you'll love it' - you lied!" The nerve.
Later that year, I gain a finer appreciation of his feelings towards me. He publishes Trump: The Art of the Comeback, ghostwritten by Kate Bohner, and on page 181, in the chapter 'The Press and Other Germs', recalls our meeting: "When he came into the office, I immediately sensed that he was not much of anything, nondescript, with a faint wise-guy sneer and some kind of chip on his shoulder." Other than the births of my children, nothing remotely this wonderful has ever happened.
In 2005, I publish a book, Character Studies, 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-Apprentice 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 New York Times Book Review 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, Character Studies is No 45,638 on the bestseller list. No matter - Trump'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, OK, 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 sceptical mood regarding the outcome of their combined interest in me. Misery begets misery, and they were a perfect example of this credo.
"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 time - he was not born with great writing ability ... Maybe he should... 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."
Within 48 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? Money.
"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, 10 days later I receive an envelope embossed with the Trump Organisation 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."
To his credit, he's correct about my anaemic book sales. My Amazon ranking is already back down to 53,876.
Then, one more thing happens. I get a letter from Citibank. I open it. Inside is my bank statement. My account, I see, is $37.82 lighter. Trump has cashed the cheque.
Extracted from Trump and Me by Mark Singer, published by Allen Lane at €12.99