Friday 20 October 2017

Irish tv producer: Trump wouldn't shake my hand. 'I just don't know where it's been...'

David Blake Knox recalls the time he spent filming the billionaire for a documentary

David Blake Knox
David Blake Knox

Fifteen years ago, I travelled to a small, private airport in New York to start making a film about Donald Trump for the BBC. Trump appeared to be on the verge of announcing his candidacy for the US presidency. It seemed that he was planning to run for the Reform Party. That small party had been around since the 1930s, but was generally considered to be something of a joke, and I found it hard to believe that Trump's candidacy was genuine.

I had always regarded Trump as an insatiable self-publicist, and I thought his apparent interest in the presidency was just another stunt designed to gain media attention. In retrospect, it seems that this was his first testing of the political waters. At any rate, his ambitions were clearly much more serious than I realised at the time.

When Trump finally arrived at the airport, I had been waiting in his jet for almost an hour. A flurry of activity meant that he had boarded the plane. I stepped forward to introduce myself and held out my hand. Trump declined to shake it. "It's nothing personal," he told me. "It's just that I don't know where that hand has been."

Over the next few days, I noticed that he always carried a pack of hygiene wipes in his coat pocket, and used them frequently. He now seems to have overcome his phobia of handshaking, but I have wondered if his fear of contamination has resurfaced in the desire to keep the USA ­hermetically sealed, and free of Mexicans and Muslims.

I flew with Trump to Atlantic City in New Jersey. He was hosting his annual bash at the Trump Taj Mahal - which, he informed me was the largest casino on earth. When our plane touched down, there was a sleek, black limo waiting for us, and, before long, we arrived at one of the ugliest buildings I had ever seen. I glanced over the list of in-house restaurants at the entrance. They all had over-the-top, grandiose titles: The Sultan's Feast, Royal Albert's Palace, The Dynasty Lounge and - perhaps, most aptly - The Ego Bar.

As we walked into the main room of the casino, the air was filled with a low-pitched but relentless drone. It came from more than 3,500 slot machines. Men and women with glassy eyes sat in silent rows, like members of some religious cult, feeding the ravenous slots. For some people, this scene might conjure up a vision of hell. But it only served to animate Trump and, before my eyes, he appeared to take on a new and more dynamic persona.

Donald Trump and Barack Obama held a meeting at the White House Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Donald Trump and Barack Obama held a meeting at the White House Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

On the plane, he had seemed edgy, restless and preoccupied. Now, as he strode through the gaming rooms, he waved, slapped backs, signed copies of his books and appeared, for the first time, to be relaxed. We moved upstairs to a function room. This was where a select group of people had gathered to party with Trump. There was just one condition of entry: you had to have lost more than $1m gambling in the Taj Mahal in the previous 12 months.

You might think those individuals would want to string Trump up from the nearest chandelier. But, instead, he was cheered loudly as he walked among these big-time losers, dispensing gifts to all of them. One elderly woman showed me the ring that Trump had just given her.

"It must have cost a fortune," she said, trembling with excitement. I agreed it was a wonderful present.

"How much did you lose here last year?"

"Oh, about two-point-five."

"Two-point-five million?"

She nodded, happily.

I wondered why she liked Trump so much. "Because he's a real man," she told me, "He's handsome. He's got chutzpah. And he's honest - but he's honest with a spin. That's what makes him interesting."

Trump seemed happiest to me when he was performing - making long and rambling speeches, or just posing for the cameras. Over the years, he has appeared in TV soaps, beauty pageants and movies. He has sung on a Broadway stage, and even taken part in professional wrestling events. He not only originated the top-rating TV series The Apprentice, but has claimed copyright on its catch phrase: "You're fired!"

When I was with him, he always seemed to be on stage, acting the part of a macho billionaire tycoon. In fairness, he has a real instinct for what will grab an audience, and I must admit there is something weirdly compulsive about his various performances. It's not surprising that he is the only property developer to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In some ways, his new job as president seems perfectly suited to what I saw of Trump's character. He will be the centre of the world's attention for at least the next four years. He will also find endless opportunities to perform in public. He is clearly a workaholic, and there will, no doubt, be plenty to keep him occupied. On the other hand, Trump is also obsessive, unpredictable and relishes confrontation. I found him to be very quick to take offence - which forced us to stop filming on more than one occasion. That may not be the ideal psychological profile for a man who is being given control of a gigantic nuclear arsenal.

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