What drives Donald Trump? Fear of losing his status, tapes show

Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump rallies with supporters in Tallahassee, Florida, US on Oct 25, 2016.
Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump rallies with supporters in Tallahassee, Florida, US on Oct 25, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - By any measure, Arsenio Hall was a Hollywood success: He had starred in popular films, packed houses as a stand-up comic and hosted a hit late-night television show bearing his name.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump saw it differently by the mid-2000s. In his eyes, Hall was nothing.

"Dead as a doornail," was his assessment of Hall in a previously unreleased interview from two years ago. "Dead as dog meat."

Why such a harsh judgment? Because in Mr Trump's eyes, Hall had suffered the most grievous form of public humiliation: His celebrity had waned. His star had dimmed.

It was, in short, Mr Trump's worst nightmare.

"Couldn't get on television," Mr Trump said with disgust. "They wouldn't even take his phone call."

 

The intense ambitions and undisciplined behaviour of Mr Trump have confounded even those close to him, especially as his presidential campaign comes to a tumultuous end, and he confronts the possibility of the most stinging defeat of his life.

But in the more than five hours of conversations - the last extensive biographical interviews Mr Trump granted before running for president - a powerful driving force emerges: his deep-seated fear of public embarrassment.

The recordings reveal a man who is fixated on his own celebrity, anxious about losing his status and contemptuous of those who fall from grace. They capture the visceral pleasure he derives from fighting, his wilful lack of interest in history, his reluctance to reflect on his life and his belief that most people do not deserve his respect.

In the interviews, Mr Trump makes clear just how difficult it is for him to imagine - let alone accept - defeat.

"I never had a failure," Mr Trump said in one of the interviews, despite his repeated corporate bankruptcies and business setbacks, "because I always turned a failure into a success."

The interviews were conducted in 2014 by Mr Michael D'Antonio, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who later wrote a biography of Mr Trump called "The Truth About Trump."

Mr D'Antonio now disapproves of Mr Trump's candidacy and gave transcripts of the interviews to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's campaign this year. After a brief meeting with a few Clinton aides, he said, he never heard back from Mrs Clinton's staff.

Over the past few weeks, Mr D'Antonio gave The New York Times access to the original audio as well as transcripts of his interviews with Mr Trump, Mr Trump's first wife, Ivana, and his three oldest children.

The Times is using them as the basis for this article and a two-part episode of its election podcast, "The Run-Up".

Mr Trump, in a statement on Monday (Oct 24) night, called the recordings "Pretty old and pretty boring stuff. Hope people enjoy it."

In the interviews, which occurred in Mr Trump's office and apartment in Trump Tower in Manhattan, he is by turns animated and bored, boastful and stubborn when prodded toward soul-searching.

"No, I don't want to think about it," he said when Mr D'Antonio asked him to contemplate the meaning of his life. "I don't like to analyse myself because I might not like what I see."

Despite his reluctance, Mr Trump reveals himself over and over, in the stories he tells, in his wide-ranging answers to questions and at times in casual, seemingly throwaway lines.

Who does he look up to? "I don't have heroes," Mr Trump said.

Does he examine history to better understand the present? "I don't like talking about the past," he said, later adding, "It's all about the present and the future."

Who earns his respect? "For the most part," he said, "you can't respect people because most people aren't worthy of respect."

His lavish lifestyle? "I could be very happy in a one-bedroom," he said, motioning at his vast penthouse apartment. "I don't need this - three floors."

His struggle to balance work and love? "It's very hard for somebody to be married to me," he said.

But he always seems to return, in one form or another, to the theme of humiliation.

He reserves special scorn for people who embarrass themselves in front of their peers. He tells the story of an unnamed bank president who became inebriated during an award dinner at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan, a ritual of New York society.

By the end of the night, he recalls, the man was incapable of walking and had to be carried out, to Mr Trump's disapproval.

On the tape, Mr Trump says, "... We all had a leg, an arm, a back, and we carried him out of the room that night, right after he made the worst speech you've ever heard. And I never looked at him the same way after that..."

"I'll never forget that in front of a room of the most important people, we had to carry him out of the room. And so things like that had an impact on me," he says.

There is little trace of sympathy or understanding. When people lose face, Mr Trump's reaction is swift and unforgiving.

And when Mr Trump feels he has been made a fool of, his response can be volcanic. Mrs Ivana Trump told Mr D'Antonio about a Colorado ski vacation she took with Mr Trump soon after they began dating.

The future Mrs Trump had not told her boyfriend that she was an accomplished skier. As she recalls it, Mr Trump went down the hill first and waited for her at the bottom.

"So he goes and stops, and he says, 'Come on, baby. Come on, baby.' I went up. I went two flips up in the air, two flips in front of him. I disappeared. Donald was so angry, he took off his skis, his ski boots, and walked up to the restaurant... He could not take it. He could not take it,'" said Ivana.

He had been bested in public. As he stormed off the slope, leaving behind a trail of equipment, she recalled, Mr Donald Trump could not contain his embarrassment.

"I'm not going to do this," she recalled him saying, "for anybody, including Ivana."

On the tapes, Mr Trump describes a passionate enjoyment of fighting, which started during his adolescence in Queens. It did not matter, he said, whether an altercation was verbal or physical. He loved it all the same.

"I was a very rebellious kind of person. I don't like to talk about it, actually. But I was a very rebellious person and very set in my ways," he says in the tapes.

" In eighth grade?" asks the interviewer.

"I loved to fight. I always loved to fight," says Mr Trump.

"Physical fights?" asks the interviewer.

"Yeah, all kinds of fights, physical...," says Mr Trump.

"Arguments?" asks Mr D'Antonio.

" All types of fights. Any kind of fight, I loved it, including physical...," says Mr Trump.

His behaviour was so belligerent that his parents sent him off around age 13 to the all-boys New York Military Academy, a highly regimented school about an hour north of Manhattan.

He seemed to revel in the masculine culture of confrontation there. In the interview, he sounds nostalgic for the time when roughness and physical conflict were more acceptable.

"I'm standing there at the military academy and this guy comes out, he's like a bulldog, too, rough guy. He was a drill sergeant. Now they call him 'Major Dobias', but he was a sergeant. When I first knew him, he was 'Sergeant Dobias', right out of the Army," recalls Mr Trump.

"And he was a rough guy, physically rough and mentally rough. He was also my baseball coach. He said things like, 'Stand up!' and I went, 'Give me a (expletive) break.' And this guy came at me, you would never believe it. I mean, it was really fantastic," he says.

" Did he rough you up?" asks the interviewer.

"Oh yeah, absolutely," says Mr Trump.

" Grabbed you by the shirt...," says the interviewer.

"It doesn't matter, it was not like what happens today. And you had to learn to survive. It was tough. It wasn't today. Those were rougher times... These guys, you go back to some of those old drill sergeants, they can't even understand what's going on with this country," says Mr Trump.

He still seems to long for those older, tougher times as a presidential candidate. At a Las Vegas rally in February, as Mr Trump scolded a protester who tried to interrupt his speech, he used strikingly similar language.

"I love the old days," Mr Trump told the crowd to loud cheers.

"You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks."

He is intoxicated by the glow of his name in the news media, a subject he brings up repeatedly in the interviews.

He can still recall the thrill of a newspaper mentioning his name for the first time, as a high school baseball player whose performance had clinched his team's victory.

" And I said, 'I love it.' I loved it. It was the first time I was ever in a newspaper. I was a young kid, right? I was probably a sophomore in high school. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I thought it was amazing... It felt good," says Mr Trump.

He was hooked. But it was not enough for Mr Trump to become an object of media fascination. He took pleasure in knowing that such coverage was denied to almost everybody else.

When Mr D'Antonio said that it was exciting for anybody to be mentioned in a newspaper, a seemingly wounded Mr Trump interrupted to explain why his experience was special.

"Well, most people aren't in print, though. Don't forget. How many people are in print?" he asked. "Nobody's in print."

Mr Trump refused to let the subject go, emphasising over and over how unique it was that he had been mentioned in the newspaper.

By the time he was an established businessman, Mr Trump hired a service to compile the swelling number of references to him in the media, which he then reviewed.

"There are thousands of them a day," he told Mr D'Antonio. "Thousands, thousands a day."

He quickly figured out that media attention was free advertising for his new hotels and golf courses, a fact that led him to frequently participate in newspaper interviews and television shows.

"I could say, 'No,' and then I could advertise a project that I'm doing, like Doral or something, and spend a half a million dollars on it or a million dollars, or I can do the show and spend nothing and be on for a lot longer. Do you understand what I meant? So I've always felt it was a positive thing," he says.

No matter the newspaper, magazine or show, Mr Trump was always keeping score - of how positive the coverage was and how often he was featured, just as he does today.

He recounted his experience as a guest on Barbara Walters' ABC special 10 Most Fascinating People, boasting that he was on the show twice.

Just one other person had earned that distinction, Mr Trump grudgingly acknowledged: Mrs Hillary Clinton. (In fact, Mrs Clinton had made the list four times.)

Ultimately, Mr Trump fears - more than anything else - being ignored, overlooked or irrelevant.

That's how he saw Arsenio Hall in the 2000s, as forgotten and ungrateful for his time on The Celebrity Apprentice, Trump's reality television competition, which Hall won in 2012.

During his final interview with Mr D'Antonio, as their relationship had warmed and deepened, Mr Trump turned philosophical.

He recalled a favourite song, performed by Peggy Lee, "Is That All There Is?" - a poignant ballad about unfulfilled dreams and dissatisfaction with life.

"It's a great song because I've had these tremendous successes and then I'm off to the next one. Because, it's like, 'Oh, is that all there is?' That's a great song actually, that's a very interesting song, especially sung by her, because she had such a troubled life," he says.

But he quickly retreats from the moment, declining Mr D'Antonio's invitation to further explain how the song makes him feel about himself, saying he might not like what he discovers.

Of this, however, Mr Trump is certain: He needs the world's attention and its embrace, a life force that has sustained him for decades.

He recalled the feeling of walking into a giant room and watching as the crowd surrounded him, as if he were a magnet attracting everything around him.

Mr D'Antonio asked him when that first started.

"Long time ago," Mr Trump replied. "It's always been that way."

Did it ever unnerve him, the author wondered.

"No," Mr Trump said. "I think what would unnerve me is if it didn't happen."