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An exclusive interview with the president, and the single theory that explains everything. By Forbes US editor-in-chief Randall Lane.
This story appears in the November 14, 2017 issue of Forbes.
If Trump really did call the White House a "dump," he's over it. Inside the small West Wing study—where he stacks his papers and takes his meals atop what he calls his "working desk," the president talks volubly about a chandelier he had installed and the oil paintings of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. He pokes open the door to his pristine private bathroom, a must for the germophobe-in-chief. He takes us outside to see the serene swimming pool. And inside the Oval Office, freshly renovated with drapes, carpet and fixtures that lean heavily on gold, he slides his hand across the same Resolute desk where JFK handled the Cuban Missile Crisis and Reagan fought the Cold War, adorned with nothing but two telephones and a call button. "This looks very nice," says the president.
He could as easily be pitching a Trump Tower penthouse or a Doral golf club membership, and over the course of a nearly one-hour interview in the Oval Office, President Trump stays true to the same Citizen Trump form that Forbes has seen for 35 years.
He boasts, with a dose of hyperbole that any student of FDR or even Barack Obama could undercut: "I've had just about the most legislation passed of any president, in a nine-month period, that's ever served. We had over 50 bills passed. I'm not talking about executive orders only, which are very important. I'm talking about bills."
He counterpunches, in this case firing a shot at Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who reportedly called his boss a moron: "I think it's fake news, but if he did that, I guess we'll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.
And above all, he sells: "I also have another bill... an economic-development bill, which I think will be fantastic. Which nobody knows about. Which you are hearing about for the first time... Economic-development incentives for companies. Incentives for companies to be here." Companies that keep jobs in America get rewarded; those that send operations offshore "get penalized severely." "It's both a carrot and a stick," says the president. "It is an incentive to stay. But it is perhaps even more so—if you leave, it's going to be very tough for you to think that you're going to be able to sell your product back into our country."
And so here we are, the first president to come solely from the private sector, representing the party that for more than a century championed laissez-faire capitalism and free trade, proposing that government punish and reward companies based on where they choose to locate factories and offices. Is the president comfortable with that idea?
"Very comfortable," he replies. "What I want to do is reciprocal. See, I think the concept of reciprocal is a very nice concept. If somebody is charging us 50%, we should charge them 50%. Right now they charge us 50%, and we charge them nothing. That doesn't work with me."
It never has. Donald Trump didn't get rich building businesses, despite years of brand-burnishing via The Apprentice and millions of votes from people who craved exactly that experience. Instead, his forte lies in transactions—buying and selling and cutting deals that assure him a win regardless of the outcome for others. The nuance is essential. Entrepreneurs and businesspeople create and run entities that have any number of interested parties—shareholders and customers and employees and partners and hometowns—that in theory all share in success. Under Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Apple has helped early shareholders multiply their investments nearly 400-fold, turned thousands of options-wielding employees into millionaires (swelling the local tax base), performed similar wonders for Taiwanese supplier Foxconn and made customers so deliriously happy that they wait all night to fork over hundreds of dollars for products that will be obsolete two years later.
Dealmakers rarely seek that kind of win-win-win-win-win. Whether it's a stock trade, a swap of middle relievers or optioning a real estate parcel, a deal tends to involve just two parties and generally results in one coming out ahead of the other (so much so that a "win-win" is considered a noteworthy aberration). "Man is the most vicious of all animals," Trump told People in 1981 (and it merited a mention the first time he appeared in Forbes , a year later). "Life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat." It's a mentality that remains hard-wired in President Trump.
Nearly a year after the most stunning Election Day in many decades, pundits still profess to find themselves continually shocked by President Trump. They shouldn't be: His worldview has been incredibly consistent. Rather than as an opportunity to turn ideology into policy, he views governing the way he does business—as an endless string of deals, to be won or lost, both at the negotiating table and in the court of public opinion. Look at his first year through this prism, and it makes sense. And it offers clues for the next three years—or seven.
Ask President Trump if he's having fun in his new job, and he has a quick answer: "I am having fun. I'm enjoying it. We're accomplishing a lot. Your stock market is at an all-time high.
"Your jobs, your unemployment is at the lowest point in almost 17 years. We have fantastic numbers coming out."
Fantastic numbers aren't generally how most people would measure fun. But Trump always has. "Other people paint beautifully on canvas or write wonderful poetry," he wrote in The Art of the Deal 30 years ago. "I like making deals, preferably big deals. That's how I get my kicks."
Numbers offer Trump validation. They determine the winner or loser of any deal and establish an industry hierarchy. It's why Trump, more than any of the 1,600 or so people who've been on The Forbes 400, has spent more time lobbying and cajoling Forbes to get a higher valuation—and validation.
In the Oval Office, when I tell him the markets are up 20% during his term, he stretches the time period to yield an even glossier figure. "No, 25 since the election. You have to go since the election."
That depends on the index, of course (he's conveniently using the most Trump-friendly one, Nasdaq), but the president will brook no such subtlety. "Since Election Day it's 25%. It has gone up since Election Day $5.2 trillion—$5.2 trillion. If Hillary Clinton would have won, the markets would have gone down substantially."
He's similarly proud of the GDP. "So GDP last quarter was 3.1%. Most of the folks that are in your business, and elsewhere, were saying that would not be hit for a long time. You know, Obama never hit the number."
I think it’s fake news. But if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.
President Trump on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
When informed that his predecessor did, several times, Trump pivots immediately. "He never hit it on a yearly basis. Never hit it on a yearly basis. That's eight years. I think we'll go substantially higher than that. And I think this quarter would have been phenomenal, except for the hurricanes."
And what of those storms? "Well, I've gotten very high marks for the hurricanes," he says, two days before he tweets about how he wasn't getting enough personal credit. The president's much-maligned Twitter stream provides a modern way to self-validate. Anything he says registers thousands of likes, thousands of retweets and, over time, millions of new followers. So what if some of those followers are fake accounts? Big numbers have always attracted Trump, regardless of their accuracy. He numbered the floors in Trump Tower to make the building seem taller, obsessed over his Apprentice ratings and lied about the square footage of his penthouse. All of this explains the inexplicable—the need to exaggerate crowd sizes or shoot the messenger any time a bad poll comes out.
For Trump, numbers also serve as a pliant tool. American business has fully embraced Big Data, Moneyball -style analytics and machine learning, where figures suggest the best course of action. But Trump, for decades, has boasted about how he conducts his own research—largely anecdotal—and then buys or sells based on instinct. Numbers are then used to justify his gut. He governs exactly that way, sticking with even his most illogical campaign promises—the kind other politicians walk back from once confronted with actual policy decisions, whether making Mexico pay for a border wall when illegal immigration is historically low or pulling the U.S. from the Paris climate accords, despite the fact that compliance is voluntary—citing whatever figures he can to justify his stances. When asked about Russian interference in the election, for example, he notes that he got 306 electoral votes and adds that the Democrats need "an excuse for losing an election that in theory they should have won." For the greatest-ever American salesman (yes, including P.T. Barnum), statistics serve as marketing grist.
He also uses numbers as leverage, a way to set parameters and eventually declare victory. Back when he bought the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League in 1984, he reportedly described his bidding style to his fellow owners thusly: "When I build something for somebody, I always add $50 million or $60 million onto the price. My guys come in, they say it's going to cost $75 million. I say it's going to cost $125 million and I build it for $100 million. Basically, I did a lousy job. But they think I did a great job."
According to Trump, that trick explains the current proposal to cut the corporate tax rate to 20%, after months of saying he wanted to go even lower, to 15%. "I was actually saying 15 for the purpose of getting to 20," he says, adding, "As you know, this will be a negotiation for the next 30 days. But I wanted the 15 in order to get to 20."
It's a trait he has apparently long admired in presidents. Back in the 1980s, he recalled getting a $5 million request from Jimmy Carter to help build his presidential library. "Jimmy Carter had the nerve, the guts, the balls, to ask for something extraordinary," he wrote in The Art of the Deal . "That ability above all helped him get elected president."
One bid, however, isn't enough. In a transactional mindset, when the person across the table is a competitor rather than a partner, the best terms come from creating multiple bidders. Which explains his sudden fondness for Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, whether on the debt-limit increase, immigration proposals for Dreamers (at least briefly) or health care. "I think the Democrats want to make a deal," says Trump, referring to Obamacare. "At the same time, I think I have a deal with the Republicans. So I have the best of both worlds. That's business to a certain extent... . I'm very able to make deals with Democrats if I have to." The specter of playing each side off the other also looms over tax negotiations. "We'll be talking about all of it. You know, it will be a very serious set of negotiations going on over the next period of time."
Rather than as an opportunity to turn ideology into policy, he views governing the way he views business – as an endless string of deals.
Of course, those who don't see eye-to-eye with the president will feel his Twitter lash: Ask Ryan ("does zilch!"), McConnell ("get back to work"), Schumer ("Cryin' Chuck"), Lindsay Graham ("dumb mouthpiece"), Elizabeth Warren ("Very racist!"), John McCain ("dummy!") or approximately 1,000 others in the past year who have had the temerity to stand up to the president. Much as these digs seem personal, in truth he's just sticking with a business tactic he's long employed. Again, from The Art of the Deal: "I'm the first to admit that I am very competitive and that I'll do nearly anything within legal bounds to win. Sometimes, part of making a deal is denigrating your competition."
Or denigrating your own team. In any situation, Trump must be the alpha dog. Delegation isn't his strong suit. Witness what happened when Tillerson apparently reopened a dialogue with the North Koreans. "He was wasting his time," Trump now says. But doesn't publicly upbraiding his top diplomat effectively neuter him? "I'm not undermining," Trump says. "I think I'm actually strengthening authority." It's hard to see whose authority he's strengthening, other than his own.
In Donald Trump's orbit, clearly, no one is off-limits. A decade ago, Donald Trump Jr. told Forbes this story about his now-presidential father. "I'd be going to work with my dad when I was 5 or 6 years old... .
"Besides telling me again and again not to drink, not to smoke and not to chase women, he always told me: 'Never trust anybody.' Then he'd ask me if I trusted anybody. I'd say, 'No.' 'Do you trust me?' he'd ask. I'd say, 'Yes.' "
"And he'd say: 'No! Don't even trust me!' "
Thanks to The Apprentice, most people think Donald Trump ran a big company. He did not. The Trump Organization has 22 real estate assets, with their own management teams. Trump licenses his brand to over a dozen entities, collecting royalties. All in all, it's a valuable company that's more impressive for its efficiency than its breadth. Trump leveraged that mindset, and his formidable skills as a marketer and showman, to run a historically efficient political campaign. "Nobody talks about it, but I spent much less money and won," he says. He's absolutely right.
But there's precious little about running the Trump Organization that provides the kind of experience that it takes to run the ultimate organization in America: the U.S. government. At the Trump Organization, he owns basically everything. There's no known board of directors, no outside shareholders and no real customer base, save onetime luxury real estate buyers and golf club members. It's far closer to running a family office than running Wal-Mart. When it comes to moguls turned presidential aspirants, compare him with the two private-sector leaders who previously came closest to going directly to the Oval Office: Wendell Willkie, who ran a giant public utility before losing to FDR in 1940, and Ross Perot, whose quixotic third-party bid in 1992 was based on a career building two huge public companies, most notably Electronic Data Systems, a global firm that had its own de facto foreign policy, including a famous Iranian hostage rescue.
Trump does have experience leading public companies, but even then there was only one shareholder who mattered. When Trump controlled 40% of publicly traded Trump Hotels & Casino, he used it to buy a casino he privately owned for $500 million, even though one analyst thought it was worth 20% less. At one point, he also owned more than 10% of Resorts International. He cut a deal with that company that garnered him millions in fees at the expense of other owners. Neither ended well: Trump Hotels filed for bankruptcy (for the first time) in 2004; Resorts had gone bankrupt some years earlier after Trump cashed out.
Inheriting the keys to American government is akin to a succession at General Electric or Microsoft. Continuity is generally assumed—honoring prior commitments and running the company/country as best as possible, while pivoting to new priorities and policies.
Trump's transactional mindset, however, doesn't see it that way (nor do many of his core supporters, who expect radical change above all else). If previous policies were bad deals, he sees no reason to honor them, even at the cost of America's reputation or the perception of stable American policy.
Take Obamacare. "It's a total mess," Trump says. Fair point. But doesn't Trump, as the CEO of America, have an obligation to operate it as well as he can until he has an alternative, rather than threaten to withhold payments to insurance companies, shrink the enrollment period and slash the advertising budget?
"What we're doing is trying to keep it afloat, because it's failing," he says. "I mean the insurance companies are fleeing and have fled. They fled before I got here. But with that being said, no, Obamacare is Obama's fault. It's nobody else's fault."
But isn't it now his administration's responsibility? "Yes. But I've always said Obamacare is Obama's fault. It's never going to be our fault."
The same approach comes through in foreign policy, again and again, whether it's the Iran deal, the Paris climate agreement or, especially, free-trade deals. Doesn't he feel a responsibility to honor agreements from previous administrations?
President Trump has a quick response: "No."
It's a dangerous precedent: an America where each administration, rather than building on the agreements of its predecessors, undoes each other's deals—effectively undermining the authority of any American head of state. Again, Trump shrugs.
"I happen to think that NAFTA will have to be terminated if we're going to make it good. Otherwise, I believe you can't negotiate a good deal... . [The Trans-Pacific Partnership] would have been a large-scale version of NAFTA. It would have been a disaster. It's a great honor to have—I consider that a great accomplishment, stopping that. And there are many people that agree with me. I like bilateral deals."
Of course he does. Trump has been doing bilateral deals his whole life. But bilateral deals are just that—one-on-one bargains carrying the implicit prospect of a negotiation that will create a winner and a loser. Doesn't this fly in the face of our multilateral world?
"You can have it this way and do much more business. And if it doesn't work out with a country, you give them a 30-day notice, and you either renegotiate or not."
Trump's bilateral world, of course, explains why foreign aid gets cut. It comes with a huge downside. Deals score points, but deals don't create long-term investments. It's impossible to think of something like the Marshall Plan, which teed up more than six decades of peace and prosperity, coming out of the Trump White House. To that, he shrugs again.
"For me, it's America first. We've been doing that so long that we owe $20 trillion, okay?"
Trump intends to run the country more like the Trump Organization in other ways. Much has been made about how slow he's been to nominate people to key positions. In the State Department, for example, he has failed to put up names for more than half of the comfirmable positions. That's apparently not an accident.
"I'm generally not going to make a lot of the appointments that would normally be—because you don't need them," he says. "I mean, you look at some of these agencies, how massive they are, and it's totally unnecessary. They have hundreds of thousands of people."
And how does this man, who's never really had a boss, feel about now having 330 million of them, to be exact? He acknowledges the fact, but then answers in a way that is perfect, consistent Trump: "It doesn't matter, because I'm going to do the right thing."