The Real Donald Trump Is a Character on TV

Understand that, and you’ll understand what he’s doing in the White House.

On Sept. 1, with a Category 5 hurricane off the Atlantic coast, an angry wind was issuing from the direction of President Trump’s Twitter account. The apparent emergency: Debra Messing, the co-star of “Will & Grace,” had tweeted that “the public has a right to know” who is attending a Beverly Hills fund-raiser for Mr. Trump’s re-election.

“I have not forgotten that when it was announced that I was going to do The Apprentice, and when it then became a big hit, Helping NBC’s failed lineup greatly, @DebraMessing came up to me at an Upfront & profusely thanked me, even calling me ‘Sir,’ ” wrote the 45th president of the United States.

It was a classic Trumpian ragetweet: aggrieved over a minor slight, possibly prompted by a Fox News segment, unverifiable — he has a long history of questionable tales involving someone calling him “Sir” — and nostalgic for his primetime-TV heyday. (By Thursday he was lashing Ms. Messing again, as Hurricane Dorian was lashing the Carolinas.)

This is a futile effort. Try to understand Donald Trump as a person with psychology and strategy and motivation, and you will inevitably spiral into confusion and covfefe. The key is to remember that Donald Trump is not a person. He’s a TV character.

I mean, O.K., there is an actual person named Donald John Trump, with a human body and a childhood and formative experiences that theoretically a biographer or therapist might usefully delve into someday. (We can only speculate about the latter; Mr. Trump has boasted on Twitter of never having seen a psychiatrist, preferring the therapeutic effects of “hit[ting] ‘sleazebags’ back.”)

But that Donald Trump is of limited significance to America and the world. The “Donald Trump” who got elected president, who has strutted and fretted across the small screen since the 1980s, is a decades-long media performance. To understand him, you need to approach him less like a psychologist and more like a TV critic.

He was born in 1946, at the same time that American broadcast TV was being born. He grew up with it. His father, Fred, had one of the first color TV sets in Jamaica Estates. In “The Art of the Deal” Donald Trump recalls his mother, Mary Anne, spending a day in front of the tube, enraptured by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953. (“For Christ’s sake, Mary,” he remembers his father saying, “Enough is enough, turn it off. They’re all a bunch of con artists.”)

TV was his soul mate. It was like him. It was packed with the razzle-dazzle and action and violence that captivated him. He dreamed of going to Hollywood, then he shelved those dreams in favor of his father’s business and vowed, according to the book “TrumpNation” by Timothy O’Brien, to “put show business into real estate.”

As TV evolved from the homogeneous three-network mass medium of the mid-20th century to the polarized zillion-channel era of cable-news fisticuffs and reality shocker-tainment, he evolved with it. In the 1980s, he built a media profile as an insouciant, high-living apex predator. In 1990, he described his yacht and gilded buildings to Playboy as “Props for the show … The show is ‘Trump’ and it is sold-out performances everywhere.”

He syndicated that show to Oprah, Letterman, NBC, WrestleMania and Fox News. Everything he achieved, he achieved by using TV as a magnifying glass, to make himself appear bigger than he was.

He was able to do this because he thought like a TV camera. He knew what TV wanted, what stimulated its nerve endings. In his campaign rallies, he would tell The Washington Post, he knew just what to say “to keep the red light on”: that is, the light on a TV camera that showed that it was running, that you mattered. Bomb the [redacted] out of them! I’d like to punch him in the face! The red light radiated its approval. Cable news aired the rallies start to finish. For all practical purposes, he and the camera shared the same brain.

Even when he adopted social media, he used it like TV. First, he used it like a celebrity, to broadcast himself, his first tweet in 2009 promoting a “Late Show With David Letterman” appearance. Then he used it like an instigator, tweeting his birther conspiracies before he would talk about them on Fox News, road-testing his call for a border wall during the cable-news fueled Ebola and border panics of the 2014 midterms.

When he was a candidate, and especially when he was president, his tweets programmed TV and were amplified by it. On CNBC, a “BREAKING NEWS: TRUMP TWEET” graphic would spin out onscreen as soon as the words left his thumbs. He would watch Fox News, or Lou Dobbs, or CNN or “Morning Joe” or “Saturday Night Live” (“I don’t watch”), and get mad, and tweet. Then the tweets would become TV, and he would watch it, and tweet again.

If you want to understand what President Trump will do in any situation, then, it’s more helpful to ask: What would TV do? What does TV want?

It wants conflict. It wants excitement. If there is something that can blow up, it should blow up. It wants a fight. It wants more. It is always eating and never full.

Some presidential figure-outers, trying to understand the celebrity president through a template that they were already familiar with, have compared him with Ronald Reagan: a “master showman” cannily playing a “role.”

The comparison is understandable, but it’s wrong. Presidents Reagan and Trump were both entertainers who applied their acts to politics. But there’s a crucial difference between what “playing a character” means in the movies and what it means on reality TV.

Ronald Reagan was an actor. Actors need to believe deeply in the authenticity and interiority of people besides themselves — so deeply that they can subordinate their personalities to “people” who are merely lines on a script. Acting, Reagan told his biographer Lou Cannon, had taught him “to understand the feelings and motivations of others.”

Being a reality star, on the other hand, as Donald Trump was on “The Apprentice,” is also a kind of performance, but one that’s antithetical to movie acting. Playing a character on reality TV means being yourself, but bigger and louder.

Reality TV, writ broadly, goes back to Allen Funt’s “Candid Camera,” the PBS documentary “An American Family,” and MTV’s “The Real World.” But the first mass-market reality TV star was Richard Hatch, the winner of the first season of “Survivor” — produced by Mark Burnett, the eventual impresario of “The Apprentice”— in the summer of 2000.

Mr. Hatch won that first season in much the way that Mr. Trump would run his 2016 campaign. He realized that the only rules were that there were no rules. He lied and backstabbed and took advantage of loopholes, and he argued — with a telegenic brashness — that this made him smart. This was a crooked game in a crooked world, he argued to a final jury of players he’d betrayed and deceived. But, hey: At least he was open about it!

While shooting that first season, the show’s crew was rooting for Rudy Boesch, a 72-year-old former Navy SEAL and model of hard work and fair play. “The only outcome nobody wanted was Richard Hatch winning,” the host, Jeff Probst, would say later. It “would be a disaster.” After all, decades of TV cop shows had taught executives the iron rule that the viewers needed the good guy to win.

But they didn’t. “Survivor” was addictively entertaining, and audiences loved-to-hate the wryly devious Richard the way they did Tony Soprano and, before him, J.R. Ewing. More than 50 million people watched the first-season finale, and “Survivor” has been on the air nearly two decades.

From Richard Hatch, we got a steady stream of Real Housewives, Kardashians, nasty judges, dating-show contestants who “didn’t come here to make friends” and, of course, Donald Trump.

Reality TV has often gotten a raw deal from critics. (Full disclosure: I still watch “Survivor.”) Its audiences, often dismissed as dupes, are just as capable of watching with a critical eye as the fans of prestige cable dramas. But when you apply its mind-set — the law of the TV jungle — to public life, things get ugly.

In reality TV — at least competition reality shows like “The Apprentice” — you do not attempt to understand other people, except as obstacles or objects. To try to imagine what it is like to be a person other than yourself (what, in ordinary, off-camera life, we call “empathy”) is a liability. It’s a distraction that you have to tune out in order to project your fullest you.

Reality TV instead encourages “getting real.” On MTV’s progressive, diverse “Real World,” the phrase implied that people in the show were more authentic than characters on scripted TV — or even than real people in your own life, who were socially conditioned to “be polite.” But “getting real” would also resonate with a rising conservative notion: that political correctness kept people from saying what was really on their minds.

Being real is not the same thing as being honest. To be real is to be the most entertaining, provocative form of yourself. It is to say what you want, without caring whether your words are kind or responsible — or true — but only whether you want to say them. It is to foreground the parts of your personality (aggression, cockiness, prejudice) that will focus the red light on you, and unleash them like weapons.

Maybe the best definition of being real came from the former “Apprentice” contestant and White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman in her memoir, “Unhinged.” Mr. Trump, she said, encouraged people in his entourage to “exaggerate the unique part of themselves.” When you’re being real, there is no difference between impulse and strategy, because the “strategy” is to do what feels good.

This is why it misses a key point to ask, as Vanity Fair recently did after Mr. Trump’s assault on Representative Elijah E. Cummings and the city of Baltimore in July, “Is the president a racist, or does he just play one on TV?” In reality TV, if you are a racist — and reality TV has had many racists, like Katie Hopkins, the far-right British “Apprentice” star the president frequently retweets — then you are a racist and you play one on TV.

So if you actually want a glimpse into the mind of Donald J. Trump, don’t look for a White House tell-all or some secret childhood heartbreak. Go to the streaming service Tubi, where his 14 seasonsof “The Apprentice” recently became accessible to the public.

You can fast-forward past the team challenges and the stagey visits to Trump-branded properties. They’re useful in their own way, as a picture of how Mr. Burnett buttressed the future president’s Potemkin-zillionaire image. But the unadulterated, 200-proof Donald Trump is found in the boardroom segments, at the end of each episode, in which he “fires” one contestant.

In theory, the boardroom is where the best performers in the week’s challenges are rewarded and the screw-ups punished. In reality, the boardroom is a new game, the real game, a free-for-all in which contestants compete to throw one another under the bus and beg Mr. Trump for mercy.

There is no morality in the boardroom. There is no fair and unfair in the boardroom. There is only the individual, trying to impress Mr. Trump, to flatter Mr. Trump, to commune with his mind and anticipate his whims and fits of pique. Candidates are fired for

  • being too nice to their adversaries (weak), for
  • giving credit to their teammates, for
  • interrupting him.

The host’s decisions were often so mercurial, producers have said, that they would have to go back and edit the episodes to impose some appearance of logic on them.

What saves you in the boardroom? Fighting. Boardroom Trump loves to see people fight each other. He perks up at it like a cat hearing a can opener. He loves to watch people scrap for his favor (as they eventually would in his White House). He loves asking contestants to rat out their teammates and watching them squirm with conflict. The unity of the team gives way to disunity, which in the Trumpian worldview is the most productive state of being.

 

And America loved boardroom Trump — for a while. He delivered his catchphrase in TV cameos and slapped it on a reissue of his 1980s Monopoly knockoff Trump: The Game. (“I’m back and you’re fired!”) But after the first season, the ratings dropped; by season four they were nearly half what they were in season one.

He reacted to his declining numbers by ratcheting up what worked before: becoming a louder, more extreme, more abrasive version of himself. He gets more insulting in the boardroom — “You hang out with losers and you become a loser”— and executes double and quadruple firings.

It’s a pattern that we see as he advances toward his re-election campaign, with an eye not on the Nielsen ratings but on the polls: The only solution for any given problem was a Trumpier Trump.

Did it work for “The Apprentice”? Yes and no. His show hung on to a loyal base through 14 seasons, including the increasingly farcical celebrity version. But it never dominated its competition again, losing out, despite his denials, to the likes of the sitcom “Mike & Molly.”

Donald Trump’s “Apprentice” boardroom closed for business on Feb. 16, 2015, precisely four months before he announced his successful campaign for president. And also, it never closed. It expanded. It broke the fourth wall. We live inside it now.

Now, Mr. Trump re-creates the boardroom’s helter-skelter atmosphere every time he opens his mouth or his Twitter app. In place of the essentially dead White House press briefing, he walks out to the lawn in the morning and reporters gaggle around him like “Apprentice” contestants awaiting the day’s task. He rails and complains and establishes the plot points for that day’s episode:

  • Greenland!
  • Jews!
  • “I am the chosen one!”

Then cable news spends morning to midnight happily masticating the fresh batch of outrages before memory-wiping itself to prepare for tomorrow’s episode. Maybe this sounds like a TV critic’s overextended metaphor, but it’s also the president’s: As The Times has reported, before taking office, he told aides to think of every day as “an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.”

Mr. Trump has been playing himself instinctually as a character since the 1980s; it’s allowed him to maintain a profile even through bankruptcies and humiliations. But it’s also why, on the rare occasions he’s had to publicly attempt a role contrary to his naturecalling for healing from a script after a mass shooting, for instance — he sounds as stagey and inauthentic as an unrehearsed amateur doing a sitcom cameo.

His character shorthand is “Donald Trump, Fighter Guy Who Wins.” Plop him in front of a camera with an infant orphaned in a mass murder, and he does not have it in his performer’s tool kit to do anything other than smile unnervingly and give a fat thumbs-up.

This is what was lost on commentators who kept hoping wanly that this State of the Union or that tragedy would be the moment he finally became “presidential.” It was lost on journalists who felt obligated to act as though every modulated speech from a teleprompter might, this time, be sincere.

The institution of the office is not changing Donald Trump, because he is already in the sway of another institution. He is governed not by the truisms of past politics but by the imperative of reality TV: never de-escalate and never turn the volume down.

This conveniently echoes the mantra he learned from his early mentor, Roy Cohn: Always attack and never apologize. He serves up one “most shocking episode ever” after another, mining uglier pieces of his core each time: progressing from profanity about Haiti and Africa in private to publicly telling four minority American congresswomen, only one of whom was born outside the United States, to “go back” to the countries they came from.

  • The taunting.
  • The insults.
  • The dog whistles.
  • The dog bullhorns.
  • The “Lock her up” and “Send her back.”

All of it follows reality-TV rules. Every season has to top the last. Every fight is necessary, be it against Ilhan Omar or Debra Messing. Every twist must be more shocking, every conflict more vicious, lest the red light grow bored and wink off. The only difference: Now there’s no Mark Burnett to impose retroactive logic on the chaos, only press secretaries, pundits and Mike Pence.

To ask whether any of this is “instinct” or “strategy” is a parlor game. If you think like a TV camera — if thinking in those reflexive microbursts of adrenaline and testosterone has served you your whole life — then the instinct is the strategy.

And to ask who the “real” Donald Trump is, is to ignore the obvious. You already know who Donald Trump is. All the evidence you need is right there on your screen. He’s half-man, half-TV, with a camera for an eye that is constantly focused on itself. The red light is pulsing, 24/7, and it does not appear to have an off switch.

Why Donald Trump isn’t the successful businessman he claims to be

He’s long-boasted of how his business acumen makes him fit for president. But, Kurt Eichenwald delves into the history of his deals and finds a catalogue of calamitous ventures

The year was 1993, and his target was Native Americans, particularly those running casinos who, Trump was telling a congressional hearing, were sucking up to criminals.

Trump, who at the time was a major casino operator, appeared before a panel on Native American gaming with a prepared statement that was level-headed and raised regulatory concerns in a mature way. But, in his opening words, Trump announced that his written speech was boring, so he went off-script, even questioning the heritage of some Native American casino operators, saying they “don’t look like Indians” and launching into a tirade about “rampant” criminal activities on reservations.

.. His words were, as is so often the case, incendiary. Lawmakers, latching onto his claim to know more than law enforcement about ongoing criminal activity at Native American casinos, challenged Trump to bring his information to the FBI. One attacked Trump’s argument as the most “irresponsible testimony” he had ever heard.

.. For opponents of Trump’s presidential run, this contretemps about Native Americans might seem like a distant but familiar echo of the racism charges that have dogged his campaign, including his repeated taunting of Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” because she claims native ancestry.

.. Trump, through his offensive tantrum, was throwing away financial opportunities, yet another reminder that, for all his boasting of his acumen and flaunting of his wealth, the self-proclaimed billionaire has often been a lousy businessman.

.. As Trump was denigrating Native Americans before Congress, other casino magnates were striking management agreements with them.

.. in his purposeless, false and inflammatory statements before Congress, Trump alienated politicians from around the country, including some who had the power to influence construction contracts –problems that could have been avoided if he had simply read his prepared speech rather than ad-libbing.

.. Lost contracts, bankruptcies, defaults, deceptions and indifference to investors – Trump’s business career is a long, long list of such troubles

.. arrogance and recklessness of a businessman whose main talent is self-promotion.

.. He is also pretty good at self-deception, and plain old deception.
.. “I’m just telling you, you wouldn’t say that you’re failing,” he said in a 2007 deposition when asked to explain why he would give an upbeat assessment of his business even if it was in trouble. “If somebody said, ‘How you doing?’ You’re going to say you’re doing good.” Perhaps such dissembling is fine in polite cocktail party conversation, but in the business world it’s called lying.
.. And while Trump is quick to boast that his purported billions prove his business acumen, his net worth is almost unknowable given the loose standards and numerous outright misrepresentations he has made over the years. In that 2007 deposition, Trump said he based estimates of his net worth at times on “psychology” and “my own feelings”. But those feelings are often wrong – in 2004, he presented unaudited financials to Deutsche Bank while seeking a loan, claiming he was worth $3.5bn. The bank concluded Trump was, to say the least, puffing; it put his net worth at $788m, records show.

.. He personally guaranteed $40m of the loan to his company, so Deutsche coughed up. He later defaulted on that commitment.

.. Trump’s many misrepresentations of his successes and his failures matter – a lot.

.. He has no voting record and presents few details about specific policies. Instead, he sells himself as qualified to run the country because he is a businessman who knows how to get things done, and his financial dealings are the only part of his background available to assess his competence to lead the country. And while Trump has had a few successes in business, most of his ventures have been disasters.

.. When he was ready for college, Trump wanted to be a movie producer, perhaps the first sign that he was far more interested in the glitz of business than the nuts and bolts.

.. He applied to the University of Southern California to pursue a film career, but when that didn’t work out, he attended Fordham University; two years later, he transferred to the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and got a degree in economics.

.. Almost all of his best-known successes are attributable to family ties or money given to him by his father.

.. The son of wealthy developer Fred Trump, he went to work for his father’s real estate business immediately after graduating from Wharton and found some success by taking advantage of his father’s riches and close ties to the power brokers in the New York Democratic Party, particularly his decades-long friend Abe Beame, the former mayor of the city.

Even with those advantages, a few of Trump’s initial deals for his father were busts, based on the profits.

His first project was revitalising the Swifton Village apartment complex in Cleveland, which his father had purchased for $5.7m in 1962. After Trump finished his work, they sold the complex for $6.75m, which, while appearing to be a small return, was a loss; in constant dollars, the apartment buildings would have had to sell for $7.9m to have earned an actual profit. Still, Trump happily boasted about his supposed success with Swifton Village and about his surging personal wealth.

.. in 1970, he took another shot at joining the entertainment business by investing $70,000, to snag a co-producer’s credit for a Broadway comedy called Paris Is Out! Once again, Trump failed; the play bombed, closing after just 96 performances.

.. The next year, he moved to Manhattan from the outer boroughs, still largely dependent on Daddy. In 1972, Trump’s father brought him into a limited partnership that developed and owned a senior citizen apartment complex in East Orange, New Jersey.

Fred Trump owned 75 per cent, but two years later shrunk his ownership to 27 per cent by turning over the rest of his stake to two entities controlled by his son. Another two years passed, and then Fred Trump named him the beneficiary of a $1m trust that provided him with $1.3m in income (2015 dollars) over the next five years.

.. In 1978, he boosted his son’s fortunes again, hiring him as a consultant to help sell his ownership interest in a real estate partnership to the Grandcor Company and Port Electric Supply Corp. The deal was enormously lucrative for Donald Trump, particularly since it just fell into his lap thanks to his family. Under the deal, Grandcor agreed to pay him an additional $190,000, while Port Electric kicked in $228,500. The payments were made over several years, but the value in present-day dollars on the final sum he received is $10.4m.

.. Despite having no real success of his own, by the late 1970s, Trump was swaggering through Manhattan, gaining a reputation as a crass self-promoter. He hung out in the fancy nightspot Le Club, where he was chums with prominent New Yorkers like Roy Cohn, the one-time aide to Senator Joe McCarthy who was one of the city’s most feared and politically connected attorneys. Cohn became one of the developer’s lifelong mentors, encouraging the pugilistic personality that showed itself all the way back in second grade, when Trump punched his music teacher.

.. Soon Trump gained the public recognition he craved. Through a wholly owned corporation called Wembley Realty, Trump struck a partnership with a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels. That partnership, Regency Lexington, purchased the struggling Commodore Hotel for redevelopment into the Grand Hyatt New York, a deal Trump crowed about when he announced he was running for president.

He failed to mention that this deal was once again largely attributable to Daddy, who co-guaranteed with Hyatt a construction loan for $70m and arranged a credit line for his boy with Chase Manhattan Bank.

.. The credit line was a favour to the Trump family, which had brought huge profits to the bank; according to regulatory records, the revolving loan was set up without even requiring a written agreement. Topping off the freebies and special deals that flowed Trump’s way, the city tossed in a 40-year tax abatement. Trump’s “success” with the Hyatt was simply the result of money from his dad, his dad’s bank, Hyatt and the taxpayers of New York City.

.. Despite the outward signs of success, Trump’s personal finances were a disaster. In 1978, the year his father set up that sweet credit line at Chase, Donald’s tax returns showed personal losses of $406,386 – $1.5m in present-day dollars. Things grew worse in 1979, when he reported an income of negative $3.4m, $11.2m in constant dollars. All of this traced back to big losses in three real estate partnerships and interest he owed Chase. With Trump sucking wind and rapidly drawing down his line of credit, he turned again to Daddy, who in 1980 agreed to lend him $7.5m.

.. All of these names and numbers can grow confusing for voters with little exposure to the business world. So to sum it all up, Trump is rich because he was born rich – and without his father repeatedly bailing him out, he would have likely filed for personal bankruptcy before he was 35. As his personal finances were falling apart, Trump got a big idea for how to make money: casinos.

.. At the time, Trump was deep into plans to turn Bonwit Teller’s flagship department store into Trump Tower – a transformation achieved with the help of Roy Cohn, who fought in the courts to win Trump a huge tax abatement. Still, Trump jumped on the casino idea and had a lawyer reach out to the owners to negotiate a lease deal.
.. Trump wanted to build a 39-story, 612-room hotel and casino, but the banks refused to finance his adventure. So, instead, he struck a partnership with Harrah’s Entertainment in which the global gaming company and subsidiary of Holiday Inn Inc put up all the money in exchange for Trump developing the property. In 1984, Harrah’s at Trump Plaza opened, and Trump seethed. He had wanted his name to be the marquee brand, even though Harrah’s had an international reputation in casinos and he had none. He even delayed building a garage because his name was not being used prominently enough in the marketing.

..According to court papers, Harrah’s spent $9.3m promoting the Trump name, giving the New York developer a reputation in the casino business he’d never had before. And Harrah’s quickly learned the price – now, with Trump able to argue he knew casinos, financing opportunities that did not exist before opened up, and he was able to use Harrah’s promotion of him as a lever against the entertainment company. Soon after that first casino opened, Trump took advantage of his new credibility with financial backers interested in the gaming business to purchase the nearly completed Hilton Atlantic City Hotel for just $320m; he renamed it Trump Castle. The business plan was ludicrous: Trump had not only doubled down his bet on Atlantic City casinos but was now operating two businesses in direct competition with each other. When Trump Castle opened in 1985, Harrah’s decided to ditch Trump and sold its interest in their joint venture to him for $220m.

.. Still, he wanted more in Atlantic City – specifically, the Taj Mahal, the largest casino complex ever, which Resorts International was building. This made the Casino Control Commission nervous because it could have meant that the financial security of Atlantic City would be riding on the back of one man.

.. his argument went, he was Donald Trump. He would contain costs, he said, because banks would be practically throwing money at him, and at prime rates. He would be on a solid financial foundation because the banks loved him so much, unlike lots of other companies and casinos that used below-investment-grade, high-interest junk bonds for their financing. “I’m talking about banking institutions, not these junk bonds, which are ridiculous,” he testified.

.. But Trump’s braggadocio proved empty. No financial institution gave him anything. Instead, he financed the deal with $675m in junk bonds, agreeing to pay an astonishing 14 percent interest, about 50 percent more than he had projected.

That pushed Trump’s total debt for his three casinos to $1.2bn. For the renamed Trump Taj Mahal to break even, it would have to pull in as much as $1.3m a day in revenue, more than any casino ever.

Disaster hit fast. As had been predicted by some Wall Street analysts, Trump’s voracious appetite cannibalised his other casinos – it was as if Trump had tipped the Atlantic City boardwalk and slid all his customers at the Trump Castle and Trump Plaza down to the Taj. Revenues for the two smaller casinos plummeted a combined $58m that first year.

.. Trump introduced the airline with his usual style – by insulting the competition. At an elegant event at Logan Airport in Boston, Trump took the stage and suggested that the other airline with a northeastern shuttle, Pan Am, flew unsafe planes. Pan Am didn’t have enough cash, he said, and so it couldn’t spend as much as the Trump Shuttle on maintenance. “I’m not criticising Pan Am,” Trump told the assembled crowd. “I’m just speaking facts.” But Trump offered no proof, and others in the airline industry seethed; talking about possible crashes was bad for everyone’s business.

..  He was spending $1m to update each of the planes, which were individually worth only $4m. With those changes, he boasted, he would increase the shuttle’s market share from 55 to 75 percent. But just like with casinos, Trump was in a business he knew nothing about.

.. Customers on a one-hour flight from Washington to New York didn’t want luxury; they wanted reliability and competitive prices. Trump Shuttle never turned a profit. But it didn’t have much of a chance; even as he was preening about his successes, Trump’s businesses were falling apart and would soon bring the shuttle crashing down.

.. At 1:40pm on 10 October, 1989, the four-blade rotor and tail rotor broke off of a helicopter flying above the pine woodlands near Forked River, New Jersey. The craft plunged 2,800 feet to the ground, killing all five passengers. Among them were three of Trump’s top casino executives.
.. With the best managers of his casinos dead, Trump for the first time took responsibility for running the day-to-day operations in Atlantic City. His mercurial and belligerent style made a quick impact – some top executives walked, unwilling to put up with his eccentricities, while Trump booted others. The casinos were struggling so badly that Trump was sweating whether a few big winners might pull him under.
.. executives at the casino were humiliated, since Trump was signalling that he was frightened customers might win.
.. By early 1990, as financial prospects at the casinos worsened, Trump began badmouthing the executives who had died, laying blame on them, although the cause of his problems was the precarious, debt-laden business structure he had built.
.. By June 1990, Trump was on the verge of missing a $43m interest payment to the investors in the Taj’s junk bonds. Facing ruin, he met with his bankers, who had almost no recourse – they had been as reckless as Trump. By lending him billions – with loans for his real estate, his casinos, his airline and other businesses – they could fail if Trump went down. So the banks agreed to lend him tens of millions more in exchange for Trump temporarily ceding control over his multi billion-dollar empire and accepting a budget of $450,000 a month for personal expenditures. In August, New Jersey regulators prepared a report totaling Trump’s debt at $3.4bn, writing that “a complete financial collapse of the Trump Organisation was not out of the question.”
.. By December, Trump was on the verge of missing an interest payment on the debt of Trump Castle, and there was no room left to manoeuvre with the banks this time. So, just as he had in the past, Trump turned to Dad for help, according to New Jersey state regulatory records. On December 17, 1990, Fred Trump handed a certified cheque for $3.35m payable to the Trump Castle to his attorney, Howard Snyder. Snyder travelled to the Castle and opened an account in the name of Fred Trump. The cheque was deposited into that account and a blackjack dealer paid out $3.35m to Snyder in gray $5,000 chips. Snyder put the chips in a small case and left; no gambling took place. The next day, a similar “loan” was made – except by wire transfer rather than by cheque – for an additional $150,000. This surreptitious, and unreported, loan allowed Donald Trump to make that interest payment.
.. Trump’s casino empire was doomed. A little more than a year after the opening of the Taj, that casino was in bankruptcy court, and was soon followed there by the Plaza and the Castle. Under the reorganisation, Trump turned over half his interest in the businesses in exchange for lower rates of interest, as well as a deferral of payments and an agreement to wait at least five years before pursuing Trump for the personal guarantees he had made on some of the debt.
.. In 2004, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts – the new name for Trump’s casino holdings – filed for bankruptcy, and Trump was forced to relinquish his post as chief executive. The name of the company was then changed to Trump Entertainment Resorts; it filed for bankruptcy in 2009, four days after Trump resigned from the board.
.. In his books and public statements, Trump holds up this bankruptcy as yet more proof of his business genius; after all, his logic goes, he climbed out of a hole so deep few others could have done it. He even brags now about how deep that hole was. Trump falsely claimed in two of his books that he owed $9.2bn, rather than the actual number, $3.4bn, making his recovery seem far more impressive.
.. When challenged on the misrepresentation during a 2007 deposition, Trump blamed the error on Meredith McIver, a longtime employee who helped write that book. Trump testified that he recognised the mistake shortly after the first book mentioning it was published; he never explained why he allowed it to appear again in the paperback edition and even in his next book. McIver went on to garner some national recognition as a Trump scapegoat – nine years later, when Trump’s wife, Melania, delivered a speech at the Republican National Convention that was partially plagiarised from Michelle Obama, the campaign blamed McIver. But despite all this supposed sloppiness, Trump has never directed his trademark phrase “You’re fired!” at this loyal employee.

.. In 2008, he defaulted on a $640m construction loan for Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago, and the primary lender, Deutsche Bank, sued him. Trump counter-sued, howling that the bank had damaged his reputation.
.. Trump has also based huge projects on temporary business trends. For example, for a few years during the George W Bush administration, wealthy expatriates from around the Middle East flocked to Dubai. In response, Trump launched work on a 62-story luxury hotel and apartment complex on an artificial island shaped like a palm tree. But, as was predictable from the start, there were only so many rich people willing to travel to the United Arab Emirates, so the flood of wealthy foreigners into the country slowed. The Trump Organisation was forced to walk away from the project, flushing its investments in it.
Beginning in 2006, Trump decided to take a new direction and basically cut back on building in favour of selling his name. This led to what might be called his nonsense deals, with Trump slapping his name on everything but the sidewalk, hoping people would buy products just because of his brand.
.. Trump hosted a glitzy event in 2006 touting Trump Mortgage, then proclaimed he had nothing to do with managing the firm when it collapsed 18 months later. He tried again, rechristening the failed entity as Trump Financial. It also failed.
That same year, he opened GoTrump.com, an online travel service that never amounted to more than a vanity site; the URL now sends searchers straight to the Trump campaign website.
.. Also in 2006, Trump unveiled Trump Vodka, predicting that the T&T (Trump and Tonic) would become the most requested drink in America (he also marketed it to his friends in Russia, land of some of the world’s greatest vodkas); within a few years, the company closed because of poor sales.
.. In 2007, Trump Steaks arrived. After two months of being primarily available for sale at Sharper Image, that endeavour ended; the head of Sharper Image said barely any steaks sold... Amusing as those fiascoes are for those of us who didn’t lose money on them, the most painful debacles to witness were many involving licensing agreements Trump sold to people in fields related to real estate. There is the now-infamous Trump University, where students who paid hefty fees were supposed to learn how to make fortunes in that industry by being trained by experts handpicked by Trump; many students have sued, saying the enterprise was a scam in which Trump allowed his name to be used but had nothing else to do with it, despite his claims to the contrary in the marketing for the “school”.

.. Particularly damning was the testimony of former employee Ronald Schnackenberg, who recalled being chastised by Trump University officials for failing to push a near-destitute couple into paying $35,000 for classes by using their disability income and a home equity loan.
Around the country, buyers were led to believe they were purchasing apartments in buildings overseen by Trump, although his only involvement in many cases was getting paid for the use of his brand.
.. In 2010, lenders foreclosed on the $355m project. Even though Trump’s name was listed on the condominium’s website as the developer, he immediately distanced himself, saying he had only licensed his name.
.. A similarly sordid tale unfolded for Trump Ocean Resort Baja Mexico, a 525-unit luxury vacation home complex that Trump proclaimed was going to be “very, very special”. His name and image were all over the property, and he even personally appeared in the marketing video discussing how investors would be “following” him if they bought into the building. Scores of buyers ponied up deposits in 2006, but by 2009 the project was still just a hole in the ground. That year, the developers notified condo buyers their $32m in deposits had been spent, no bank financing could be obtained, and they were walking away from the project. Scores of lawsuits claimed the buyers were deceived into believing Trump was the developer. Trump walked away from the deal, saying that if the condo buyers had any questions, they needed to contact the developer – and that wasn’t him, contrary to what the marketing material implied.
.. The same story has played out again and again. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, people who thought they were buying into a Trump property lost their deposits of at least $100,000, with Trump saying it was not his responsibility because he had only licensed his name
.. Investors in another failed Floridian property, Trump Tower Tampa, put up millions in the project in 2005 believing the building was being constructed by him. Instead, they discovered it was all a sham in 2007, inadvertently from Trump, when he sued the builder for failing to pay his license fees. The investors lost their money, and finally got to hear Trump respond to allegations that he had defrauded them when they sued him. In a deposition, lawyers for the Tampa buyers asked him if he would be responsible for any shoddy construction; Trump responded that he had “no liability” because it was only a name-licensing deal. As for the investors, some of whom surrendered their life savings for what they thought was a chance to live in a Trump property, Trump said they at least dodged the collapse of the real estate market by not buying the apartments earlier.

“They were better off losing their deposit,” he said.

So said the man who now proclaims that Americans can trust him, that he cares only about their needs and their country, that he is on the side of the little guy.

Paul Ryan’s Retirement in 7 points

It would be difficult to overestimate the meaning of Paul Ryan’s decision to retire from Congress even as he occupies the office of Speaker of the House. So let’s estimate.

Twice in the past three years, the sitting Speaker has walked away from the office. Ryan only became Speaker because John Boehner, his predecessor, quit rather than suffer through a challenge from the bomb throwers in the Republican House conference. There’s no precedent for this in American history. The Speakership has been one of the most powerful offices in the world. Now it’s apparently more agony than ecstasy for a Republican.

.. A Republican likely won’t be elected speaker after the 2018 midterms. Ryan’s decision suggests he and others have seen enough internal data to know their capacity to hold their 23-seat majority is slipping away.

.. That makes 42 GOP retirements among the 237 Republican members of the 115th Congress—a number vastly higher than any recent Congress’s.

.. the Ryan retirement isn’t just a sign. It’s like a fireball from the sky. And it will occasion more retreats and embolden more Democrats.

.. the GOP is Trump’s party now, not Ryan’s.

.. His mercurial nature and habit of punching down have combined with general GOP support for Trump personally to prevent any such rump from emerging in the Congress. He’s already claimed the scalps of two Republican senators—Bob Corker and Jeff Flake—who attempted to do just that. How did their standing athwart Trump help them or anyone?

.. some of the GOP’s wonkier agenda items are being implemented by the Trump administration–notably, in the sphere of deregulation. So, yes, it’s Trump’s party, but there’s an extent to which it’s also Ryan’s party, the conservative policy wonk’s party. Except, of course, for two big things.

The first big thing is entitlement reform, which is the issue nearest to Ryan’s heart.

.. No matter what happens, no matter the growth of the economy or the glories of #MAGA, the remorseless logic of the actuarial charts showing the government going bankrupt from the cost of Medicare and Medicaid sometime around 2030 is unyielding

.. The second big thing is the massive federal deficit, which is projected to stay above the $1 trillion mark for God knows how long. The bitter irony here is that the Tea Party–whose ab nihilo existence began the Republican resurgence in the House and Senate, and whose anti-Establishment ethos was the precursor to Trump–was obsessed with the idea that Barack Obama was breaking the bank, and rightly so. Now, the Tea Party forms the hard schist of the Republican base, and it’s clearly decided not to hold Trump accountable

The significance of Trump’s reported order to fire Mueller

President Trump reportedly ordered the dismissal of special counsel Robert Mueller last June, but backed down after White House counsel Don McGahn said he would quit rather than carry out the order, according to The New York Times and others. In Davos, the president dismissed the report as “fake news.” John Yang reports and Judy Woodruff talks to Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law School.