First he took Manhattan… now Donald Trump wants to turn part of Scotland into a golf course. He’s already worth ‘about $10 billion’ but – in between barking orders to his secretary (and our interviewer) – he says he’s not motivated by money. Nigel Farndale almost believes him
The first surprise is that Donald Trump, a man who prides himself on his focus and discipline, does not have clear surfaces in his office high above Manhattan.
On the contrary, the place is cluttered with baseball bats, American football helmets, assorted trophies, silver spades propped against walls, and dozens of framed magazine covers stacked rather than hung. Evidence of a busy mind perhaps; or a short attention span.
‘This is Shaq O’Neal’s shoe,’ he says picking up what appears to be a shipping container from among the sports vests and baseballs laid out on a sofa. ‘Here, have a hold of it. It’s a monster, right? Size 22.
He took it off immediately after winning the NBA. And this is Tyson’s world heavyweight belt.’ He places a heavy, medallioned belt in my other hand.
‘The trouble is, I have nowhere to put these things. And all these.’ He gestures at the picture frames and then at the extravagant views from his windows, Central Park to the north, the Empire State Building to the south. ‘Don’t have enough wall space because of all these windows. When I have time I’ll get them hung up.’
It sounds improbable, this lack of space, given that we are standing on the 26th floor of the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, the most valuable piece of property in Manhattan, and one of the many skyscrapers around the world which this 62-year-old real-estate tycoon owns. But the lack of time rings true. His day starts at 5.30am, and he takes between five and 10 minutes for lunch, at his desk.
Though he is friendly enough, when he comes to the end of a sentence he has a habit of saying, ‘Go ahead’, as in, next question. Boy, is it unnerving.
The second surprise, by the way, is that he has shaken hands. I thought he hated that, to the point of obsessive compulsiveness. ‘Well, you look like a nice clean guy,’ he says. ‘What am I going to catch from you? It is a terrible custom that we all have.
But I guess it’s better than the hug. I had this guy came in a couple of weeks ago, and he says, “Hi Donald,” and shakes my hand, then gives me a hug, then sits down and starts coughing, and I say, “What’s wrong?”
And he says, “I have the worst cold.” So I say, “Excuse me,” and go off and wash my hands.’ Pause. ‘Go ahead.’
What about social kissing? ‘The triple is the worst. In France. One, two, three. The triple is crazy.’
Is that what he has to do with his one-time girlfriend, Carla Bruni? Or is it the kiss on the hand, now that she is the wife of the President of France?
‘Carla? It’s not awkward with her. She’s a terrific woman who is going to do France proud. She is already a great first lady. Is that what they call it over there? Has she taken you guys in England by storm? So different.’ Pause. ‘Go ahead.’
Scotland, I say as we sit down – him behind a vast polished desk cluttered with phones, cuttings and magazines, most of them featuring him on the cover; me opposite on a chair that is slightly lower than his.
A few weeks ago he landed his plane, a private Boeing 727 with the name Trump written in giant gold letters on the side, on the tiny Isle of Lewis, dwarfing anything else flying into or out of that airport.
He then spent precisely 97 seconds looking (for the first time) at the house where his mother was born and raised, all the while being photographed by the world’s media.
Then, with all the subtlety of a bulldozer, proceeded to give evidence to a public inquiry into a controversial £1 billion development he is planning to build at Balmedie, 13 miles north of Aberdeen, arguing that he was going to build ‘the greatest golf course in the world’ there, and there was no point in doing it ‘in a half-assed way’.
Environmental groups have balked at the proposal to build two golf courses, a five-star hotel, 1,000 holiday homes and 500 private houses on a three-mile stretch of coastline. They have argued that it could cause irreversible damage to a protected area of sand dunes.You certainly like to make an entrance, I say.
‘Well, you know all that publicity surrounding my visit is good for Scotland. I got calls from all over the world after that, from people wanting to invest there. It was on all the front pages. So many people have written about it. I have cuttings sent. Kelly!’
This is another thing he does. Mid-thought he will bark out his secretary’s name.
‘Can you bring in that pile of cuttings?’ Kelly appears and hands them over. He flicks through them. The headline on one is ‘Donald Grump’. I ask what it is about.
‘To be honest I don’t have time to read them. I wouldn’t get anything else done if I did. These are just the ones about Scotland. There are 33 other locations we’re working on. We’re doing great jobs around the world. Dubai.
China. India. Russia. Look here. Your FT. Right on the front page. I think that’s good for Scotland. I think it’s a positive. I think we made our case well. We have right on our side. Assuming we get the necessary approvals, I think it will be a great thing for Scotland.
There are very few opponents. I think they were very ineffective in the commission. I think we made our case well. Great thing for Scotland.’
This is another thing. He repeats his message several times in the same block of thought, treating discourse as an exercise in attrition. (Take these repetitions as read from now on.) He also bigs himself up all the time.
In fact, I don’t think I have met anyone less self-conscious or, with the possible exception of Don King, the boxing promoter, more puffed-up with self-belief. The funny thing is though, it suits him. He does it with a strange, almost cartoonish charm.
Trump has said that one of the things that attracted him to the site was that he had ‘never seen such an unspoilt and dramatic seaside landscape’. Which is precisely what makes it ‘the perfect setting’ for a six-storey hotel with customised boulevard. Does he appreciate the irony of that comment?
‘You will hardly even see the course,’ he says. ‘There are hundreds of courses built on SSSIs [Sites of Special Scientific Interest] in the UK. Tremendous number. It’s going to be beautiful, otherwise it wouldn’t be suitable.’
When we spoke, the inquiry was due to publish its conclusion any day. Whatever the outcome, this has been an unusual experience for Trump. Has his celebrity been a hindrance in this case, does he suppose? ‘I think it’s been both positive and negative. Positive in the sense that people know the work I do.’
His name is on everything: his buildings, his planes, even, according to legend, his bed. Did the use of his name as part of the brand start out as egotism?
‘It probably started right here in this building. Every company in the country wanted this site. It was and remains the best site in New York.
In my twenties I wasn’t naming buildings after myself, and then I bought the building rights for this site over Tiffany and had a choice of naming this building Trump Tower or Tiffany Tower, and a friend of mine who was streetwise said, ”When you change your name to Tiffany, then call it Tiffany Tower.” So I called it Trump Tower and it was a tremendous success.’
I have been trying not to stare at his famous brush-forward, comb-over hairstyle, the one that was once compared to a sunken apricot soufflé and which has been described by the New York Times as ‘an elaborate structure best left to an architecture critic’. As we are talking about branding and image, the question seems to be begged. For the love of God, man, why?
‘People always comment on it, but it’s not that bad and it is mine. Look,’ he lifts it up. ‘I mean, I get killed on it. I had an article where someone said it was a hairpiece, but you can see it isn’t.’ Does he use gel?
‘No, I use spray actually. I’ll comb it wet then spray it so it doesn’t get blown away by the wind. I’ve taken a lot of heat on the hair but, hey, it seems to work. Some people say, “Why don’t you comb it back?” but I don’t think NBC would be happy. They don’t want to take any chances.
‘Hey, Kelly! Can you bring in the figures from Nielsen?’
He is referring to the ratings for his US television show, The Apprentice, which he launched, along with the catchphrase ‘You’re Fired’.
‘There,’ he says, handing over the figures. ‘Didn’t even write them myself! When my show became a success I had all these people trying to copy it. Martha Stewart. Richard Branson.
They all failed. I really like Richard even though he tried to copy my show and failed. His show bombed whereas mine was the number one rated. The Apprentice has just been renewed for two more years.’
What about Sir Alan Sugar? Hasn’t his British version of The Apprentice done as well as Trump’s?
‘He does a good job over there. I chose him with [the producer] Mark Burnett. We have tried this format in lots of countries with different entrepreneurs and Alan has done it best.’
I heard there was tension between them, especially after Sir Alan described Trump as being ‘full of himself’ and ‘loud and garish’.
‘You mean early on? Well, if there was tension it was because he said he was going to top the rating in the United States, relatively speaking, and I said that was hard because I had the number one show. You want a Coke? Two Diet Cokes please, Kelly!’
The Washington Post once said that, ‘everything in Trump world is fabulous, or in first place, or better looking, or richer, or taller, or it has bigger breasts.’ Other papers have not been so kind, one arguing that with his taste for gilt and marble and overstatement, Trump has all the style and subtlety of a latterday Liberace.
There has been much speculation about how much he is worth. Manhattan seems to be his own personal Monopoly board, it’s true, but some of the properties associated with him around the world are not necessarily owned by him.
He sued Timothy O’Brien, a New York Times reporter, over TrumpNation, a book that claimed he was worth considerably less that he said he was.
Does he, I ask, know how much he is worth?
‘I may be worth approximately $10 billion.’
Presumably, the goalposts keep moving, I say, and he finds himself competing with other billionaires.
‘You keep going forward. I think if you love what you’re doing, that’s what you do. I have a choice. I could stay home and relax but I chose not to do that. If you like what you’re doing, you keep going forward.
By the way, I know plenty of very rich people who are not happy people. Money can be a negative. I know people who became unhappy after making their money. Equally I know people without much money who are very content. So it’s a mindset.’
Is he happy? ‘I think so. Content.’
Kelly’s voice comes over the intercom. ‘It’s Ivanka.’
Trump looks at me knowingly, and says, ‘The famous Ivanka.’ He presses the speaker button on his phone.
‘Hi, honey, I have a powerful man in my office, from The Sunday Telegraph.’
‘Is he treating you nicely? Am I gonna have to come up there?’
‘He’s gonna treat me nicely until I read the story, then I’m going to say, “That sonofabitch, I should have never wasted my time.” How you doing, honey?’
Father and daughter discuss diaries. Can she do London? He’s going to be in LA that day, etc. The famous Ivanka is his daughter by the equally famous Ivana; she of the blonde beehive who once said: ‘Don’t get mad, get everything.’
Their messy divorce in 1992 came after Ivana discovered Donald’s affair with American beauty queen Marla Maples, whom he went on to marry, and later divorce. He is now married to Melania Knauss, a former model from Slovenia 24 years his junior.
Ivanka works for the Trump Organisation, as do her two grown-up brothers. He puts the phone down.
‘That was about Dubai. Go ahead.’
We talk about how inheriting wealth can undermine children. ‘I think it can be tough, but it’s hard to not give them these things because they grew up in Mar-a-Lago [Palm Beach] or Trump Tower, so it’s easier said than done.
But you want to keep your children grounded, so mine work. Three out of five of them have come into the business – the others are too young – and they are doing a great job, Ivanka, Don and Eric. The fact they are working keeps them grounded.’
Does he assume most people are motivated by money?
‘I don’t think I’m motivated by money. I’m motivated by enjoyment. I do what I do well. If I was motivated only by money I would have stopped working.’
Trump himself was born into wealth, the son of property tycoon Fred Trump. After gaining an economics degree in 1968, he joined his father’s company and worked with him for five years. Would he have made it without his father’s fortune? ‘My father built in Brooklyn and Queens, and I learnt a lot from him in terms of how to negotiate. The biggest thing I learnt was that my father worked hard and was happy. I figured that is the way to be happy.’
A rare moment of reflection is upon us. When his father died 10 years ago, he says, it made him wonder what it was all for. ‘When you lose your parents you are an orphan all of a sudden, however old you are. It tells you that time is not something you can discount.
‘I had loving parents. My father always showed great confidence in me. Even before I was 20 he would send me out to do jobs. He praised me all the time. I’ve always had great success and it had a lot to do with that. If you sink your first 3ft putt, you know it’s going to go well for you for the rest of the round. So go ahead.’
I say the picture I have of him is of an optimist, a bullish one with a can-do spirit, but is there a melancholy or reflective side the public doesn’t see?
‘I think I have a lot of thoughtful moments, but I don’t think I’m always optimistic. I was the first to call the recession two years ago on CNN and NBC and everyone said I was kidding. That’s not an optimist. It’s a realist. I prepared very nicely and went to places that are booming.
Other people are in places that are dying. Either I was intelligent or lucky. I used to tell people not to take exploding mortgages because that’s what they do, explode in your face. You know, sub-prime. Two years ago I was saying don’t buy real estate because the price is too high. Now I am saying buy real estate because this is going to be a great time.’
During the property slump of the early Nineties, his business was a staggering $9.2 billion in debt. How did he deal with it? He called a meeting with his creditors and, after warmly welcoming them, pitched for more time to repay them. Within hours they were on side – but only on condition that Trump stopped spending like a man with unlimited resources.
Trump disagreed. Unless he behaved like a billionaire, how could he expect the business world to treat him like one? Within a year of this meeting, he had proved himself right. Not only was he able to repay the debt, but he was back in healthy profit.
In one of the 14 how-to-get-rich books he has published, he writes that a low point came when he passed a beggar on the street and realised ‘the beggar was worth $9.2 billion more than I was.’ How did he keep his nerve when he owed that amount?
‘Many people I knew were going bankrupt and I didn’t go bankrupt. I learnt a lot about myself. I learnt that I could handle pressure. I know a lot of people who are smart, but who can’t handle pressure, and they might as well not be smart.’
A man in a suit pops his head around the door and says: ‘Money’s in. Came in 2.30.’
‘Congratulations.’ ?Then to me: ‘Just did a big deal. Lot of money, and there were questions as to whether those involved would be able to come up with the money because it was agreed in better times, hundreds of millions. Go ahead.’
He talks about the successes in his public life a great deal, but what about the failures in his private life, namely that two of his marriages ended in divorce?
‘I find business a lot easier to understand than relationships,’ he says candidly. ‘I know some people who have a great relationship but can’t add two and two. Business for me is a natural thing. Relationships are not natural to me. I don’t blame myself.
I was married to two very good women before my third marriage but it was hard for them and unfair for them to compete against my business. It takes a lot of time. But look, there are lots of advantages too.’
Is he a difficult person to live with?
‘I think I am a very easy person to live with for the right woman. A person who gives you space. Takes the heat off. For the wrong kind of woman I am impossible. But the time-competition is tough for a woman. I don’t think it is easy being married to me, frankly.’
Does he have a strong sex drive? ‘Marla [his second wife] spoke about my sex drive but I didn’t. That’s all a personal thing. Generally speaking, I think a strong and successful person will have a stronger sex drive than someone who isn’t successful. History has proved that to be a fact, right?’
I presume this means he has no need of Viagra? He has big curling lips like Elvis and these now pucker as he mouths the word ‘No.’
His youngest child is two, he is 62. What’s it like being a father at that age?
‘I cope. I really like him, he’s a great kid with a great personality. I have a wife, Melania, who really takes care of the baby. She doesn’t put any pressure on me to do the things a lot of fathers have to do. She is totally content to really take care of that baby.’
We have been talking for an hour by this stage, and I can sense the time has come to wrap things up. He shakes my hand again. Afterwards, downstairs in the cool of the lobby, I feel slightly dazed.
He is exhausting company. Even here you can’t get away from his neurotic energy. The rose marble floors are teeming with tourists come to worship at this shrine to capitalism.
As souvenirs, they take away Donald Trump Signature Collection shirts, cufflinks and ties. For the budget-conscious there are baseball caps, key rings and mugs emblazoned with his name. In the gold-plated world of Donald Trump, it seems, everything is for sale and everything has a price… especially his name.