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Trump Off Camera: The Man Behind The 'In-Your-Face Provocateur'

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, is known for his outspoken personality and oversize public image, which he believes help build his brand name.

"Whether it's good press or bad press, it's getting your name out there," Washington Post investigative reporter Michael Kranish tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "Getting your name on the gossip pages and the front pages and even the sports pages, [is] all in the effort of building the name."

Kranish and his Post colleague Marc Fisher are the authors of Trump Revealed, a biography about Trump's life and career that is based on the work of more than 20 of the Post's reporters, editors and fact-checkers.

Fisher says 20 hours of interviews with Trump helped him come to a better understanding of the candidate. "The man we've come to know and understand is someone who has led a strikingly solitary life given how public he is and how glad-handing his image is," Fisher said. "When I asked him about friendships, he said he really doesn't have friendships of the kind that most people would describe."

Interview Highlights

On what Trump was like as a kid

Marc Fisher: He was, by both his friends' description and his own, a rambunctious kid who got in trouble a lot and who was a bit of a ruffian. From the youngest age, about age 6 or 7, he pelted the neighbor's toddler with rocks from across the yard. He pulled the pigtails of a classmate. He got into a physical altercation with one of his teachers, and so he was someone who was kind of a rambunctious kid, even obnoxious by some accounts, and he says that he hasn't changed since second grade. So that kind of in-your-face provocateur character that we've come to see in the campaign is something that traces back very cleanly and consistently to this childhood as kind of a tough kid.

On how a lawsuit that charged his father's real estate company with racial bias influenced Trump's business philosophy

Donald Trump decided that he would, in fact, fight like hell, and he absorbed in a philosophy that he maintains to this day — when you're hit, hit back 10 times harder.

Michael Kranish: This was a very serious lawsuit, one of the most significant racial bias cases at the time, and it's very interesting. We were able to obtain, under Freedom of Information Act requests, all of the transcripts for this court case. What happened was, Donald had to decide, was he going to settle this case or was he going to fight the federal government? One night in Manhattan he walked into a nightclub that he belonged to, and there was a man named Roy Cohn, and Roy Cohn of course is the famous or infamous lawyer who was the aide to Joseph McCarthy of the Army-McCarthy hearings that was held in the 1950s. Donald got to talking to Roy Cohn and told him about this racial bias case brought by the federal government, and Cohn, who himself had fought the federal government many times in his career, said: "Don't settle. Fight like hell. When they hit you, hit back 10 times harder."

The bottom line is, after this discussion at the nightclub, Donald Trump decided that he would, in fact, fight like hell, and he absorbed in a philosophy that he maintains to this day — when you're hit, hit back 10 times harder.

On Trump using a pseudonym to be his own press agent

Fisher: So what happened is in an effort to kind of spread his image around the city and around the country eventually, Donald Trump would act as his own press agent. He would call reporters as "John Miller" or "John Barron," he wouldn't bother even to disguise his voice, but he would call them up and say, "Donald Trump is going to be out at this club with this amazing celebrity or this model," or "Donald Trump is going to be groundbreaking for a new building." And he would kind of gin up press coverage as this alter ego, and he would also call reporters to complain about their stories or to encourage them to think about Donald Trump in a better light. ...

Some of the reporters who got these calls knew that it was Trump, and they thought this was kind of weird, but they went along with it; others didn't know. We were lucky enough to get a recording that someone sent me of one of these calls in which he presents himself as John Miller to a reporter for People magazine and if you listen to the recording, it sounds astonishingly like Donald Trump because it is Donald Trump. He carries this on as if no one knows what his very distinctive voice sounds like, and he talks about Donald Trump in this very extremely complimentary way and about what a ladies' man he is, and how women can't stop themselves from coming to him and seeking to go out with him, and this is something that he did for many, many years.

On Trump's debt in the 1990s

Kranish: [The banks] really felt that if they basically forced Donald Trump to repay his debts that they were going to lose everything themselves. Donald Trump had such extraordinary leverage that there came a day when the bankers were concerned that Donald Trump did not have insurance on his yacht, which he bought for some $20 million. Trump's associates basically told the bank, "Look, you need to pay for the insurance on the yacht, because if something happens to it, you'll have nothing." He eventually got the bank to pay insurance that Donald Trump himself didn't have. Similarly, Donald Trump had five helicopters the banks wanted to take back. For a time, he actually hid those five helicopters, because he was concerned they'd be swept up by the banks. Eventually they were turned over, but it just shows you the difficult times that Donald Trump was having at that time.

On Trump's business model of selling his name and his image

Fisher: Over time, what Donald Trump learned was that he could do all these things for himself. So the big question is, is he capable of doing this for anyone other than himself? And the track record really makes me kind of skeptical about that, because what we have is someone who, throughout his career, has found ways to enrich himself at the expense of others.

What Donald Trump learned from that experience in New York and Atlantic City was that he could build his entire business model around this idea of selling his image and his name. The more he got people to believe that his image was worth millions, the more he would be able to go out and sell just his name. So many of his latter day projects over the last couple of decades, in fact most of them, do not involve Donald Trump building anything, do not involve Donald Trump creating jobs, they involve Donald Trump going to a developer and saying, "I will sell you my name that you can put on your building that you have invested in, with your money, and that you will give me a steady, guaranteed income flow." That's the arrangement he had on many if not most of his building projects in the United States and around the world that have been done in the last 10, 20 years, and similarly with all the other businesses that he's gotten into, whether it's selling medicines or selling a university that he created. All of these things are cases where his involvement on a day-to-day basis is marginal or even nonexistent — what he's sold is the name, and he gets a set multimillion-dollar fee every year that's guaranteed, even if the project fails.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.