For two years, beginning in 1978, Donald Trump focused most of his energy on building what would become his signature achievement, his gold-tinged, 58-story Trump Tower on New York’s Fifth Avenue. After working the city bureaucracy and public opinion, he finally got permission to tear down the Bonwit Teller department store on the site, a beloved Art Deco gem, and begin construction.
Before demolition, Trump had promised the Metropolitan Museum of Art that he would preserve two 15-foot-tall limestone relief panels of nearly naked goddesses dancing high above the busy avenue. But on a spring morning in 1980, Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, a curator at the museum, received an emergency call: Trump’s workers were blasting the sculptures to bits. Hunter-Stiebel jumped into a cab and raced to the site, leaping out amid paralyzed traffic to run the last 10 blocks, even though she was nine months pregnant. When she got to Bonwit Teller, “they were jackhammering through the neck of one of the figures,” she told The Washington Post in 2016.
The next morning, “John Baron,” identified as a “vice president of the Trump organization,” was quoted in the New York Times as saying that the sculptures were “without artistic merit” and had to go. There was no John Baron; Trump often spoke to reporters pretending to be a spokesman by that name.
Trump already had won the right to tear down the building, but that was not enough. He had to keep hitting back at the preservationists and art lovers who had fought him.
The president has rarely seen much value in being magnanimous when he wins. Now that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation is finally done, with no further criminal charges forthcoming, Trump is following the same pattern he always has after a triumph: Through half a century in business and politics, his instinct is consistently to keep the battle going, even in victory.
Since Mueller delivered his report to Attorney General William P. Barr, Trump has been crowing about his “Complete and Total EXONERATION,” even though Mueller specifically said that the report “does not exonerate him.” But he’s also already moving to take his pound of flesh from those who opposed him. Trump said that “there are people out there who have done very bad things, I would say treasonous things, against our country,” and White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Democrats and media figures who accused Trump of working with Russia have made accusations “equal to treason, which is punishable by death in this country.” For Trump, there can never be enough winning.
In his business life, Trump often refused to settle for good news, insisting on making big, antagonistic gestures to humiliate defeated opponents.
In 1995, he bought 40 Wall Street, an iconic 72-story office building in Lower Manhattan. The purchase was a triumph; he paid a paltry $8 million, and its value soared almost immediately. But Trump was impatient about clearing out the building to renovate it, and a law firm near the top of the tower was resisting leaving. One winter morning, the lawyers arrived in the lobby to find broken elevators, no heat and their new landlord waiting to greet them.
“It was brutal,” Trump recalled in a 2016 interview with The Post. “There were, like, 120 lawyers standing in the lobby. . . . I said, ‘Fellas, you got to walk upstairs because the elevators are under repair.’ ” Trump retold the story with an impish smile and a satisfied chuckle.
At moments when he might most be expected to “act with compassion, generosity, consideration and forgiveness,” as Tony Schwartz, co-author of Trump’s“The Art of the Deal” bestseller, put it, Trump instead resumed his attacks, showing himself to be “reactive, deceitful, distracted, vindictive, impulsive, and, above all, self-absorbed.”
In 2008, after two years of heated battle with property owners and government regulators, Trump won permission to build two golf courses and a luxury hotel on the Scottish coast. Yet he fought on against a few recalcitrant neighbors who had opposed him: He had his staff plant a row of trees in front of one neighbor’s house, obscuring their view of the sea, and his workers blocked in another neighbor’s cottage, building a two-story-high hill in their front yard so that whenever it rained, their yard filled with water.
After Trump won the presidency, he made what seemed to be a peace offering to Hillary and Bill Clinton. “They’re good people,” he said on “60 Minutes.” “I don’t want to hurt them.” But Trump quickly returned to the offensive: Four months after he took office, his erstwhile opponent was “Crooked Hillary” once again, and now he wanted the Justice Department to investigate her.
How Trump fights has little to do with whether he has won or lost. He believes in his way of doing business, and, according to fans and critics who have worked with him for many years, he resists suggestions that his actions may be counterproductive. “He really believes he’s going to win,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax, who speaks to Trump frequently. “He really does believe in the power of belief. Most people look at litigation or investigation as a grave danger. The president looks at legal matters as a normal course of doing business.”
To Trump, winning is not just about cutting down an opponent, but about showing off his victory to the wider world. For all his wealth and power, he has spent most of his life scrapping for respect and climbing back from adversity. At pivotal points throughout his career, his initiatives flopped, his finances tanked and his reputation sagged. Always, he asserted that he would fight to the end. Often, he pushed back hard at those he perceived as enemies. Even when he won, he kept fighting as though he were still in a battle for survival.
Trump traced his combative nature to his father, Fred Trump, who instructed him that he must always be a “killer.” “That’s why I’m so screwed up, because I had a father who pushed me so hard,” Trump wrote in his 2007 book, “Think Big.”
In 1985, Trump overcame a wave of opposition to his plan to buy a historic mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., and turn it into a club. The blue bloods and billionaires who found a refuge in the oceanfront community were appalled at the idea that Trump would let just anyone rent Mar-a-Lago for weddings and fundraising events. The local newspapers chastised him for putting out word that celebrities such as Princess Diana and Madonna might join.
But Trump prevailed and bought the property for a song after driving the price down by acquiring the beachfront land directly between Mar-a-Lago and the water and then threatening to build a large house to block the ocean view from the mansion.
After Trump turned Mar-a-Lago into his club, he reveled in the accomplishment. He chopped down the estate’s hedges to give passersby a clear view. He invited celebrity guests such as Michael Jackson to draw paparazzi. And to slap back at the Palm Beach town council, which had sought to restrict his ability to hold big bashes at the property, Trump began a campaign of embarrassment, sending out copies of “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” classic movies about religious and racial discrimination — a pointed reminder that the town’s leaders had for many years condoned the exclusion of Jews and blacks from its private clubs.
More than three decades later, the Mueller investigation presented Trump with a more existential challenge. His presidency potentially was on the line. People who have spoken to the president differ on whether he truly thought he would be cleared or, rather, was setting the stage to declare victory no matter what happened. Either way, according to two advisers who spoke to Trump, the president was prepared to hit back, whether the special counsel’s report was damning or exculpatory.
What bothered Trump most about the Mueller operation was not so much the legal jeopardy he faced, but rather the constant reminder that a substantial portion of the country viewed him as somehow illegitimate, unworthy of respect. “He thinks it’s feeding the media picture of him as someone who is a joke, a guy who shouldn’t be president,” said a former senior advisr to Trump who spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain his relationship with the president.
As soon as Barr issued a letter saying that Mueller had found no evidence of collusion between Trump and the Russians, the president pivoted. At first, he agreed that Mueller had acted honorably. Now, Trump’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani — who first said that Mueller’s conclusion proved “that he is an honest man” — says that Mueller’s actions were not honorable, but “unprofessional.”
Trump has always lived resolutely in the present, often expressing puzzlement when those around him fixate on events or statements from the past. Even as he railed against the Mueller “witch hunt,” his tirades were fleeting. “He’s a person of the moment,” Ruddy says. “He’d hear something about the investigation and he’d express dismay, anger, disgust, but that’s that minute. He has a way of zoning these things, keeping them all apart.”
Yet time and again, throughout his career, Trump has found ways to strike back at past adversaries even after he has defeated them. He believes above all else in burnishing the idea of Trump, the name, the brand, the character he has built, and he believes that is best done by returning fire, even in victory. “It’s very important to establish yourself not to be a patsy,” Trump told The Post in 1987, when he was still building his career as a New York developer. “If you don’t, you don’t end up sitting in this chair.”
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