After winning the New York primary, Donald Trump momentarily switched to a new “presidential” persona. He received praise for calling rival Ted Cruz “senator” rather than “Lyin’ Ted.” Never mind the fact that two days earlier, he’d threatened the GOP that if its nominating rules weren’t changed (to favor Trump), “you’re going to have a rough July at that convention.”
Now, Trump’s campaign officials were promising that Trump would become a more temperate, moderate person. “You’ll start to see more depth of the person, the real person. You’ll see a real different way,” Paula Manafort, Trump’s campaign chief, told GOP officials, according to an Associated Press report.
This ‘real” Trump would be different from the combative character people have seen thus far, which he deployed in order to defeat others seeking the nomination. Manafort’s suggestion – that Trump has been role-playing and would now seek to adopt a different style – has gotten people wondering: Who is the real Trump? I spent two and a half years writing and researching a book about Trump, and to me, the question is both unanswerable — and at the essence of who Trump is.
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Trump as tough-guy
Trump has always had a flare for the dramatic and, before he went into the family business, he considered a life in theater or film. Be though he can be gracious, he has generally played the tough-guy in order to capture public attention.
From the beginning of his public life, Trump purposely tried to associate himself with symbols of danger. The very first newspaper profile ever published about Trump in 1976 included the fact that he employed an armed bodyguard to drive his car, which was decorated with vanity plates that bore his initials, DJT.
Why would a little-known young man who worked for his father’s real estate firm in Brooklyn need a gun-toting guard? No explanation was offered. But this kind of detail made people pay attention to Trump, and he never tired of that.
BFF: Roy Cohn
Trump’s mentor in the art of acting tough and manipulating the press likely was the notorious Roy Cohn, who introduced his protégé around Manhattan society and helped him access exclusive clubs. Cohn rose to fame as the chief inquisitor in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts.
As a private attorney he brokered countless political deals while representing a client list that included prominent mobsters like John Gotti and Carmine Galente. Trump kept a photo of the glowering Cohn and enjoyed taking it out of a drawer to show to visitors when he talked about his lawyer. It was Cohn who used the words “Gestapo” and “storm trooper” when he filed a $100 million countersuit against federal authorities; the government had sued Trump organization for allegedly violating fair housing laws. Cohn’s claim was thrown-out by a federal judge, but not before his words reached the public via the press. A Jewish man who surely understood the unique status of the Nazi genocide, Cohn showed he was willing to cross boundaries others respected when he criticized federal officials.
More recently, Trump strategist Paul Manafort breached the same boundary, using the slur “Gestapo” to complain about the way Cruz had out-maneuvered Trump at local conventions. A former lobbyist whose clients have included dictator Ferdinand Marcos and Viktor Yanukovych a Vladimir Putin ally in Ukraine, Manafort has known Trump for years (he owns an apartment in New York’s Trump Tower). A long-time GOP strategist, Manafort also has deep campaign experience and helped win the last contested convention for Gerald Ford.
However Manafort didn’t join the campaign until the candidate’s top political operative got into trouble for allegedly grabbing a female reporter to restrain her at a rally. Corey Lewandowski initially denied it, saying that she was “delusional.”
The incident set-off a chain of events that saw him charged with a criminal offense and required that his boss come to his defense. The charge was eventually dropped by the prosecutor who said he didn’t feel there was enough evidence to prevail at trial, and Lewandowski’s lawyer suggested his client was merely trying to protect Trump. But the uproar focused press attention on Lewandowski and his own reputation for tough behavior.
A former Trump colleague Pat Maloney, for instance, told TheDailyBeast.com that Lewandowski was “a condescending, nasty brutish boor. In a position of real power, he would make H.R. Haldeman in the Nixon administration look like a Boy Scout.” In the same article another former Lewandowski colleague, Lisa Bast, recalled that when she missed a phone call, “he called me incompetent, called me a loser. He called me a f**king b**ch, yelling, ‘I am going to fire your f**king ass!’”
Who’s running the campaign?
When Manafort joined the campaign, Lewandowski’s influence in the campaign initially waned. But just this week Politico reported that Trump has been miffed by Manafort’s efforts to employ a “conventional presidential campaign strategy.” And Lewandowski may see his power restored. power may be on the ascendancy.
Regardless, if Trump decides that he needs more rough stuff, he can turn to longtime friend, and political flamethrower, Roger Stone–who also happens to be a friend and business partner of Manafort.
Like Trump, Stone was an acolyte of Roy Cohn. In 1972 Stone was the dirty trickster who dispatched Nixon challenger Rep. Pete McCloskey by creating a fake socialist organization which then made a donation to McCloskey. He sealed the deal with an anonymous, leak to the press. All this and more is detailed in a New Yorker profile in which Jeffrey Toobin quotes Reagan stalwart Ed Rollins describing Stone as “a little rat.” Stone claims he was one of the leaders of the so-called Brooks Brother Riot of November 2000, which helped stop the recount of votes in Florida.
More recently, his controversial tweets have included racist and sexist remarks about political and media figures. He called consultant Ana Navarro an “entitled diva bitch” and referred to journalist Roland Martin as a “stupid negro.” Stone calls these comments “perhaps intemperate,” but he was nonetheless banned from CNN.
Stone was present at the creation of Trump’s 2016 campaign. Though the candidate reportedly pushed him out of the operation (Stone says he quit and wasn’t fired), Stone is said to have played a role in bringing Manafort on board. Stone remains a loyalist and heads “The Committee to Restore America’s Greatness,” a pro-Trump super PAC. According to CNN, it has “redirected its mission ‘to help stop the Republican establishment from stealing the Presidential nomination'” from Trump.
As the possibility of a contested convention approaches, Stone has talked ominously about attempts to “steal” the nomination from his man. He called anti-Trump delegates “culprits” and, after announcing planned demonstrations and protests, he said he would reveal the hotels and room numbers where they could be confronted. It would all be part of the “Days of Rage” that Stone says he is planning for the convention.
In a New Yorker profile, Toobin noted that Stone lives by certain rules, which he considers essential to his success Among them are, “Lay low. Play dumb. Keep moving..” and “Attack, attack, attack—never defend.”
Conflict is the name of the game
Donald Trump also likes to use fighting words when he explains his approach to conflict. Asked to explain why he will criticize a woman’s appearance, and call names, he told me he makes it a rule to “hit back ten times harder” whenever he’s criticized. The ten-times-harder rule was cited by Trump’s wife Melania Trump as proof that he husband isn’t a sexist. “As you may know by now, when you attack him he will punch back ten times harder. No matter who you are, a man or a woman, he treats everyone equal.”
In politics Trump has been an equal opportunity attacker, leveling insults at men and women, Democrats and Republicans. Ronald Reagan may have lived by the so-called 11th Commandment – “Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican” – but Trump has been willing to go after many GOPers on a personal level. He has criticized Carly Fiorina’s looks, Marco Rubio’s height, Jeb Bush’s energy level, and on, and on. Instead of seeking common ground with the Republican National Committee, which would presumably be his partner in a general election, Trump has spoken of removing RNC Chairman Reince Priebus after the convention.
When he does his tough-guy act, Trump abandons the measured, even sophisticated style he uses around the office and adopts both a simple vocabulary and a thick New York accent. This is the Donald Trump who thrills supporters who hate the political establishment and hope for a strong man to solve the country’s problems.
It’s also the Trump who excites TV programmers who salivate at the prospect of a dramatic party convention. On the day after the New York primary the morning show Fox and Friends featured an animated discussion about Cruz delegates being “bodily removed from the floor of the convention and replaced by Trump delegates.”
Will Trump seek to remove Cruz delegates? Will Roger Stone deliver on his promised “Days of Rage”? Both men have spent their lives trying to persuade us that they may very well opt for these tactics. Trump has also said that he fears that acting soberly or, as he put it “presidential” would be “boring.” Soon after, he made a speech in which he accused Hillary Clinton of playing “the woman card.”
Michael D’Antonio is author of Never Enough, Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success (2015). Among his many other books are Mortal Sins, Sex Crime and the Era of Catholic Scandal and The State Boys Rebellion.