TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald
By Timothy L. O’Brien
Grand Central Publishing
276 pages, $14.99
By Dan Herbeck
When this book about Donald Trump and his business empire was first published in 2005, it’s fair to say Trump was less than enthralled. The businessman sued author Timothy O’Brien, a former editor and writer with the New York Times, for $5 billion – yes, that’s billion with a “B.”
Now, the book has been reissued with a new foreword written by O’Brien, who says Trump once told the Washington Post that he simply filed the lawsuit to make O’Brien’s life “miserable.”
Trump’s libel case was thrown out of court in 2009 by a New Jersey judge who said Trump failed to offer “clear and convincing” proof that O’Brien had any malice toward him. “Libel laws in this country have never been fair,” Trump complained after the ruling. He accused O’Brien of a “lack of professionalism and bias.”
Reading “TrumpNation” 11 years after it first hit bookstores, it is kind of puzzling to see what all the fuss was about. For the most part, the book is a breezy, irreverent, but carefully researched story that, in many ways, puts Trump in a favorable light. At worst, it paints him as a colorful and successful rascal, who – like many businessmen – skates close to the edge of the pond of ethics.
Some of the dozens of people whom O’Brien quotes in the book find Trump to be a delightful man, a hardworking business visionary, always ready to take risks. Others characterize him as a scam artist whose megadeals only benefit Trump, and often leave others holding the bag.
Former talk show host Regis Philbin calls him “The Trumpster” and speaks about him in glowing terms, crediting him for “saving” New York City’s Fifth Avenue. Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks pro basketball team, sees it differently.
“Donald, leave it to you to file bankruptcy, and rather than apologizing to shareholders that were wiped out, brag about it as a positive step for the company,” Cuban chides.
Whether you currently view Trump as the next coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt, or think he is one of the worst scoundrels ever to run for the presidency, O’Brien’s balanced portrait is unlikely to change your mind. But for those who simply want to know more about the outrageous Trump, the book is chock full of interesting information.
He grew up as the son of Fred Trump, an eccentric, hard-working millionaire developer, and his wife, Mary. Both his parents were followers of the “power of positive thinking” philosophy of the late Rev. Norman Vincent Peale. Clearly, some of that rubbed off on Trump, the fourth of their five children. But as Trump grew up in Queens, riding around in a limousine while helping his dad with some of his projects, Trump became a nasty young troublemaker. His father called him “young and wild,” and his sister called him a “brat.”
“I was very bad,” Trump recalls in the book. “That’s why my parents sent me to miliary school.”
That was at age 13. The tough discipline of the New York Military Academy apparently had its desired effect, as Trump went on to earn a degree from the prestigious Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. After learning the art of developing residential projects from his father, Trump struck out on his own in New York City.
Brash and media-friendly, he made headlines, not only for his grandiose projects, but for his exploits as a flashy playboy who enjoyed hobnobbing with the big stars at nightclubs such as Studio 54. Trump describes some wild night scenes in the book, including the night he sat in a room at Studio 54 and – as he tells it – watched seven gorgeous supermodels having sex with men, all at the same time, on a bench.
“I saw things happen there that to this day I have never seen again,” Trump marvels.
O’Brien says Trump gave him a lot of access. The author flew across the country with Trump on his private jet. He went to Trump’s parties to watch how he handled his growing celebrity. He sat and watched movies with Trump, an extreme film buff who at one time wanted to be a movie producer.
“Clint Eastwood is the greatest star ever,” Trump told the author.
In the pages of “TrumpNation,” you can find out how the businessman became a huge – and handsomely paid – TV star on “The Apprentice.” You can find out how he started the now-infamous Trump University, how the controversial attorney Roy Cohn became one of his mentors, and how he pulled off some of his biggest business deals, including building the Trump Tower, where superstars like Stephen Spielberg and the late Johnny Carson bought condos.
You can also find out about Trump’s marriages, his friendships, his failures and how he “adored basking in media coverage.”
You can also evaluate the small section of the book that led to the $5 billion lawsuit – O’Brien’s attempt to estimate how much Trump, who claimed and still claims to be a billionaire, really was worth.
According to O’Brien, Trump told him at various times that he was worth somewhere between $1.7 and $6 billion. But O’Brien says he spoke to sources who knew Trump’s finances and told him his actual worth was in the range of $150 to $250 million.
After Trump filed his lawsuit, the businessman had to testify at a deposition where O’Brien’s lawyers asked if he’d always been honest in his public statements about his wealth. “I try,” Trump answered. He admitted that his estimates of wealth were sometimes affected by the “attitudes” and “feelings” he had at a given time.
O’Brien writes that his lawyers also were able to look over many of Trump’s financial records, including some tax returns. All of the “good stuff” was sealed by the judge, the author relates.
He said that Trump reacted to his $150 million to $250 million estimate of his wealth by saying: “You can go ahead and speak to guys who have 400-pound wives at home who are jealous of me, but the guys who really know me know I’m a great builder.”
O’Brien never comes out and says it, but you get a pretty good idea that he thinks Trump is a self-promoter who is not really qualified to be president. He calls Trump the “Energizer Bunny of the American pop culture landscape.”
Even if Trump “gets throttled” in the presidential election, O’Brien writes, “he’s still not going away. In part, that’s because he’s gotten a real taste of a favorite drug he’s dipped into in the past, but never fully experienced until now: full-on, nonstop international attention.”
In O’Brien’s view, Trump is “reveling in every minute of it.”
Dan Herbeck is a veteran News reporter and political observer.