Trump Has Always Been Like This

Ten years ago, I stood in the back of a large room at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, watching Donald Trump ramble. The celebrity billionaire had been loitering on the fringes of American politics for a few years, but this was my first time seeing him give a proper speech. At least, that’s what I thought he was supposed to be doing. Speaking at the Politics & Eggs forum is a rite of passage for presidential aspirants, and Trump at the time was going through his quadrennial ritual of noisily considering a bid for office. Typically, prospective candidates give variations on their stump speech in this setting. Trump was doing something else—he meandered and riffed and told disjointed stories with no evident connection to one another. The incoherence might have been startling if I had taken him seriously. But the year was 2014, and this was Donald Trump—the man who presided over a reality show in which Gary Busey competed in a pizza-selling contest with Meat Loaf. Nobody took Trump seriously. That was my first mistake.

Over the past decade, I’ve told the story of what happened next so many times that I can recite each beat in my sleep. The ride to the tarmac in the back of Trump’s SUV. The phone call from his pilot with news that a blizzard had shut down LaGuardia Airport. The last-minute decision to reroute his plane to Palm Beach, and his fateful insistence that the 26-year-old BuzzFeed reporter in the car (me) tag along. What was supposed to be a short in-flight interview turned into two surreal, and oddly intimate, days at Mar-a-Lago, which I spent studying Trump in his natural habitat.

The article I published a few weeks later—“36 Hours on the Fake Campaign Trail With Donald Trump”—cannot exactly be called prescient, in that I rather confidently predicted that my subject would never run for office. But my portrait of Trump—his depthless vanity, his brittle ego, his tragic craving for elite approval—has largely held up. I described him on his plane restlessly flipping through cable news channels in search of his own face, and quoted him casually blowing off his wedding anniversary to fly to Florida. (“There are a lot of good-looking women here,” he told me once we arrived, leaning in at a poolside buffet.)

Trump, suffice it to say, did not like the article, and he responded in predictably wrathful fashion. He insulted me on Twitter (“slimebag reporter,” “true garbage with no credibility”), planted fabricated stories about me in Breitbart News (“TRUMP: ‘SCUMBAG’ BUZZFEED BLOGGER OGLED WOMEN WHILE HE ATE BISON AT MY RESORT”), and got me blacklisted from covering Republican events where he was speaking. It was a jarring experience, but enlightening in its way. I’ve returned to it repeatedly over the years, mining the episode for insight into the improbable president’s psyche and the era that he’s shaped.

As the tenth anniversary of my Mar-a-Lago misadventure approached this week, much of the conversation about Trump was focused on his mental competency. There were political reasons for this. Democrats, hoping to deflect concerns about President Joe Biden’s age and memory, were circulating video clips in which Trump sounded confused and unhinged. Trump’s Republican primary opponents had suggested that he’d “lost the zip on his fastball” or was “becoming crazier.” Nikki Haley had called on Trump (and Biden) to take a mental-acuity test. On social media and in the press, countless detractors have speculated that Trump is losing touch with reality, or sliding into dementia, or growing intoxicated by his own conspiracy theories. The sense of progression is what unites all these claims—the idea that Trump is not just bad, but getting worse.

[Helen Lewis: Biden’s age is now unavoidable]

To test this theory, I went back and listened to the recording of my hour-long interview with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in 2014. Half-convinced by the narrative of the former president’s worsening mental health, I expected to find in that audio file a more lucid, cogent Trump—one who hadn’t yet been unraveled by the stresses and travails of power. What I found instead illustrates both the risks of returning him to the Oval Office and the futility of trying to prevent that outcome by focusing on his mental decline: He sounded almost exactly the same as he does now.

This is not to say he sounded sharp. He struggled at times to form complete sentences, and repeatedly lost his train of thought. Throughout our conversation, he said so many obviously untrue things that I remember wondering whether he was a pathological liar or simply deluded.

Take, for example, our exchange over Trump’s embrace of the “birther” conspiracy theory. Trump had notoriously accused President Barack Obama of forging his U.S. citizenship and, near the end of the 2012 election, had offered to donate $5 million to a charity of Obama’s choosing if he released his college transcripts.

Here is what Trump said to me, verbatim, when I asked him about the stunt:

Well, I thought it was good. I mean, I offered $5 million to his charity if he produced his records, so—to his favorite charity if he produced his records. Uh, and I didn’t want to see his marks; I wanted to see where it says “place of birth.” I wanted to see what he put on there. And to this day, nobody’s ever seen any of those records. Uh, they have seen a book that was written when he was a young man saying he was a man from Kenya, a young man from Kenya, ba ba ba ba ba. And the publisher of the book said, “No, that’s what he said,” and then a day later he said, “No, no, that was a typographical error.” Well, you know what a typographical error—that’s when you type the word, when you put an S at the end of a word because it was wrong. You understand that. The word Kenya versus the United States—okay. So he has a book where he said he was from Kenya. Uh, and then, uh, they said that was a typographical error. I mean, there’s a lot of things. Um, I mean I have a whole theory on it, and I’m pretty sure I’m right. Uh, but I have a whole theory as to where he was born, uh, and what he did. And if you noticed, he spent millions and millions of dollars on trying to protect that information. And to this day, I’m shocked that with the three colleges that we’re talking about—you know, Columbia, Harvard, and, and Occidental—that somebody in the office didn’t take that file and say, “Hey, here it is.” I just am shocked. But—and by the way, if it were a positive thing, I would say that it’s something he should’ve done. Because there were a lot of people that agree with me. You know, a lot of people say, “Oh, that was controversial.” A lot of those people in the room loved me because of it. You understand this. You know, there’s a group, a big group of people—I’m not saying it’s a majority, but I want to tell you, it’s a very strong silent minority at least that agrees with me. And I actually said that if he ever did it, I would hope that it showed that I was wrong. And that everything would be perfect. I would rather have that than be right.

A couple of minutes later, I asked Trump about the charges of racism he’d faced as a result of the birther crusade. His response:

Don’t forget, Obama called Bill Clinton a racist, and Clinton has never forgiven him for it. Um, uh, many, they called many—anytime anybody disagrees with Obama, they call him a racist. So there have been many people called racists. No, that didn’t, it never stuck in my case, uh, at all. It’s something I was never called before, and it never stuck. At all. But if you notice, whenever anyone got tough with Obama, including Bill Clinton, and including others, they would call him, they would call that person a racist. Uh, so, it’s, it was a charge that they tried, and it never stuck. And you know why it never stuck? ’Cause I am, I am, I am so not a racist, it’s incredible. So it just never stuck. As I think you would notice.

[George T. Conway III: Unfit for office]

What do you do with an answer like this if you’re a reporter? On a substantive level, it’s objectively detached from reality: Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, and there is no record of his having called Bill Clinton a racist. On a sentence level, the remarks are incoherent, confused, repetitive, and syntactically strange. Transcribing Trump is a nightmare. So is fact-checking him. In the end, I quoted eight words from this rant—“I am so not a racist, it’s incredible.”

Maybe that was a failure on my part. For years, a contingent of Trump’s critics have argued that journalists fail to show this side of the former president—that we sanitize him by extracting only his most coherent quotes for our stories. And I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to capture Trump’s rambling rhetorical style in print.

But does anyone believe that publishing those comments in full would have meaningfully changed the public’s perception of Trump, then or now? There may have been a time—in the 1980s and ’90s, perhaps—when he sounded more articulate and grounded in reality. But that Trump was long gone by the time he announced his first campaign. It was not a secret. We all watched those rallies on TV; we all saw him in those debates. And he was elected president anyway.

There’s a simple reason coverage of verbal flubs, memory lapses, and general octogenarian confusion is more damaging to Biden than it is to Trump. Biden ran for president on a platform of stability and competence, and that image is undermined by suggestions of mental decline. Accusing Trump of going crazy doesn’t work because, well, he has sounded crazy for a long time. The people who voted for him don’t seem to mind—in fact, it’s part of the appeal.

After listening to the old recording of my Trump interview, I called Sam Nunberg for a gut check. A former political operative with a thick New York accent and a collection of shiny neckties, Nunberg was the prototypical Trump acolyte when I first met him. But his relationship with his former boss has been rocky since he arranged for my access to Trump in 2014 and accompanied me on that trip to Mar-a-Lago: Trump theatrically fired him after my story came out, hired him back, fired him again, then sued him for $10 million, before eventually agreeing to a settlement.

[Rich Jaroslovsky: The other time America panicked over a president’s age]

The two men haven’t spoken in years, according to Nunberg—but that hasn’t stopped reporters from calling him up for quotes about Trump’s mental state. “They’re wanting me to say he’s not the same,” Nunberg told me. “But I don’t see it, at least publicly. I think he’s the same guy.”

And what kind of guy is that? “He’s reckless, and he’s a narcissist,” Nunberg said. But that’s not exactly news. He’s always been that way.