On July 24, as special counsel Robert Mueller’s uneven testimony came to a close, Donald Trump clearly was feeling triumphant. He gloated and goaded on Twitter. He stood outside the White House and crowed. Mueller had done “horrible” and “very poorly,” the president said on the South Lawn. He called it “a great day for me.” He was, after all, rid, it seemed, of perhaps his first term’s preeminent enemy.
It took him less than 24 hours to flip to the next big fight.
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Because on July 25, according to reports, Trump pressured repeatedly the leader of Ukraine to help rustle up potential political ammunition on Joe Biden, the man polls at this point suggest is his most likely opponent in next year’s election.
That Trump would so quickly in the wake of the Mueller investigation commit a brazen act some critics say representsan egregious and impeachable abuse of power has mystified many observers. How could he have so blithely ignored the lessons of the nearly three-year investigation? But those who know him best say this is merely the latest episode in a lifelong pattern of behavior for the congenitally combative Trump. He’s always been this way. He doesn’t stop to reflect. If he wins, he barely basks. If he loses, he doesn’t take the time to lie low or lick wounds; he invariably refuses to even admit that he lost. Regardless of the outcome—up, down or somewhere in between—when one tussle is done, Trump reflexively starts to scan the horizon in search of a new skirmish.
“If he’s not in a fight, he looks for one,” former Trump publicist Alan Marcus told me this weekend. “He can’t stop.”
“He’s always in an attack mode,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell said. “He’s always got adversaries.”
“He does love a confrontation—there’s no question about it,” added Barbara Res, a former Trump Organization executive. “Trump thinks he’s always going to win—he really does believe that—and he fights very, very, very dirty.”
“A street fighter,” Louise Sunshine, another former Trump Organization executive, once told me.
Trump, of course, has said all of this himself, and for as long as people have been paying him any attention. For decades, he has been redundantly clear. “I go after people,” he has said. “… as viciously and as violently as you can,” he has said. “It makes me feel so good,” he has said.
As president, he’s changed … not at all.
“I like conflict,” he confirmed last year.
“Donald,” wrote Jerome Tuccille,in the first biography ever written of Trump, in 1985, “was a round, fleshy baby who howled up a storm from the day he was born.” He was “a brat” from the start, according to his oldest sister. In elementary school in Queens, he was a desk-crashing, spitball-spewing, pigtail-pulling playground boor. “Surly,” said one of his teachers. “A little shit,” said another. He was sent at 13 years old some 60 miles up the Hudson River to New York Military Academy, where he was cocksure and hypercompetitive—“so competitive,” his roommate recalled, “that everybody who could come close to him he had to destroy.” His favorite instructor at NYMA called him “a real pain in the ass.” But it was what Trump’s father had taught him to be. “Life’s a competition,” Fred Trump told his second son and chosen heir. Be a “killer.”
In the 1970s, when Trump was a young adult, Roy Cohn continued the tutorial. “What makes Roy Cohn tick?” journalist Ken Auletta once asked Cohn in an interview, the audio recording of which acts as a kind of spine to Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary. “A love of a good fight,” Cohn answered.
“Roy,” Roger Stone tells Tyrnauer, “would always be for an offensive strategy. Those are the rules of war. You don’t fight on the other guy’s ground. You define what the debate is going to be about. I think Donald learned that from Roy.”
“I bring out the worst in my enemies, and that’s how I get them to defeat themselves,” Cohn once said. Trump was taking notes. “A sponge,” Cohn cousin David Lloyd Marcus told me.
“He made Donald,” added socialite and celebrity interviewer Nikki Haskell, “very confrontational.”
Trump spent the 1980s constructing what’s proven to be an ineradicable foundation, opening the refurbished Grand Hyatt, building Trump Tower and buying Mar-a-Lago, the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League and a vast stretch of land on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that he would try to turn into “Trump City,” pile-driving into the cultural bedrock the places and props that would underpin his persona.
The consistency of his bellicosity, too, became impossible to ignore. He fought, and he fought, and he fought. Even after fighting the city for lavish tax breaks for his first two projects—and winning—he quickly picked new fights and new foes. He fought preservationists after jackhammering pieces of art on the building he had to tear down to put up the building branded with his name. He fought aghast residents of the neighborhood in which he wanted to plop his most gargantuan project yet.
And as the owner of the USFL’s Generals, he fought … everybody. Arrogant, impulsive and ill-informed, Trump wasted no time starting to fight with his fellow team owners in the second-tier outfit. He then set his sights on the larger, richer, much more powerful National Football League. He wanted to go head-to-head by playing games in the fall instead of the spring. He wanted to fight for players, for television time, for attention. “We’re definitely at war with the National Football League,” he said just six weeks after he acquired the Generals. He wanted the NFL in the end to take in him and his team, and he didn’t want to wait. And enough of his fellow owners finally capitulated. He sued the NFL—and he lost. “Everyone let Donald Trump take over,” one of the owners said. “It was our death.”
Trump, though, hadn’t even waited for the verdict to shift his focus. Two monthsbeforethe upshot in court, he kickstarted his next fight. It started with two words.
“Dear Ed …”
Mayor Ed Koch. His No. 1 antagonist all decade long.
For several years, Trump had been looking down from his Trump Tower perches, from his office on the 26th floor and from his triplex at the top, sometimes with a telescope, watching broken Wollman Rink sitting dormant in Central Park. The city had been fumbling in its efforts to fix it, a stupor of faulty Freon, damaged coils and construction delays. And it still was nowhere close to being done. Trump sniffed the possibility of a fight that could make him look good.
“I have watched with amazement,” he wrote in a provocation of a letter to Koch, “as New York City repeatedly failed on its promises to complete and open the Wollman Skating Rink. Building the rink, which essentially involves the pouring of a concrete slab over coolant piping, should take no more than four months’ time. To hear that, after six years, itwill now take another two years, is unacceptable to all the thousands of people who are waiting to skate once again at the Wollman Rink. I and all other New Yorkers are tired of watching the catastrophe of Wollman Rink. The incompetence displayed on this simple construction project must be considered one of the great embarrassments of your administration. I fear that in two years there will be no skating at the Wollman Rink, with the general public being the losers.”
He made his pitch. He wanted to take over the rink and make it work. “I don’t want my name attached to losers,” Trump said. “So far the Wollman Rink has been one of the great losers. I’ll make it a winner.”
And he did. The rink opened later in the year to great fanfare in the city and around the country. Beyond the specific accomplishment, though, the entire endeavor let Trump fan his feud with Koch. It was a milepost in their sour, never-ending back-and-forth, Trump calling Koch a “moron” and a “disaster,” Koch calling Trump a greedy bully, all of which only intensified later in the decade when Koch spurned Trump’s demands for more tax breaks for his plot on the Upper West Side.
Trump didn’t get the money from the city that he wanted, but the war alone was a sort of a win—a key slice of the Cohn syllabus, passed down. Reporters, as Trump put it, “love stories about extremes, whether they’re great successes or terrible failures.” All publicity was good publicity, he believed, and more than anything else, as he (with Tony Schwartz) would write inThe Art of the Deal, “the press thrives on confrontation.”
The ‘90s were no different. He fought his first wife through their high-profile split and acrimonious aftermath. He fought his lenders and creditors in a desperate attempt to stay solvent. Most people, perhaps all other people, would have concluded that this was more than enough strife. Not Trump. He picked a fight with casino analyst Marvin Roffman (and lost). He picked a fight with Atlantic City resident Vera Coking (and lost). He engaged in headline-generating legal tit-for-tat with Harry and Leona Helmsley. In 1995, still owing his lenders $115 million of debt he had guaranteed during his late ‘80s shopping spree, Trump teetered on the precipice of personal bankruptcy. Restless and unchastened, he spent the rest of the decade tangling with casino tycoon Steve Wynn in Atlantic City, filing lawsuits, calling him names (“an incompetent”) and attempting (and ultimately succeeding) to prevent him from expanding from Las Vegas into what Trump considered his territory.
“He is a man who will say anything,” Richard D. “Skip” Bronson, Wynn’s righthand man at the time, wrote of Trump in a book about this fight,War at the Shore. “It didn’t matter how baseless or how ridiculous the comments, Trump didn’t need to be proven right in order to win. All he had to do was be a nuisance and stall long enough so that the project would no longer be attractive.” Bronson added: “The whole feud had been a game to him and now that it was over, he was ready to move on.”
Over the last two decades, as his officious schtick on “The Apprentice” somehow forged a path into politics, he sniped with celebrities before he did the same with Republicans and Democrats alike.
“Trump is a predator,” Republican strategist Alex Castellanos asserted last spring. “When something enters his world, he either eats it, kills it or mates with it.”
“He is not interested in pleasures such as art and food and friendship, and he doesn’t seem to be motivated by love or creative impulses. The one exception is his drive to create conflict, which brings him the attention of others. When he says he likes to fight—all kinds of fights—he is telling the truth,” Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio told me earlier this year, pointing to a “discomfort” Trump seems to feel in “the moment of peace that follows a victory.”
“Yes,” D’Antonio texted this weekend as the Ukraine news was breaking. “It’s always a matter of a new extreme.”
“He’s more comfortable in an adversarial relationship,” O’Donnell, the former Trump casino exec, said when we talked on Sunday. “So he’s thinking about Mueller one moment, and he’s thinking about Biden the next.”
I asked O’Donnell why he thinks Trump is this way.
He told me to call a psychiatrist.