In The Presence of Donald Trump

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“So Michael, what are you doing? Explain. Are you going to do another trash article on Trump?”

This is how Donald Trump greeted me when I entered his Fifth Avenue office last week. It was, to be clear, an entirely friendly greeting, a feint at playing the tough guy. Trump didn’t trust me, but he also didn’t seem to dislike me, and he appeared happy to have a reporter from TIME magazine in his presence to talk about a potential 2012 campaign.

The story that my visit produced runs in this week’s magazine. You should buy a copy, or subscribe, but if you want to view it online, you can click here. Judge for yourself whether or not it is a trash article. As I told Trump then, I had no intention of writing trash. I wanted to do a political profile on Trump as a presidential candidate.

“Yeah, I don’t know,” Trump continued. “I get more bad publicity than any human being on earth.” Two other people were sitting in the room, a billionaire Trump friend, Stewart Rahr, and Michael Cohen, a senior executive at the Trump Organization. All three of us protested that Trump had been getting some pretty good press recently. “I only read the bad ones and respond to them accordingly,” he shot back.

I have asked questions of presidents and presidential candidates, filmmakers and senators, authors and Iowa caucus goers. Talking to Trump was among the most entertaining interviews I have had. He is at once entirely self-involved and mysteriously personable, utterly sincere and knowingly self-referential. He inhabits that ironic celebrity space that Bret Easton Ellis has brilliantly called “post-Empire.” Like Starbucks or The Gap, Trump has crafted a brand that feels white glove but is sold blue collar. He may have gilded his Fifth Avenue penthouse, but he is still a Queens kid to the core. And there is no doubt he is having fun.”Is this a cover?” he joked at one point. “Trump only does covers.” It was not a cover. The interview continued. “Watch this,” Trump told Rahr later in the interview, referring to me. “Nice guy. He’ll kill me.”

Because of space, I was not able to include at length some of his best quotes in the magazine story. Here are some additional excerpts. At one point I asked Trump if he was sure his business success could translate in Washington, D.C. As a sort of test, I asked if he knew how many members there are in the U.S. House of Representatives. He responded,

Well I don’t want to answer your questions because this isn’t a history class. You people, you know you are trying to do the Sarah Palin stuff. And anytime somebody asks me a question like who is the leader of Abu Dhabi, I say this isn’t a history class, okay? And I actually know. And I know your answer too, but I refuse to answer it. You know why? Because it’s not a history class. And because it’s an irrelevant question. Because you could get some stiff who knows every one of those answers but is incapable of governing.

At another point in the interview, Trump read to me at length from a recent Nielsen press release, demonstrating the success of his show, The Celebrity Apprentice. He said NBC had asked him to sign another three-year deal, and that he would be holding out a decision until he sorted out his presidential run. He continued to talk about what he had learned in television.

Listen, that business is a very simple. That business is only one thing that matters: Ratings. Now Charlie Sheen got away for a year with calling his bosses morons, idiots, frogs, everything. And guess what, I still say they’ll sign him. And a friend of mine who is in the business, who has a show, is the nicest human being on earth. He says, ‘I don’t understand Donald, I treat them so well and they won’t renew me.’ I said, ‘Your ratings are terrible. You can be nice.’ Honestly, I have the #1 show on NBC. My ratings are so good, I don’t have to be nice. I happen to be nice.

Later, without me asking the question, Trump raised the issue of the disclosures he would have to provide if he ran for president. His riff was pure Trump, so over the top that he could not be serious, except that he appeared to be.

I look very much forward to showing my financials. Because they are huge. And I think that is a positive in terms of what I am doing. Far bigger than anyone knows. Far bigger than anyone would understand. And they are very impressive, very little debt, great amounts of cash, a great net worth. . . . Let me put it this way, The numbers will be far greater than any numbers you have ever heard about me. A pretty big statement to make. I am making that statement before the fact.

Trump won’t say if he is really going to run for president. It is likely that he will make announce a press conference on the season finale of his show, which will be filmed live in May. If he runs, he will face enormous obstacles, given the paper trail he leaves behind, his unconventional style, his extraordinary policy positions, and his willingness to shoot from the hip. But there is little doubt that as long as he is dancing with a campaign, he will be providing the country quite a show.