Is Donald Trump really thinking about running for president? Or is he—as suggested by skeptics and detractors—simply doing what he always does: finding a way to insert himself into whatever public controversy will keep his name in the spotlight and boost the Trump brand?
“I’m serious about this,” the thatch-roofed reality-TV star, beauty-pageant impresario and real-estate developer insisted to me Thursday, a couple of days after he phoned in to MSNBC’s Morning Joe program and floated the idea of a 2012 presidential campaign. “Many people have asked me to run. I have never seen the country in the state that it’s in, and now I am considering it,” he told me.
The 64-year-old Trump said he is more serious about this than he has been about previous flirtations with the White House. “In the early ‘90s, there was a group that wanted me to run on the Reform Party ticket,” Trump said, but he opted not to—instead cultivating a public image as a can-do, take-charge billionaire.
In the process he has suffered the spectacle of his Trump casino business going bankrupt and some of his construction projects falling apart amid lawsuits and a sour economy; engaged in a tabloid-friendly insult war with Rosie O’Donnell and Barbara Walters over flaps too silly to revisit even here; and filed a libel action against a biographer, New York Times business journalist Tim O’Brien, for claiming in his book Trump Nation that The Donald is not a billionaire.
“He usually just brushes off criticism, but sometimes he’ll attack,” said a New York PR maven who asked not to be identified because he doesn’t want to receive a stress-inducing phone call. “He always values his value.”
Concerning Trump’s presidential musings, the PR maven told me: “He’s probably the most sophisticated businessperson around in terms of public relations. For almost his entire career he’s known how to float a story and project an idea. He’s floated more trial balloons than probably anyone. He loves the excitement that it generates and he knows how to use it as a vehicle to reach his goals.”
The PR maven added: “It wouldn’t at all surprise me if there’s a kernel of desire and a measure of truth about the desire for him to go for the presidency. This story got big play, and I would bet he’s overwhelmed by people saying, ‘Oh Donald, you’re wonderful, let’s try to do it.’”
Harvard Business School Professor John Quelch, an expert in brand development, sounded a cautionary note. “The Trump brand is complicated because it conflates a personal brand with a corporate brand,” Quelch told me. “That means that the Trump persona affects the corporate reputation in a more direct way than, say, Richard Branson’s actions affect Virgin.”
“The hero CEO, who doubles as a know-it-all, no-time-to-waste media hound, is not currently in vogue among experts on leadership,” Harvard’s Quelch says.
Quelch added derisively: “The hero CEO, who doubles as a know-it-all, no-time-to-waste media hound, is not currently in vogue among experts on leadership. But we enjoy having a few of the genre in our midst, if only to convince ourselves that the opposite should be the preferred norm.”
Trump, a registered Republican, said he was calling me from Aberdeen, Scotland, where he’s creating a 2,000-acre golf resort, having thwarted vociferous local opposition to obtain zoning and building permits from the Scottish authorities. “The Trump brand has never been better,” he said. “This project in Aberdeen is beautiful… Everybody said it wouldn’t happen, and I won the zoning approval.” Getting media attention for himself is “one thing I don’t need to do to keep [the Trump brand] in the forefront. It’s very strong.”
Similarly, Trump said his recent headline-making offer—communicated in a leaked letter to the developers of the “ground zero mosque”—to buy the property for a premium was not, repeat not, a publicity ploy.
“That was done from the heart,” Trump told me. “It’s a very sensitive location, and a very sensitive thing to do in that location. I was [making the offer] because building a mosque was the wrong thing to do at the wrong location at the wrong time…. I wrote a letter offering them a 25 percent profit, even though I don’t even want the location. It’s not a great location. It’s one of the worst in New York.”
Brand-strategy expert James Bell, a senior partner at the Lippincott consulting company, said Trump, much like Ross Perot in the early ‘90s, is well positioned in the political marketplace.
“At a time and place where the politics in DC are paralyzed and everybody is all over one another, a Ross Perot comes into the picture—a businessman-celebrity who’s straight-talking, forceful, and decisive, a successful entrepreneur—and bang!” Bell said. “I think whether it’s serious or just entertainment value, Trump has proven that he has an appeal. I remember years ago there was a controversy over repairing the ice rink in Central Park and Trump said, 'I’m going to do it.' And he did it. People appreciate efficiency and the ability to get things done.”
Bell added that Trump, should he take plunge and declare for the presidency, “could be a game changer. Besides, he couldn’t be any worse than what’s going on now.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.