Every four years, Donald Trump engages in a ritual flirtation: He muses about running for president, suggests how terrific he’d be at it, and then decides he’d be better off not running.
Not this time. When he floated his quadrennial idea three months ago, I assumed it was more of the same. Subsequent events—the shellacking of the House Democrats, President Obama’s triumphs in the lame-duck session, the glacier-paced revival of the economy, and the Arizona shooting spree—confirmed my skepticism about Trump’s sincerity. Politics, after all, is an unpredictable business, unsuitable for rank amateurs.
But the celebrity real-estate mogul and reality-television star continues to insist he’s absolutely serious about a potential move to the White House.
“I’ve never been greatly tempted before, but the country has never needed help like it does now,” Trump, 64, tells me from his Palm Beach, Florida, estate. “More than anything else, we’re no longer a respected country. We’re the whipping-post for the world.”
For one thing, Trump says, Barack Obama just doesn’t seem all that presidential. The United States is grappling with a great many problems, and Obama, by Trump’s lights, isn’t doing much to solve them. But what’s really bugging him these days is the way Obama presents himself.
“What are those sandals that he wore the other day?” Trump demands disbelievingly, reacting to the image of the vacationing president in a Hawaiian ice cream parlor, sporting swimming trunks and flip-flops.
“I wouldn’t be wearing flip-flops. I don’t like it. I don’t think that is what the president is supposed to be representing. You will not see me wearing flip-flops.”
Of course, the thatch-roofed billionaire—who says that if he takes the plunge, he’ll do it as a Republican—has a more substantive critique of the president, much of it focused on the United States’ allegedly self-defeating relationship with China, South Korea, and the OPEC oil cartel, which, he says, are taking unfair advantage of America’s goodwill. “I think it’s a failure of toughness, and it’s a failure of common sense,” Trump says. “I love this country, and I hate to see what’s happening to it. And I see nobody on the horizon that’s gonna stop it from eroding away. And it’s eroding away right now.”
“I wouldn’t be wearing flip-flops,” Trump says of Obama. “I don’t like it. I don’t think that is what the president is supposed to be representing.”
And, like the rest of us, Trump is outraged by Saturday’s horrific shooting spree at a Tucson shopping center in which six people, including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, were killed, and an Arizona congresswoman was wounded along with 12 other victims. The rampage occurred the day after Trump and I spoke.
“Anyone who would commit an act as heinous as this clearly has deep rooted emotional problems,” Trump said in a statement Monday. “While this crime was an insane act, it demonstrates a deep lack of respect for law and order by a segment of society in this country. I would be in favor of the death penalty for this type of senseless and violent act (as well as others like espionage, treason, acts of terrorism) committed against innocent citizens. The trial should be expeditious and not drag on for years, as so many of these trials do.”
Trump is apparently still fleshing out his campaign platform, but he’s testing the waters with some unapologetic China-bashing. He argues, for instance, that Obama should cancel the Jan. 19 state dinner at the White House for Chinese President Hu Jintao.
“China gets away with manipulating their currency and stealing all our jobs,” Trump says about the nation of 1.3 billion people that also holds nearly a trillion dollars in U.S. Treasury notes. “I have dinner with and know many Chinese businesspeople, and they cannot believe what they’re getting away with. They tell me this. Now,” he adds with a chuckle, “they didn’t know that I’d be thinking about running for president.”
Trump continues: “I think we should tax Chinese products until such time as it equalizes… I’m a protectionist when another country is making hundreds of billions of dollars a year of essentially profit off the United States.” Obama “shouldn’t be having dinner with Hu. Obama should say, ‘Before we have our dinner, I want you to straighten out the mess.’”
Trump also blames China for being insufficiently persuasive with North Korea, which has been rattling sabers at South Korea and pursuing nuclear weaponry, and he blames Obama, ultimately, for not insisting that China tighten the screws. “Excuse me, there’s another example. They haven’t done anything with respect for North Korea. They can solve the North Korean problem with a phone call.”
Speaking of Korea, Trump argues that the United States should demand hard cash from South Korea for protecting them from the belligerent North. “They only signed a [trade] treaty when they needed our help—even though it was a one-sided treaty in their favor,” Trump says. “They only sign when the bombs start getting lobbed onto them and we start sending our aircraft carriers to protect them… It’s absolutely ridiculous. Why are we protecting them? They’re making hundreds of billions of dollars off the United States yearly. Why aren’t they paying us for protection?”
Ditto the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which regulates world production levels and prices for oil. “Somebody’s got to speak to OPEC in the strongest of language,” Trump says, “because you cannot have an economic recovery if every time the country starts doing better, they raise the price of oil. That’s like raising interest rates. That’s the ultimate deterrent.”
Trump says that if he were president, he would simply tell the 12-country cartel that they aren’t going to raise prices “and they would listen… We have tremendous leverage. OPEC wouldn’t even be there if it wasn’t for us. Namely, we protect them.”
As for Afghanistan and Iraq, Trump claims he has “a strong opinion” about what the U.S. should be doing there, but he’s not ready to share it. "I'm saving that for later." Perhaps with an eye toward Republican primary politics, where social conservatives hold sway, he refuses to say whether he supported the repeal of the Pentagon’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy that excluded avowed gays and lesbians from military service.
“I don’t applaud it or not applaud it—I think it was something that was inevitable,” Trump says of the repeal. “It was something that was going to happen, and my attitude is, if the generals are happy with it, that’s good. But you know, it’s a completed assignment, and a lot of Republicans were in favor of it.”
In a rare instance of praise for Obama, Trump applauds last week’s appointment of former Clinton-era Commerce Secretary Bill Daley as White House chief of staff—but for reasons that might be described as parochial. “I like the appointment of Bill Daley,” Trump says. “I like him. He has good taste, because he lived in one of my buildings in Manhattan.”
On the family front, Trump says his three adult children—Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric—are bullish on his possible entry into presidential politics. “I have a great business and it’s doing the best it’s ever done,” Trump tells me, “but the advantage I have is three children in the business that are extremely competent and doing a great job. So that’s a big help.”
As for his third wife, the Slovenia-born former Melania Knauss, 40, Trump says: “She’s fine with my decision. I think she’d be an amazing first lady. She’d be a first lady of unbelievable beauty and elegance.” And, I point out, America’s first Slovenian first lady. “Yeah, but she’s a citizen of this country now,” Trump says. “She’s very smart, and she would represent the country well.”
A 2012 Trump presidential campaign seems at this point likely. A putatively independent website promoting his candidacy was launched recently by Trump Organization executive Michael Cohen. According to Newsmax columnist Ronald Kessler, who attended the New Year’s Eve bash at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach club, he has already confided to friends that he’s definitely going to announce. But he must wait till June, when this year’s season of The Apprentice concludes on NBC.
Nothing Trump tells me contradicts Kessler’s report. “I can’t do anything until The Celebrity Apprentice finishes,” the prospective candidate says. “The season starts on March 6th and it ends in early June.” He adds proudly: “Can you believe it’s Season 11?”
B.S.P. (that is, Before Sarah Palin), it would have been unthinkable for a presidential wannabe to be hyping a reality show in the same breath as his programs and policies. Like his fellow television star, Trump would bring definite assets to a political race: high name-recognition and a certain comfort in the spotlight. One advantage Trump has over Palin: He is demonstrably more media-savvy and press-friendly after decades of experience building the Trump brand into a valuable commodity. He knows how to craft a message and doesn’t mind repeating it over and over—a welcome skill in presidential campaigning. A disadvantage: Unlike Palin, he has never run for public office.
Like Ross Perot—who, at various points in the 1992 campaign, was beating President Bush 41 and Bill Clinton in the polls—Trump is blunt-spoken. Also like Perot, Trump can be thin-skinned: Who can forget his undignified 2006 feud with Rosie O’Donnell—who’d claimed incorrectly on The View that Trump had filed for personal bankruptcy—or his lawsuit against a New York Times business editor for reporting in a 2005 Trump biography that the mogul’s net worth was $250 million or less?
But Trump is quick to defend his credentials. “Who’s been more in the public eye than me?” he argues. “For 30 years I’ve been a very public person. And who’s dealt with politicians more than me? I probably have raised and given more money to politicians than anybody. I’ve been very much a part of politics in this country. It’s not like I’m a novice.”
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.