Barbara Res was the original, real-life apprentice.
She was the top construction engineer in the 1980s on what is still Donald Trump’s signature project and she may have a clearer view than anybody of the truth of him. One small but telling thing she learned long before he became a reality-TV star famed for saying “You’re fired!” was that he always wavered when it actually came to firing anybody. Trump thrice reinstated one employee who kept coming back to him.
“When somebody had to be fired, Donald laid the job off to an underling,” Res recalls in a revelatory self-published auto-biography. “We always felt that if you were close enough to Donald that he would have to be the one to let you go, you had a job for life.”
And Res was there in the ’90s when the supposedly really rich Trump was in fact really broke, with a net worth of minus a half-billion dollars. She reports that he only escaped financial ruin because the banks decided to leave the super self-promoter with enough to maintain the illusion of an empire. The continued association with the Trump name thereby imparted greater value to the properties the banks seized.
One thing Res knows to be genuine is Trump’s fury. She once watched him erupt into a rage over cut-rate Chinese marble in a bathroom that he himself had ordered because it was cheaper. She figured that the real source of his outsized rage back then was the actual state of his finances and the disorder of his personal life.
“He can be charming; that’s a put-on,” Res tells The Daily Beast. “As far as the anger is concerned, that’s real for sure. He’s not faking it.”
She notes that Trump demonstrated a seemingly innate lack of shame during a scandal involving a mistress. She was amazed to see that this very shamelessness alloyed with fame to make him Teflon Trump. She discerned a dynamic at work.
“The more he gets away with, the more he does,” she says.
Res had long since parted ways with Trump by the time he mounted this year’s campaign for president. But she had no trouble recognizing that same anger and shamelessness at work as he made one outrageous declaration after another. The man who had raged about Chinese bathroom marble now raged about China.
Res understood that Trump appealed not only to folks who felt it’s OK to say such things. He also appealed to the larger number of people who felt some measure of shame for harboring prejudices.
“He makes them think it’s OK,” Res says. “And nobody challenges him.”
Res first got to know Trump more than three decades ago as she worked in a junior position on his first big project, a renovation of the Grand Hyatt Hotel made possible by his father’s political connections. Her career then got a surprise boost as young Donald Trump proved to be remarkably progressive in his own particular way.
“I want you to build Trump Tower for me!” he announced.
She was leery because she had witnessed on the hotel job that he was often abusive with the people who worked for him.
“He was very mean and nasty to them,” she says.
But he had never treated her with anything but respect, and the offer to build this 68-story tower was too good to decline.
At the age of 31, Res became the first women to run a major construction project in New York, or likely anywhere else.
“Men are better than women, but a good woman is better than 10 men,” Trump opined.
Res surmised that Trump had chosen her because she stood up to even the most intimidating men in the man’s world of construction.
“He told me I was a killer,” she recalls. “That’s important to him. Apparently, he thought that was a compliment.”
In her 2013 book, All Alone on the 68th Floor, How One Woman Changed the Face of Construction, Res figures that a decisive moment had come during the hotel job, when she confronted an architect.
“I caught Donald’s eye by accusing the architect of being full of shit,” she recalls.
The book recounts in detail her dealings with Trump while building his eponymous tower—he called it “The Most Important Project in the World”—and subsequently renovating the Plaza Hotel.
“Donald, for all his commentary and womanizing, was the least sexist boss I ever had as far as trusting me and viewing me equally with all the men we encountered in our mutual dealings,” the book reports. “He wanted me to be him on the job. He said I would be like a ‘Donna Trump.’”
She adds, “I was the real apprentice.”
Trump did offer two criticisms, once telling her, “Your problem is, you want people to like you,” another time complaining, “You’re too honest.”
In recounting those days to The Daily Beast, she offered such interesting tidbits as it was Trump’s first wife, Ivana, who coined the expression The Donald.
“I was The Barbara,” Res said.
The Barbara proved as good as or perhaps better than anyone of either gender at the extraordinarily complicated and challenging task of erecting a high-rise building in Manhattan. She would prove anew she was a killer by knocking contractors down to their lowest prices.
She would then tell them to add $100,000 before they went in to get the final OKs from The Donald, so he would feel he had won something. He would prove himself to be almost as good a negotiator as he imagined himself by knocking off $200,000.
“He was fearless. Very intimidating,” she says.
In confrontational moments, Trump sometimes produced a black-and-white photo of Roy Cohn, a lawyer famed for his political and mob connections as well as notorious for a willingness to do anything to destroy an opponent.
“You wanna go up against this?” Trump would say by Res’s account. “I have him just waiting to sue you.”
Res concludes, “(Trump) just knew how to use all the tools in his arsenal to give him what he wanted.”
But The Donald’s greatest talent was in promoting himself and his property.
“Donald was such a promoter,” Res says. “There’s nobody like him. Nobody.”
She would sometimes hear him posing as a nonexistent John Barron while giving phone tips to reporters, once falsely saying that Princess Diana was seeking an apartment in Trump Tower.
“Page Six calls the palace, which of course has no comment,” Res says. “He was brilliant at stuff like that.”
He made sure the public areas of the Tower contained only the best materials, real gold leaf, the finest marble. The apartments above were fitted with good bathroom fixtures, but cheap tiles. The kitchen cabinets were standard suburban. The floors were not the ¾-inch pecan planks of a nearby luxury tower or the parquet that Trump initially wanted, but the far cheaper quarter-inch glue-down oak.
“The kind you would find in subsidized housing,” Res notes. “Donald was all about saving.”
But most of the people buying the million-dollar apartments would have them remodeled to their own taste anyway. And everybody down below saw only the spectacular lobby and shops.
“You can’t say much better to Donald than the word ‘shinier,’” Res notes.
Trump became known as a modern-day Midas.
“All the cards fell into place for him,” Res says.
By then, Trump had begun to morph as a result of the celebrity that accompanied the Valentine’s Day 1983 opening of Trump Tower and his own book, The Art of the Deal. Res witnessed firsthand how he devolved from an outer borough princeling who lived in fear of his father into a narcissistic bully.
“He became a celebrity. He became more difficult to deal with,” Res says. “As he got more famous, he got nastier.”
He continued to maintain an illusion of great riches and boundless success, but in his striving to be a huger than huge success, he began to fall into huger than huge debt.
“I think he moved too fast to keep up with himself,” Res says. “That’s when he got into trouble.”
A telling moment came during The Plaza remodeling, when Trump inspected a bathroom floor. He became irate at Res when he saw a Chinese “stand in” rather than Vermont marble.
“You did this,” Trump screamed by her account. “You bought this cheap shit and now you are making me look like a jerk. You’re no fucking good.”
Res replied, “Look, Donald, this is the marble you approved. It was cheap, you wanted to save money. Don’t blame me.”
In her book, Res describes how Trump’s face went red. His mouth twisted. She feared he might hit her.
“But, it wasn’t really me he was really mad at,” she writes. “He was mad at his life. He already knew his marriage was over, and my gut tells me he knew that he had other problems as well.”
Res says Trump was wont to blame others for his troubles, but at another moment he confided to her where he felt he placed himself in jeopardy.
“He talked about how he was running around with all these women and he took his eye off the ball,” she recalled.
His financial difficulties were joined by a personal scandal in which his mistress, Marla Maples, was quoted on the front page of the New York Post as saying she enjoyed “the best sex I ever had” with him.
“I don’t know why he let that happen,” Res says. “He had three young children.”
She noted that Trump seemed devoid of shame.
“It was because he didn’t care,” Res says. “What are you thinking? How do you get inside a mind like that?”
But her horror turned to amazement when she saw shamelessness combine with fame to a surprising result.
“He is Teflon,” she says.
She observed another dynamic at work during a 1990 meeting in a hotel conference room between Trump and various banks, among them Citibank, Chase, Natwest, and Deutschebank. His genius for promotion and great negotiating skills had proven no match for his recklessness and outsized ego.
“He had no money,” Res recalls. “It turned out all the banks were looking to get paid and he didn’t have the money.”
Res figures that if Trump’s debts were subtracted from the value of his holdings, his net worth was in the neighborhood of “minus a half-billion dollars.” The very magnitude of his debt might have saved him.
“They wanted to take all the property, but what would they do with it?” Res says.
The biggest debt involved a hyper ambitious project on the west side of Manhattan.
The banks reached a conclusion.
“The property was more valuable as potential development properties with the Trump brand than as empty pieces of land,” Res says.
Res figures that if Trump had not come to seem synonymous with Midas no matter what the reality, the banks would have just foreclosed and gotten whatever they could with an auction, as they would with some homeowner gone bust.
Instead, the banks let him keep Trump Tower and allocated him enough money to maintain at least the illusion of an empire. Res says that he was also put on an allowance and accorded enough to pay his alimony.
He went on to license his name to various developers who sought to lure investors with the promised Trump magic. A number of the projects ended up in foreclosure but reality was eclipsed by the reality show The Apprentice, set in Trump Tower. The guy who had gone spectacularly bust became known as a master businessman. He who had such difficulty firing people became famous for saying, “You’re fired!” on the show. And celebrity continued to have an ultimately diminishing effect.
“The humanity unfortunately faded as Donald’s star brightened,” Res says.
Six days after Obama was elected to a second term, Trump trademarked the old Ronald Reagan slogan “Make America Great Again” and set about proving his true greatness as a self-promoter. He seemed no longer to be the Trump who was ahead of his time in hiring women and had many gay friends and was generally progressive.
“He was always pro-choice,” Res says.
Trump now became a pro-life conservative demagogue who played on our fears and told demonstrable lies even as he denounced his opponents as liars.
“And the people love it,” Res says. “What’s wrong with these people?”
For all her experience with the old Trump, she had trouble discerning what was actual in the new one.
“You don’t know how much of it is real,” she says.
She remains certain that the anger is absolutely genuine, however misplaced.
“The fact that he gets mad, that’s his personality,” she says.
Trump channeled that anger so it connected with the vehemence of the opposition to Obama, which is so disproportionate it must be fueled by race. Trump thereby gained unreasoning support that only grew with each outrageous statement.
When his supporters say that Trump “tells it like it is,” they really mean how they want it to be. And when Trump talks about making America great again and “taking our country back,” he is invoking an America that is once again run by whites.
Quite possibly, Trump is not actually a racist. He may not even be hopelessly sexist and misogynistic, despite such comments as Megyn Kelly bleeding from “wherever.” But he certainly encourages the worst in us, the parts that most of us know deep down are shameful.
Along with providing great insight into Trump, Res’s book is a wrenching account of a woman’s encounter with such shamefulness in the form of the harrowing harassment that was commonplace on construction sites in the time of our supposed greatness. She emphasizes that her book should not be lumped together with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which she views as “an elite talking to an elite.”
Res was initially banned from even entering a site because of her gender. She overcame that obstacle only to endure such moments as crowding into a lift with all men and hearing a voice say, “Barbara, I hear you give good head.” Somebody at the Trump Tower site kept making obscene drawings of Res and Ivana Trump spread-eagled. Res detailed a laborer to patrol with a can of paint and make them vanish whenever they appeared.
At a meeting, a man said of Res, “If you lift up her skirt, you’ll see a pair of balls.” The man may have told himself that he was imparting a compliment. Res took all of it as an effort to put a woman in her place.
“Keeping people in their place, saying ‘I’m in control,’” Res says.
Res is distressed that too many young women seem unaware of what women who came before them endured.
“They don’t get it,” she says. “They think it was always this way.”
Res also worries that the present generation imagines that sexism is an evil of the past.
“They don’t realize it’s not as different as they think it is.”
Res has not failed to notice that Trump is constantly seeking to put people in their place, be they women or Mexicans or Muslims or the disabled. Res has also noted that people talk about Hillary Clinton in different terms than they do Bernie Sanders.
“They don’t call Bernie shrill,” Res says. “They don’t talk about Bernie’s hair and ankles.”
The construction engineer who got her big break from a Donald Trump who seemed ahead of his time has no trouble deciding who she supports in this election season that includes a Donald Trump who harkens back to the dark ages.
“I’m a Hillary Clinton supporter,” she says.
Meanwhile, Res follows the new Donald’s campaign from afar. She saw the coverage of him saying that he wanted to punch a protester in the face.
“I would be laughing, but I’m crying,” she says. “He’s just such a bully. A typical bully.”