“I’m not just lolling around here!” Sam Donaldson told The Daily Beast this week in that booming broadcaster’s voice with which he delighted in irritating at least four American presidents—from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton—when he was a network White House correspondent.
The retired ABC News anchor, who turns 86 in March, was at home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, studying his talking points as he prepared to go on the road for Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg and tell campaign audiences in Denver this Sunday and St. Louis on Monday why the Wall Street mega-billionaire, who was elected mayor of New York City as a Republican two decades ago, is the Democratic Party’s last best hope to vanquish Donald Trump—in Donaldson’s opinion a “dangerous” and “sick” man whose mental faculties are rapidly eroding.
“Is this just something to do? Or I can’t stand that there’s no limelight? No. I want to get in because every election I’ve covered as a working reporter, people said that ‘this is the most important election of my lifetime.’ And I never thought that was true,” said Donaldson, who—before he shed his cloak of journalistic neutrality to send money to Hillary Clinton in 2016—covered every presidential race since he rode on Barry Goldwater’s campaign press bus in 1964.
“I didn’t think the country was going down the drain,” he continued. “I think that now. This is the most important election in this country to maintain not only our values, but also our competitive place in the world.”
Addressing Trump’s anti-immigrant, high-tariff, multilateral-treaty-loathing “America First” policies, Donaldson added, “If we think we can keep the rest of the world at bay, it’s suicide for our grandchildren. It’s nuts.”
Donaldson has known Trump since 1990, when he grilled the flashy real-estate mogul about his highly leveraged casinos and eponymous airline, and other failing businesses, and Trump pronounced him “rude,” “ignorant,” and “out to get him.”
“In those days he could present just fine without wandering off into some delirium,” Donaldson recalled. “He had his dialectic down. And he looked pretty good, too, compared to what you see today. I gave him my treatment, and he was blowing smoke, lying, all of that stuff… a bunch of bullshit.”
These days, however, “I think he’s very dangerous,” Donaldson said. “I think, frankly, he’s sick. I’m not a medical man, but I believe that from the time I interviewed him way back then to over the years, something has happened to his mind… He’s a sick, ignorant man—corrupt and mean. I find very few redeeming qualities.”
“He’s not a blushing violet,” Donaldson said, noting that he first got to know his favorite presidential candidate two decades ago when he sat next to Bloomberg at Washington’s white-tie-and-tails Gridiron Dinner. “He’s not a guy who says, ‘Well, I have some qualities, but I’m a pretty humble guy.’ Wrong! Some people say—I’m not saying it—that Bloomberg shows his touch of arrogance, or something like that. But if you’re up against Donald J. Trump, by God you better be confident in yourself. When he dishes it out to you, you better just give it back.”
Still, Donaldson stressed that “even if I thought he’d be a tough guy who could take on Trump,” he wouldn’t be supporting the diminutive billionaire “if I didn’t think he’d be a reasonably good president.”
Predictably, Donaldson’s metamorphosis from journalist to political activist has provoked its share of second-guessing. His former ABC News colleague Brit Hume (who left ABC in 1996 to work for Roger Ailes’ Fox News) tweeted “Never thought I’d see this,” over a Bloomberg campaign commercial featuring Donaldson talking straight to camera.
The Poynter Report’s senior media writer Tom Jones, meanwhile, lamented that Donaldson “might have been crossing a line,” adding that “it’s misguided to think someone who worked in journalism for more than 50 years—someone whose name is associated with tough but fair reporting—can now express a political opinion and not have it do serious damage to the credibility of those currently working in the media. Much of the public already believes the media is biased and Donaldson’s endorsement of Mike Bloomberg for president feeds into that belief. It especially lends credence to those who believe much of the media is out to get President Donald Trump.”
Donaldson responded: “I figured I would [get criticized]. I’m disappointed that some of my people I know the best over the years have taken issue with it. But they have a right to do that.”
After he departed Washington, D.C., and settled in his home state of New Mexico, where for years he has owned and operated a sheep ranch, “I felt free now to express myself in political ways,” Donaldson said, noting that he donated to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Apodaca’s unsuccessful 2018 primary race. “I’m no longer working in the business. I’m a private citizen, and I have that right as a citizen who is not holding forth in the news business to an audience or readers as someone who is just reporting the news as it occurs and the facts as I see them.”
Donaldson, a longtime registered independent who claims to have voted pretty much equally for presidential candidates of both major parties since he cast his first ballot as an active-duty Army artillery officer in 1956, lost his political-activism virginity at least four years ago, when he started writing checks to the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Democratic Party, and a variety of other Democratic candidates and incumbents in House and Senate races.
Among the beneficiaries of Donaldson’s largesse (totaling around $30,000, according to Federal Election Commission records) are former 2016 Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, former 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, and—to the tune of $2,000—current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“I’ve known Biden a long time, a lifetime, and everyone says the same thing. I like him. He’s a decent human being and all that, but he doesn't have the fire in the belly. Remember he tried twice before, and he finally said this time, ‘Well, all right, I’m gonna run,’ as if to save us. ‘It’s my duty to run and beat Trump.’ Well, don’t do us any favors, Joe! If you don’t have a passion to be president, as in ‘This is what I’m going to do for the country’—never mind.”
By late January, Donaldson had forsaken Biden and decided to support Bloomberg in the nomination race. At the time, he was a featured speaker at a writers’ conference in San Miguel de Allende—a Mexican cultural mecca favored by expats from the north of the border—and he and his fourth wife, Sandy, happened to be sitting across a dinner table from Toby Usnik, a public relations executive who, it turned out, was an unpaid volunteer in the Bloomberg campaign.
As Donaldson tells it, when he shared his desire to volunteer for Bloomberg, Usnik (who, through a campaign spokesperson, declined an interview request) offered to hook Donaldson up with the campaign hierarchy and soon he and Sandy were in Manhattan visiting with campaign manager Kevin Sheeky and others at Bloomberg for President headquarters.
In his business life, of course, Bloomberg’s main source of wealth is the leasing of computer terminals that provide valuable and microscopically detailed financial information to Wall Street firms and other businesses. Yet he also owns one of the largest journalistic organizations on the planet—Bloomberg News—with a staff of around 2,700 who now find themselves in the painfully awkward position of being limited, by company policy, on how deep their reporting can be concerning a major presidential candidate who happens to be their boss.
“I think maybe if I were working for Bloomberg—and he’s a candidate and there are other candidates, and our job is to assess the field—I would feel not just left out, but I’d question the policy,” Donaldson said.
“On the other hand, I think it would be very difficult, if I were Mike Bloomberg, to say ‘Have at me, boys! Get in there! Be the first to publish about the women! Get in there! Don’t let me get away with stop-and-frisk and all that!’ You’re asking Bloomberg to be a saint from the standpoint of not lifting a finger” to restrain his employees’ campaign reporting.
As a result, the Trump campaign typically excludes Bloomberg News reporters from its rallies, press conferences and other events, and the campaigns of Bloomberg’s Democratic rivals are sympathetic if wary.
Still, Donaldson added, “I would trust that they [Bloomberg News journalists] know the ethics of the business, that they not only would not pull their punches, but they would not seek favor with the boss. But it would be very difficult to work for this guy, who’s got a shot at being president of the United States, and cover him as you would any other candidate. I’m not sure how you do that.”
Donaldson predicted that in contrast to the president, “I think we’ll see Bloomberg’s tax returns, and I think he would do it right, at least far as other presidents have done it, as far as divestiture is concerned. I don’t think we would be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire from Donald J. Trump to Michael Bloomberg.”
Indeed, Bloomberg committed this week to releasing his tax returns, and, should he be elected, placing his privately held company, of which he’s the majority shareholder, into a blind trust before ultimately selling it.
Donaldson, meanwhile, said he’s expecting no billionaire-style perks as he heads onto the campaign trail.
“They’re paying for a coach seat for me on the airplanes and a hotel room. It’s a basic one, I’m sure,” he said, sounding very much like the dream surrogate. “You can think of some other costs that might come up—if I have to rent a car or something. But I’m paying all the incidentals myself.”