This story appears in the November 14, 2017 issue of Forbes.
Inside the small West Wing study–where he stacks his papers and takes his meals atop what he calls his “working desk,” the president talks volubly about a chandelier he had installed and the oil paintings of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. He pokes open the door to his pristine private bathroom, a must for the germophobe-in-chief. He takes us outside to see the serene swimming pool. And inside the Oval Office, freshly renovated with drapes, carpet and fixtures that lean heavily on gold, he slides his hand across the same Resolute desk where JFK handled the Cuban Missile Crisis and Reagan fought the Cold War, adorned with nothing but two telephones and a call button. “This looks very nice,” says the president.
He could as easily be pitching a Trump Tower penthouse or a Doral golf club membership, and over the course of a nearly one-hour interview in the Oval Office, President Trump stays true to the same Citizen Trump form that Forbes has seen for 35 years.
He boasts, with a dose of hyperbole that any student of FDR or even Barack Obama could undercut: “I’ve had just about the most legislation passed of any president, in a nine-month period, that’s ever served. We had over 50 bills passed. I’m not talking about executive orders only, which are very important. I’m talking about bills.”
He counterpunches, in this case firing a shot at Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who reportedly called his boss a moron: “I think it’s fake news, but if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.”
And above all, he sells: “I also have another bill … an economic-development bill, which I think will be fantastic. Which nobody knows about. Which you are hearing about for the first time… . Economic-development incentives for companies. Incentives for companies to be here.” Companies that keep jobs in America get rewarded; those that send operations offshore “get penalized severely.” “It’s both a carrot and a stick,” says the president. “It is an incentive to stay. But it is perhaps even more so–if you leave, it’s going to be very tough for you to think that you’re going to be able to sell your product back into our country.”
And so here we are, the first president to come solely from the private sector, representing the party that for more than a century championed laissez-faire capitalism and free trade, proposing that government punish and reward companies based on where they choose to locate factories and offices. Is the president comfortable with that idea?
“Very comfortable,” he replies. “What I want to do is reciprocal. See, I think the concept of reciprocal is a very nice concept. If somebody is charging us 50%, we should charge them 50%. Right now they charge us 50%, and we charge them nothing. That doesn’t work with me.”
Donald Trump didn’t get rich building businesses, despite years of brand-burnishing via The Apprentice and millions of votes from people who craved exactly that experience. Instead, his forte lies in transactions–buying and selling and cutting deals that assure him a win regardless of the outcome for others. The nuance is essential. Entrepreneurs and businesspeople create and run entities that have any number of interested parties–shareholders and customers and employees and partners and hometowns–that in theory all share in success. Under Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Apple has helped early shareholders multiply their investments nearly 400-fold, turned thousands of options-wielding employees into millionaires (swelling the local tax base), performed similar wonders for Taiwanese supplier Foxconn and made customers so deliriously happy that they wait all night to fork over hundreds of dollars for products that will be obsolete two years later.
Dealmakers rarely seek that kind of win-win-win-win-win. Whether it’s a stock trade, a swap of middle relievers or optioning a real estate parcel, a deal tends to involve just two parties and generally results in one coming out ahead of the other (so much so that a “win-win” is considered a noteworthy aberration). “Man is the most vicious of all animals,” Trump told People in 1981 (and it merited a mention the first time he appeared in Forbes , a year later). “Life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat.” It’s a mentality that remains hard-wired in President Trump.
Nearly a year after the most stunning Elections in many decades, pundits still profess to find themselves continually shocked by President Trump. They shouldn’t be: His worldview has been incredibly consistent. Rather than as an opportunity to turn ideology into policy, he views governing the way he does business–as an endless string of deals, to be won or lost, both at the negotiating table and in the court of public opinion. Look at his first year through this prism, and it makes sense. And it offers clues for the next three years–or seven.
How would you rate President Trump’s first 37 weeks in office?