Over the weekend, I re-read John R. O’Donnell’s book “Trumped! The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump—His Cunning Rise and Spectacular Fall,” from 1991. O’Donnell was a longtime casino executive who ran the Trump Plaza, a Trump casino in Atlantic City. And although the book is dated in some ways, O’Donnell’s recollections are valuable in that they show how little Trump has changed: the Trump in O’Donnell’s book is vain, myopic, and consumed with the fear of being one-upped.
“He had a tremendous fear of baldness,” O’Donnell writes. “He swept his hair across the front of his head like a man trying to hide a thinning patch. He once observed to Mark”—Etess, another Trump executive—“that he considered baldness a sign of weakness. He gave a tube of the gel he used to Mark, warning him: ‘The worst thing a man can do is go bald. Never let yourself go bald,’ as if nature could be circumvented through sheer force of will.”
In a different passage, O’Donnell describes how the Plaza tried to attract more high rollers by comping them food and luxury suites, allotting them ringside seats at prizefights, and even siding with them when they claimed to have won disputed bets against the house. These gestures were designed to keep the high rollers coming back, O’Donnell explained, because, eventually, given the mathematics of gambling, they were sure to lose more money than they won. But Trump had a problem with the strategy.
“Donald did not understand this, but then his conception of time was so circumscribed that it was astounding,” O’Donnell writes. “He did business almost entirely in the moment.” He “would become extremely anxious whenever sizable piles of money shifted to the player’s side.” On the other hand, when someone lost a lot of money, he couldn’t hide his glee. When a high roller told Trump he had dropped a quarter of a million dollars during a weekend at one of his casinos, he replied, “Great . . . oh, that’s great.” Trump’s shortsightedness drove away many heavy gamblers, O’Donnell recalled, and the people who worked for him were “constantly trying to soothe sore feelings.”
Sound familiar? For almost a week now, Trump has been caught up in a bitter dispute about a condolence call he made to the family of La David Johnson, a sergeant in the U.S. Special Forces who was killed in Niger on October 4th. On Monday morning, Myeshia Johnson, the soldier’s pregnant wife, appeared on “Good Morning America” and said that Trump’s call “made me cry,” saying, by way of explanation, “I heard him stumbling on trying to remember my husband’s name and that’s what hurt me the most, because if my husband is out here fighting for our country and he risked his life for our country, why can’t you remember his name?”
As soon as this story emerged last week, any decent and sensible President would have gotten on the phone again with Johnson and apologized for offending her, however inadvertently. But such a step would have required that Trump be capable of considering the possible consequences of arguing with another Gold Star family, admitting a mistake, and resisting his instinct to lash out at anybody who criticizes him. That was too much to ask.
All week, he vigorously denied that he had failed to recall La David Johnson’s name—a charge that was originally made by Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, the Democrat of Florida, who was with Myeshia Johnson and other Johnson family members when the President made the call. Last Wednesday, Trump claimed that Wilson had “totally fabricated what I said.” A day later, he dispatched his chief of staff, John Kelly, to defend him before the White House press corps. Over the weekend, he referred to Wilson on Twitter as “wacky” and “a disaster for Dems.”
In response to Johnson’s interview on Monday, Trump immediately disputed her account, thereby further escalating what had already turned into one of the ugliest episodes of his Presidency. ”I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!” he tweeted. As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake quickly pointed out, Trump “effectively called a Gold Star widow a liar.”
Perhaps this was just another example of Trump letting his impulses get the better of him. But it is impossible to consider this episode without also discussing race. Last summer, after Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim-American U.S. Army captain who was killed in Iraq, in 2004, criticized Trump in a speech at the Democratic National Convention, Trump lashed out at Khan and his wife, implying they were stooges for the Clinton campaign. The Khan family is Pakistani-American. The Johnson family and Congresswoman Wilson are African-Americans. O’Donnell, in his book, recalled a conversation with Trump about an employee in the Trump Plaza’s finance department who also happened to be African-American. Here is the passage in full:
“What do you think of him?” Donald asked.
“I said I was familiar with his abilities, and he had shortcomings. “To be honest, I don’t think he’s the best we can have,” I said. “I’d like to see him either come up to speed, where he can help me a lot more, or maybe there’s something else he can do.”
Instantly, Donald was enthused. “Yeah, I never liked the guy. Idon’t think he knows what the fuck he’s doing. My accountants in New York are always complaining about him. He’s not responsive. And it isn’t funny. I’ve got black accountants at Trump Castle and at Trump Plaza. Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. Those are the kind of people I want counting my money. Nobody else.”
I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. But Donald went on, “Besides that, I’ve got to tell you something else. I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is. I believe that. It’s not anything they can control . . . Don’t you agree?” He looked at me straight in the eye and waited for my reply.
“Donald, you really shouldn’t say things like that to me or anybody else,” I said. “That is not the kind of image you want to project. We shouldn’t even be having this conversation, even if it’s the way you feel.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “If anybody ever heard me say that . . . holy shit . . . I’d be in a lot of trouble. But I have to tell you, that’s the way I feel.”
To be sure, this story happened a long time ago. Trump employed some high-profile African-Americans in his campaign, and he appointed one African-American, Ben Carson, to his Cabinet. It may be the case that even if Wilson and Johnson were both white, Trump would have responded to them in the same unyielding and dismissive manner. As O’Donnell said, he lives in the moment and he’s by nature adversarial. Since January, he has shown he is capable of attacking practically anybody: foe or ally, Democrat or Republican, black or white.
But for all these qualifiers, it is hard not to speculate about why Trump is yet again engaged in a lengthy public dispute with members of a minority group, and one he could easily have resolved. “Donald Trump doesn’t respect black women. To be fair . . . most white supremacists don’t,” Brittany Packnett, an activist associated with Black Lives Matter, tweeted on Monday. If Trump wants to dispel charges like that one, he could pick up the phone and call Myeshia Johnson again, or, better still, invite her to the White House. But he probably won’t.