The FRONTLINE Interview: Jim Dowd

September 27, 2016
/

As NBC’s director of public relations on the East Coast, Jim Dowd was tapped to manage publicity for The Apprentice and its star, Donald Trump, before the show premiered in 2004. As the team prepared for its first season, Trump went on a 25-city casting call. Dowd recalls this introduction of Trump to the rest of America as “the beginning of [a] potential political career.” As The Apprentice turned Donald Trump into a household name, Dowd saw Trump’s image resurrected. “Oddly enough, firing people on television each week made him likable,” Dowd says. After four seasons of The Apprentice, Dowd left NBC to start his own public relations firm — with Donald Trump as one of his clients.

In the below interview, Dowd recalls getting to know a different side of Donald Trump, why he is surprised that Trump the candidate says negative things about the media, and how The Apprentice made Trump a television sensation.

This is the transcript of a conversation with FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore held on June 29, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length. [Editor’s Note: Shortly after this interview, Jim Dowd died on Sept. 18, 2016 at the age of 42.] 

Tell me a little bit about meeting Donald Trump the first time. What was he like? Take me to that moment.

When I first found out that I had the opportunity to not only meet Donald Trump but actually launch The Apprentice, I was a nervous wreck. Like most people in New York, I was familiar with his past; the hotels, the golf courses, the wives. He had quite a reputation. So, walking into The Today Show for the first time to meet him was quite daunting. I was 27 at the time. … He was on The Today Show with Mark Burnett to promote the announcement of The Apprentice.

At this stage of the game, [The Apprentice] had not been filmed. There was no idea of what it would really look like, and they decided, the network, to spend a year pre-promoting the first season of The Apprentice. So I walked into the set of The Today Show about 6:30 in the morning to meet Donald Trump. And at first, I didn’t know, do you shake his hand? Do you not? And I went right up to him, and I put my hand out and he shook it. So I thought, “Okay, that’s one thing down.”

He said, “Hey, come on in,” and he invited me into his green room, and he started quizzing me right away. And this is where all of a sudden I saw a different side to Donald Trump. You know, where did I go to school? He was very happy I had my master’s degree. You know, how many kids do I have, am I married? All those kind of questions surprised me. I was expecting him to basically say hello and then kind of shoo me away. A lot of people want their privacy.

He’s just the opposite. Before he goes on any kind of television program, he wants to talk as much as humanly possible, and that really surprised me. He’s a really amazing conversationalist.

What exactly was your role going to be?

My role at NBC was to launch The Apprentice. As director of publicity, I was the only person there in charge of [Donald Trump], the program, Mark Burnett, and all the cast members. It was a pretty big role. I had a team of people supporting [me], but [Trump] realized that, in his words, “Jim’s my guy. I got my guy at NBC.” He was happy about that, and he didn’t have any PR people personally. So I was his free lifeline to all the publicity that the entertainment world has to offer, which was an area that he had really never entered into outside of football and some of the other projects he had.

So this, to him, was fresh meat. He had all the real estate and business PR contacts, but he wouldn’t know TV Guide from a hole in the wall. So he saw me and the NBC relationship as an opportunity to catapult himself into a brand new realm.

NBC is doing promotional stuff before it’s even filmed. Why was NBC so excited about this show?

Jeff Zucker really wanted Thursday nights to continue to be, “must see Thursday.” At this time, Friends and Will & Grace were still on the air, so there was definitely a yearning to make sure that the 10:00 [p.m.] slot was going to be something that could last for years and years and years.

I think that Jeff looked at The Apprentice as his breakout hit for that year. He didn’t know it would be, but I think he was hoping it would be. So that’s why he made sure it was on Thursday nights and made sure that it would get at least 10 to 12 months of pre-buzz, water cooler talk. I think he realized that you don’t really have to say terribly much about the show as long as you have Donald Trump. [Trump] goes on probably a hundred different shows between the announcement and the first episode, and you get a minute and a half talking about The Apprentice, but there’s another six, seven minutes about all the other things Trump can talk about.

Jeff realized that, unlike David Schwimmer [of Friends] or Sean Hayes [of Will & Grace], Trump goes on a show, [and] you’ve got a much longer period of time.

Talk a little bit more about the reputation of Donald at that point. You were a New Yorker so you knew about him for many years. How big a star potential was he?

Donald Trump’s reputation in the 2003 to 2004 time frame, right before The Apprentice launched … He was a larger than life figure who most people would say had stalled a little bit in terms of his awareness and progression. People would talk about the past, the wives and divorces and talk about his amazing hotels and what have you. But there was really nothing new — there was no momentum in his career at that point. So the reputation would be, this is the modern day P. T. Barnum who is looking for the next big thing.

Other people had come to him with reality television show ideas in the past and he had said no. Why did this show appeal to him? Why did he want to be part of it?

When Mark Burnett walks into his office, Mark is probably one of, if not the greatest, salesmen in TV. … Donald Trump looked at Survivor and looked at the ratings in particular, he’s obsessed with ratings, and saw, … “This guy really knows what he’s doing. He gets big ratings.” And I think he loved the energy.

And then on the other side, he is still and at the time was extremely close to Bob Wright. Bob’s not currently with the NBC family, but … I think that those two things, the really close executive who was even above Jeff Zucker at NBC, and Mark Burnett coming in convincing him, I think, is really what sold it for him.

And also, one thing he always says is he knows how to make money and he recognizes an opportunity. And one big thing for him was being able to split the proceeds of the sponsors. And at that point we didn’t have any, but I think he realized deep down, well, a Chrysler could come through, or a Visa or one of these, and I think that he saw ad opportunities for himself and future revenue. And I think that in the back of his head, he was thinking financially this could be a really good move.

“… This is the modern day P. T. Barnum who is looking for the next big thing.”

What happens when the show airs? Are people surprised? What’s Donald Trump’s reaction, what is his phone call to you the morning after?

Let me just back up for you for a second

. … One thing in the one year lead up to the launch of The Apprentice that I think is important in lending perspective to what Donald Trump is doing right now in terms of his visits to cities almost every other day for the current election, is we did a 25-city casting call for The Apprentice, and he appeared in as many cities as he possibly could. I saw this as the beginning of [a] potential political career as he’s going on to Cleveland and Chicago and L. A. and all these great cities.

… He really wanted to meet these candidates. He wanted to see who was coming out. All of the locations broke records in terms of the number of people who turned out. … So the grass roots casting call, 25 city campaign, really started to foretell the ratings. All of those cities are Nielsen metered markets. So, I think that was an important part.

So then what happens when it airs?

I will never forget January 4, 2004. Premier day. We had tons of media that we were doing that day, both Mr. Trump and Mark Burnett were doing a bunch of different media. We didn’t have the cast members. They’re not allowed to do media, so it was just the two of them. It was a great day for the heart. Everybody was feeling spirited and just super excited because the show had been filmed about three months before, so everybody was waiting and anxious and ready to go.

I watched [the premier] with Donald Trump, which was an amazing thing. Obviously, he had seen it, but he wanted to see it live and see all the commercials and all that good stuff. [Then] I went home at 11:00 and woke up really early because we knew we were going to have the first fired candidate, David Gould, on The Today Show the next day.

… I walk into The Today Show about 7 a.m., meet with David, get him ready for his segment and Jeff Zucker comes into the studio and says, “Did you see the metered markets?” Now, this is before the official ratings, but you could get a sense for how the show’s going to do. I hadn’t looked at them, so he showed them to me. And the numbers, when you look at that grid, I literally had to sit down, I was shaking. It was unbelievable to see those numbers. When the official ratings came in about 10 a.m. and we knew we hit 18 million, we knew instantaneously that this was a breakout hit and that we were going to be around for a long time.

I was in Mr. Trump’s office when we got the official ratings. You could see the brightness in his eyes and his face. There was a lot of relief, to be honest because there was a lot of pressure on him and performing and all that. He just took a deep breath, he ordered some meatloaf, which he loves, from the Trump Grill, and we all started to talk.

… At that time, there was a lot of voicemail and fax, still. We ended up getting 297 requests, literally, between 10 and 2 the day after The Apprentice aired. And it was just unbelievable. I think the members of the media realized, “Wow, we weren’t sure about this, we didn’t know. But yeah, it’s here to stay.” And it was truly, truly amazing. And the rest is history.

It was supposed to go back to another night earlier in the week, and they did move it back for the third episode. That was the episode where Sam Solovey did the famous stare-down of Donald Trump, and he was the first cast member to go on Jay Leno. As soon as they saw the stare-down footage, Leno called and they flew him out right after The Today Show.

… People forget the third episode, even though Sam was a break out character, [the ratings] dip down to 12 million. And everybody was wondering, what’s happened here? We were 18, we were at 19. Now are at 12. I was in Donald Trump’s office, and he was very nervous about it. He said, “Why did they move me off Thursday night? I had great lead-ins, keep me on Thursday night.” And I was trying to explain to him, [that] we were always supposed to be on earlier in the week. And he said, “Get me Jeff Zucker on the phone.”

So Jeff and Donald Trump and a couple of other people who are decision makers put the show back on Thursday. So for the fourth episode, we were back on Thursdays and we hit 20 million.

Originally, though, he was only going to be the star for one year and they were going to cycle through CEOs of all different sorts. How does it end up that this really becomes Donald Trump’s show?

Originally the idea behind The Apprentice in terms of the boardroom figure, it was supposed to be Donald Trump for the first season, [then] Richard Branson, Mark Cuban, many others. But as soon as the first episode aired and there was this hysteria around the country, there was no question in NBC’s mind and Mark Burnett’s — it was immediately green lit for season two and Donald Trump was loving it so he wanted to be part of it.

Once the finale hit, officially it was 28 million, but it was actually 40 million in terms of overall people watching during the two hours. But as soon as that hit, there was no question that it was going to be Donald Trump for the long term. I don’t think they imagined it would be [14] seasons.

Were you on the scene quite a bit over at Trump Tower just to watch? What was the filming like? What was the boardroom like? Take us into the background of the scenes and what it was like to film the show.

Filming The Apprentice was a very intriguing experience, and what you see on television isn’t always what happens in real life. Mr. Trump’s office is on the 25th floor of Trump Tower. He had on the fifth floor of the building, he had an empty, essentially an empty space or lot, whatever you would call it. And he allowed the Burnett team to basically build a boardroom. Call it sort of television magic. Alongside the boardroom, you see a lot of doors in the lobby before you go into the boardroom. If you were to open one of those doors, it would actually go right into the suite where all the cast members were staying and sleeping and eating and everything.

So there’s, I think, this implication that the boardroom and the suite were completely in different areas. But they were back to back, which was interesting because you could be just finishing dinner and then you get called into the boardroom and you’re literally walking 20 feet. They kept that set to the present day. It’s still there. And Donald Trump would come down from the 25th floor and do his usually two hour boardroom take and then go right back upstairs.

When I was over there, probably two, three times a week, there was always really positive energy. But on Mr. Trump’s end, he was really trying to manage and juggle so many different things at that point. And I think he got overwhelmed. I don’t think he realized how much time it was going to take to properly film a reality show. At the time, he was trying to make hotel deals all over the world, golf, courses in Scotland, and he constantly was being pulled by the producers saying, “We need you for this take. We need you to do this task delivery. We need you to meet with Kodak.” And he’d be on the phone with one of his lawyers or whatever it was. There was definitely a learning curve for him in terms of wow, this isn’t just going down the street and doing a quick task delivery. It’s going to be a lot of my time.

But he did okay. At that point there was no inkling of ratings or the future. I would say it was very admirable to see his patience level increase during the filming.

Where did the famous “you’re fired” phrase come from and the movement of

The cobra, right.

Yeah, the cobra.

It was always going to be “you’re fired.” That’s something that was sort of preconceived. How he would deliver it was completely up to Donald Trump. In the control room during that very first boardroom and seeing the anxiety increasing as it was getting very, very close to that moment, we were all wondering exactly what he would do. I’m not even sure that he knew. He was going with the flow.

The individual that got fired the first episode did a horrible job. (Laughs.) He had Ph.D.s and degrees from Harvard and all sorts of things. So Mr. Trump actually got agitated and was thinking that David really deserved it, and I think that’s where the — almost like electrocuting the person with his fingers, I think that’s where that came from, is he was genuinely upset that this person didn’t perform during the task. I think he wanted to add the extra kind of theatrical part of it.

“He wants to hit the lowest possible denominator when it comes to the statements that he’s making. He doesn’t want to just hit a single or a light serve. He wants to smash it, and he wants to get the most inflammatory possible point of view, which will get the most headlines, there’s no question about that.”

Tell us the story of going up to his apartment, the bologna sandwich story.

As I was getting to know Donald Trump, I began to see a brand new side to him that was truly shocking in the most heartfelt of ways. What I mean by that is when you go up to his apartment, I’m sure everyone’s seen photos of the gold palace in the penthouse of Trump Tower, and when you go up there, the expectation I had was butlers running about and, you know, maids and all the traditional kind of thought of something like that.

Leading up to The Apprentice we had that full year of publicity. So we were doing a publicity day. It was Donald Trump and Mark Burnett. We had done a bunch of different television shows and there was about an hour and a half lull. It was in the evening, we were about to do O’Reilly but we had a couple of hours. So, Donald Trump said, “Hey, would you like to come up to the apartment, get some Diet Coke and what have you?” And Mark and I said, “Of course, yeah.”

It was my first time being there, so obviously I was completely awestruck at what that place looks like. I didn’t want to touch anything. I made myself not go to the bathroom. I was really overwhelmed. He didn’t really give us a tour, but a little bit. Then he said, “Hey guys, come on in the kitchen.” And this is a very normal kitchen. Looks like mine, you know. Big fridge and we’re standing in the kitchen just talking about, “Hey, what’s O’Reilly going to be like?”

And then as we’re chatting, Donald Trump opens the fridge, and I sort of peek in and all I see are Diet Cokes, some orange juice and this pile of Oscar Mayer bologna. There were several different packages. He pulls out a package and pulls open the plastic, takes a piece of bologna, rolls it up, hands it to me, does the same, hands it to Mark. Does the same for himself. And we did a cheers with the bologna.

It was something that I would never have thought: A) Him touching bologna. B) him giving it to us as a snack. So it was the first of many experiences like that with him. On his jet, when we fly out for the Emmy Awards or any kind of appearances in L. A., it’s McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. … [On the jet] he had had the Pizza Hut preordered with meatballs.

And he opens the cardboard box and has a medium sized pizza. Takes a knife and fork and puts all of the cheese and the meat in the center of the pizza and starts eating it, basically, with his fork, just the cheese and the meat. He was on a diet. He’s like, “Well, this is the only way I can eat pizza.” He goes, “I’m not eating the crust, I’m just eating — “and I’m thinking, the grease? (Laughs.) But just to see him with, you know, the remnants of it on his chin, I’ll never forget that.

And then he has a professional grade film kind of projector there. And he put on Frank Sinatra, Guys and Dolls and watched it with us. And then went to bed. Again, something I never would have expected.

One on one, what were your thoughts about what he’s like as a human being?

Being alone with or close to Donald Trump during the filming of The Apprentice, it was remarkable to see this completely different side to this man. You started to learn how to approach him about certain things. I was in [the] position at the time at NBC and then [later] working for my own firm, of basically convincing him to do things. Believe it or not, Donald Trump had to be convinced to do certain publicity. People think he’ll do anything. People call, he’ll take the call. Which is generally true, he’ll generally take most media calls.

But in terms of TV, Ellen DeGeneres, for example, took a year to convince him to go out there and do that show. So you had to know walking into his office — A) what had just happened. So if he had just gotten bad news from Atlantic City or a broker, you don’t go in

… And B) you have to know in the back of your head, very similar to The Apprentice boardroom, you’re going to get two minutes, maybe less, to convince him of this because his attention span is notoriously short and very sweet. So, you’ve got to know, okay, what are the three points that you need to make about this particular opportunity that will convince him, “Wow, I have to do this. This is something I must do.” So you have to almost prepare like an actor.

So you walk in and then you give your pitch and most days he’s pretty good with things. But there definitely were days when he was not playing on the same field. And then what I learned is you go back to him and then the second time usually is fine and he’ll end up doing it. But you definitely have to be ready to answer questions and be really on the tip of your toes at all times with him because — and this is for everyone in his inner circle — he’s constantly wondering and inquiring about what’s happening in the world. Like he asks you, “How do [you] think President Obama’s doing?” You know, and I gave my opinion and he had an opposite opinion.

He’s really up on current events and he likes to kind of have a healthy debate about things. And I found that to be an intelligence level that I wasn’t expecting.

Since you bring it up, politics, earlier on there were thoughts of him running for president in 2000. Before that, he had dipped his toes in the waters in the late ‘80s. Did he talk about politics a lot? Could you tell that there was a potential for him of running again?

Donald Trump and politics and his yearning, perhaps, to run for office, was very much alive and bright during The Apprentice days to the point where every week, he did Don Imus’s program, which is pretty well known for political conversation. And he would go on supposedly for The Apprentice, but it ended up being a couple of minutes on The Apprentice and usually 30 to 40 minutes was the average. Sometimes, he’d have him on for an hour, [that] was all about foreign policy, jobs, immigration, all the topics that he’s speaking about now, he was talking about in 2004 with Imus and O’Reilly and others.

… So fast forward to the fourth season of The Apprentice, which was the end of 2005, and it was New Year’s Eve and usually during holidays when there’s like lull time, he gets very anxious because he wants to be working, or he wants to be part of whatever’s happening in the media. It so happened there was going to be a live shot at Mar-a-Lago in Florida on New Year’s Eve so we were just talking about that around 5:00 on New Year’s Eve 2005.

And we were talking about politics and he said, “Jimmy, would you be my [White House] press secretary?” I had to sort of sit down, was like, “Well, Mr. Trump, if you’re very serious about it, we should definitely have a conversation.” This is, what, 12 years ago, right? So, he was very serious. There is no question about .

  In 2011, he does the whole birther thing, which people sort of looked at as being kind of outrageous. What is that about him that triggers that and how it’s received?

When Donald Trump goes on his rampage when it comes to President Obama or Mexican Americans, or whatever the topic is, there’s one thing that’s quite unsettling, and I think most people realize this, some people overlook it, and that’s that he wants to hit the lowest possible denominator when it comes to the statements that he’s making. He doesn’t want to just hit a single or a light serve. He wants to smash it, and he wants to get the most inflammatory possible point of view, which will get the most headlines, there’s no question about that, and will get people reacting. It’s a very polarizing thing.

But he takes a stance that is so over the top that it’s hard to stomach for a lot of people. The birther dialogue is an example of that. I mean, to hit the president of the United States with something so deeply personal and so hitting at this paranoia potentially that either he had or he felt might [exist], was unsettling, disturbing.

And his motivation to do it is because he believes it or because it’s going to make news? What’s his motivation?

I think motivation for him in terms of the birther Obama situation was oddly not to attack Barack Obama, although it obviously looked like that. But I think it was much more him putting two feet in the sand and basically erecting a fort saying, “I’m here, I’ve got a point of view. Watch out,” you know, not necessarily Barack Obama, but “watch out Democrats, I’m coming for you.” And I think he knew even back then that that was part of this slow momentum when he eventually was going to decide to run.

That’s fascinating. When Obama, during that correspondents dinner, mocks him and goes on and on and you see those pictures of him sitting back and just kind of taking it, did he call you afterwards?

At the correspondents’ dinner when Obama was really giving him a hard time, he did call me afterwards and, you know, he was okay. I mean, he got the fact that, you know, him being there was going to cause a ruckus and if he’s going to be there, he’d rather be the star, so to speak, of the show than not. In reality, he didn’t have any big issues with what Obama was saying. He’s got a very thick skin. People have said horrible things about him over the years. I mean, he was on the cover of the New York Post 12 days in a row during the Ivana days. So, he gets it and I don’t think there was so much —

All publicity is good publicity?

Absolutely.

“The Apprentice was definitely the first step, one of the biggest steps, for Donald Trump to set the stage for his current run for the president of the United States.”

How does The Apprentice change the public perception of him? When he goes out on the streets, how he’s reacted to? How does the show affect him?

The Donald Trump prior to The Apprentice, in terms of walking the streets and the reaction that you see from people, versus the Donald Trump post-Apprentice, completely, completely different. This is a really important part of his resurrection in terms of public image and likeability. Primarily, what really changed was the younger demographic that had been created from scratch because the program was appealing to 18- to 35-year-olds in a huge way. So you would see a 10-year-old kid walk up to him. You would never see that before The Apprentice. They would be intimidated, they’d be scared by him. But oddly enough, firing people on television each week made him likable, which I find to be unbelievable.

All the kids coming up to him, women, you know, I think before maybe you wouldn’t see a lot of that. You’d see a ton of women wanting to hug him, touch his hair. He became a rock star.

Before, he was known by a certain strata, certainly all around the New York area he was well known. I think he said it, or other people said it, that what the show did, in some ways, is it allowed him to sort of win the hearts and minds of middle America?

Absolutely.

What do you think that phenomenon — what happened?

All of these markets in the midwest and the south that he went to the casting calls, he kept in touch with the media in Atlanta and in Omaha and you name the city, we were still in touch with them. The Donald Trump post-first season of The Apprentice all of a sudden became a very popular figure on Main Street, U.S.A. So it was Wall Street before, and then it became Main Street to the point where we showed up in Denver for an event, and we had to have a separate room just for The Apprentice fans. He was doing a speech that had nothing to do with the show. But because of the show, we had all these people from Denver who wanted to meet him, so we did a whole separate thing.

A heck of a launching pad for someone who’s going to run for the presidency of the United States?

Absolutely.

The Apprentice was definitely the first step, one of the biggest steps, for Donald Trump to set the stage for his current run for the president of the United States. And particularly it had to do with a lot of the local markets and getting to know people all over the country, starting to talk on media outlets like Letterman and Imus about political issues all over the world. Starting to come up with very strong opinions on these. And his popularity was never higher than it was during this Apprentice time. And he was literally — he could do no wrong at that stage. And I think that he realized, “Wow, if I’ve hit the high, where can you go from there? I want to be president.” And I think his confidence — you’d think this man would have all the confidence in the world, but I think he really needed to witness outside of his own body, almost, what happened during The Apprentice and look at himself and how massively successful it was. He needed to see that and assure himself before he officially decided.

Tell me the story of the fact that he would always say this is the number one show in America.  He’d have discussions with you about the media and the numbers. What is that all about?

He quickly became obsessed. He knew nothing about Nielsen ratings. Within a week, he started to really study up. When he studies up on something that involves numbers and entertainment, then he’s going to really kind of let that sink in. And we’d have calls every single day after [a show aired], he’d usually start calling at eight in the morning, but the ratings don’t come in until 10. I’d always have to tell him, “Mr. Trump, we have to wait until 10. As soon as they come in, I will call you.”

During the first season, the story was incredible. Every week it went up, and the finale, it blew up. Then the second season was great as well, but as you go on, season three, four, five, the same process happens. You know, show airs, ratings come in and all of a sudden ratings were not 20 million anymore. They were substantially lower, still doing well, but not winning the time slot necessarily. Demos were good, but overall viewers continued to — every season it declined.

He never saw it that way. And it became really difficult to try to tell that story. There’s about 10 people who cover ratings in terms of the publications that matter most. And he would want to make sure I called all those 10 people and told them, “Number one show on television, won its time slot,” and I’m looking at the numbers and at that point, say season five, for example, we were number 72. (Laughs.) I can’t tell that to him. I can’t say that. Maybe I should have, maybe I should have gotten Jeff Zucker involved, but he became kind of a monster when it came to these ratings.

And when we had a good story to tell, I was so relieved because then I could actually go to him and say, “Hey, we were up 30 percent week over week.” And then he’d be like, “Oh well that’s amazing, that’s great,” almost as if it’s something that is actually real that he could say.

It’s interesting, because now that he’s in a game of politics, poll numbers, there’s an equivalence there in some ways, you think, in his head?

If you look at him on any interview, he will at least quote two, if not three, recent polls that just came out. So he’s very, very hip to that and will only, obviously, pick the polls that are going to tell the story that he wants to tell.

Right, so the polls are turning in his direction. And he understands the power behind the numbers, I suppose?

He sees it as completely legitimizing.

Without the show, do you think Trump would ever have been able to run for president?

Looking back on the success of The Apprentice, to the current day, I truly believe that the show transformed Donald Trump into this persona, this figure, who almost completely redeemed the pre-Apprentice Donald Trump in ways that are so substantial and so deep seated that would The Apprentice not be in the picture, I couldn’t see him running for president. I couldn’t see him wanting to or really making that effort. So having The Apprentice in his life, again, opens up this friendly, larger than life character who people really want to see as a leader. He was certainly a leader before The Apprentice, but post-Apprentice, he’s become someone who is eminently electable.

You thought in the past that he was going to run for president. But in 2015, when is the first time you hear it?

[When] his press conference occurred, I knew it was going to be happening. I had a couple of people going to it, and I was able to speak to him after that original Trump Tower official announcement. He called on quite a lot of people those couple of days to make sure he had his army of support, of which I fit a certain role. And [I was] thrilled to do so. I was not surprised and knew immediately we were going to be in for a very entertaining seven, eight, nine months.

  The announcement at the Trump Tower, I assume you watched it on television.

I was there.

 

So take us to that moment. Describe what it was like, what you were thinking and how that presentation came along?

At Trump Tower for the big announcement — we had done probably 50 announcements in that atrium area by the waterfall prior — but what was in the air was completely different than anything I had ever experienced in terms of the sheer number of people, obviously, but just the type of people who were there. There were some really important people who attended. And also, the kind of intangible. Something I couldn’t put my finger on that was, “wow, this is history.” Something is happening here that is very different from the other 50 press conferences.

It’s hard to explain. But there was a magic in the area, I would definitely say … To see him enter that space and issue what was quite a long speech, and do it so effectively with so many sound bites that to this day people are still quoting him, you know, some were very controversial. But people are still quoting what he was saying during that speech. And I think he really prepared, and he was on. That was Donald Trump on and really putting his foot down. “Here I am, and I’m not going anywhere.”

An important aspect of his success is his understanding of the media and the media’s absolute need, or lust for, Donald Trump’s presence, message, delivery, whatever it is. Describe his relationship with the media, why it’s different than most, and why it’s so important.

Donald Trump and the members of the media could be a saga, an epic story that would go on for years. He’s constantly complaining that media aren’t treating him fairly, that they’re liars, you name it, he’s said it. But I don’t truly believe that. I’m sort of surprised that he’s saying those things because the media are his second family. He literally probably has 50 relationships, really high profile relationships, among the most important outlets in this country … And he calls on them himself.

They love that because that’s access that you don’t usually get. You usually go through the communications team, PR person, what have you, and they fly on the jet with him, they’re in the limo with him. You know, he gives amazing attention to a lot of members of the media. And he keeps that relationship going.

He’ll never forget a story, particularly if it’s a good one, and if it’s a bad one, he usually will give the person a second chance, particularly if he likes the theme of the story. But it definitely is his life blood, you know. If tomorrow were to come and MSNBC Morning Joe decided not to have him on every other week, or whatever it is, he’d be really, really upset, more upset than the poll numbers. He wants to make sure that he’s in demand at all times when it comes to the media outlets, and he will always take a call when it comes into his office.

…. Are there any other stories that you remember specifically about him that you think are important to understand, that define the Donald? Anything about the family or anything?

One thing that doesn’t get a lot of attention in the world of Donald Trump is his relationship with Melania …

When Melania came along, I certainly noticed this, but he reiterated it in several conversations behind closed doors, that she brought to him and his life, and he uses this word very, very carefully and very importantly, a sense of calm. And I love that word because you never associate that with Donald Trump. She gives him that peace and that calmness that I think he sorely needs or else he would burn out. She’s really the rock of that relationship. And I give her a lot of credit. I don’t think she gets a lot of credit for that.

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Support Provided By