The FRONTLINE Interview: Louise Sunshine

September 27, 2016
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As Vice President of the Trump Organization from 1973 to 1985, Louise Sunshine helped Donald Trump open his first office in Manhattan. She was involved in the development of Trump Tower and other major projects, and the growth of the “Trump” brand. Working for Trump, Sunshine says, meant that “the word ‘no’ did not exist in our lives.” Though she and Trump had a public disagreement as she left to start her own company, The Sunshine Group, Ltd., she says they have both moved on. She is an active supporter of Trump’s presidential campaign.

In the below interview, Sunshine discusses the real estate deals that made Donald Trump wealthy and famous, how he became “a genius at manipulating the press” and how imaginary “Trump earplugs” sometimes helped her tune out her outspoken boss.

This is the transcript of a conversation with FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore held on July 25, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length

When was the first time you met Donald Trump?

The first time I met Donald Trump was during the period of time when I was working for Gov. Carey, or getting Hugh Carey elected as governor of the state of New York. I was chairman of his finance committee … and Donald was a contributor to Gov. Carey.

… Donald was all of maybe 24 years old. He was spreading his dollars around political circles in order to be known and garner credibility in the world of business. And he chose politics as a route to gain fame.

The most important thing to him since his early youth, because he was always, as a young man and a boy, playing with cars, loved cars, was this license plate with “DJT” on it. We would have these endless conversations about how and if it would ever be possible to get this license plate. It was paramount on Donald’s mind and absolutely stuck in my mind, because in those days … all such unusual requests went through me.

At some point, this license plate became available, not because of anything important that I did; it just became available because the people who had [owned] it had moved out of state and had turned it back [in]. So this was an opportunity, a God-given opportunity, a stroke of luck, a stroke of fate, and gave me the opportunity to get this license plate for Donald, because I had been driving everybody crazy in the Motor Vehicles Department about this license plate. And I’m known to be a person who gets things done. I was able to obtain this license plate for Donald. It made him extraordinarily happy. He was able to use that license plate until recently. Now they’ve removed it from his car because of security reasons.

What was he like?

I thought and still think that Donald is one of the most remarkable, intelligent, creative people that I had ever met. I knew a lot of people, and I still know a lot of people. But Donald had a knack for getting the job done. Donald had a talent for seeing an opportunity, for identifying opportunities. Very often people identify opportunities, but they don’t know how to implement the task at hand. Donald was always able to figure out how to implement the task at hand and create value.

This was just an unusual set of talents for any one human being to have. I just thought this was the most incredible opportunity for me to be able to learn from somebody like Donald. He was a great teacher, and I was an excellent student.

How do you end up working for him? And what’s your role?

When Gov. Carey got elected, I was a young wife and mother. I had three young children all under the age of nine. I never worked a day in my life before, although I had been exposed to real estate through my father and marketing through my grandfather Barney Pressman, who established and founded Barney’s.

When Gov. Carey got elected, I took on a lot of part-time government jobs. I was vice chairman of the New York State Thruway. I was on the Job Development Authority. I was on the New York State Pension Fund distribution committee. I served as vice chairman of the National Democratic Committee. I served as treasurer of the New York State Democratic Party. So I was a very busy woman in addition to my family.

Donald was simultaneously vying for the options, bidding for the rights to the Penn Central Properties, which were in bankruptcy in Philadelphia, in the courts there. I’ve always known Donald to work through the challenges at hand and somehow come out on top. Donald was able to win that bid and secure the options to develop the Penn Central properties.

At that time, Donald was still working in Brooklyn with his father, Fred, and his brother. He asked me if I would consider setting up an office with him in New York. He wanted to set up an office in the old Penn Central buildings on 46th Street and Lexington Avenue. I didn’t think that would be possible, because I had all these government positions and political positions, and I would need to resign. Furthermore, he wanted me to register as a lobbyist, and I didn’t even know what a lobbyist was. I thought a lobby was something that you walk through in a building to get to your residence. I was not sophisticated at all in that respect.

But I too understand when there is an opportunity that you should take advantage of. I thought probably I was facing the most amazing chance and opportunity of my lifetime. So I resigned all my political offices, registered as a lobbyist. Donald and I established a three-room office in the Penn Central building where the Grand Central Railroad is. He spent half a day in Brooklyn with his father, Fred, whom he idolized, and half a day in New York with me. And many half-a-days, Fred Trump would also accompany Donald into New York, so there would be the three of us. Eventually, there was the three of us and one part-time administrative assistant. And that is exactly how we began.

Fred Trump, what was the relationship? Dad, of course, was —

Fred Trump was a machine. I mean, he was a human machine. He was driven beyond whatever the description of “driven” could ever mean. He was 1 million percent supportive of his son and whatever his son wanted to do. He was behind him in every way, shape and form, from being able to help him with the financing of these developments to actually climbing up 60 stories in a building to see what the view was on a roof, to driving trucks, he was totally motivated.

Donald in his youth was probably a little hard to handle, and Fred was now [channeling] all of Donald’s energy into being a very constructive force. Fred’s support was endlessly important to Donald. To this day, to this minute, Donald has one photograph on his desk, and that’s of his father, Fred.

His father was a very handsome man. When you look at the picture of Fred, and you look at Donald, you see the great resemblance between the two. And when you think about Fred’s energy, you see how it is channeled through Donald, because Robert, Donald’s brother, who is just the best brother in the world and is there for Donald at any time of the day or night and is so supportive of him, does not really have Donald’s energy. He has huge intellect and is just an absolutely wonderful person, kind to others, but doesn’t have Donald’s energy. Donald has a magnetic energy.

I was looking at Donald today when I went to visit him in his office, and I said to him, “Donald, are you having facials?” I said, “You don’t have any wrinkles.” I mean, I’m 75, and Donald must be pretty close to 70 now. I mean, we sort of grew up together. And I said: “Who’s your facialist? What are you doing?” There wasn’t a wrinkle. There wasn’t a frown. There was just a go-go-go. First of all, he’s utterly surprised. He has surprised himself.

At the success, you mean?

At the success of this campaign. He was surprised. He’s like a kid. He is surprised by the success of the campaign. He is like a kid in a candy store. And he’s fascinated by the polls. And Donald is supremely intelligent. He doesn’t have to read. Donald just absorbs, absorbs, absorbs. And I understand Donald because I am very much like him. I am a sponge, and he’s a sponge. He can extract so much information from his awareness of his surroundings and of the world around him. And he is such a master of the media. He’s a master. He’s got the media totally running in circles, circles. They’re stumbling over themselves.

Why is he so good at that?

He’s always been good at it. I was only with Donald two months when he said to me — you know, he would do something, and then it would have a bad reaction in the press, and I would be so upset about it. And he’d look at me and say: “Louise, don’t worry about it. Bad publicity is good publicity. What you have to worry about: no publicity.”

He’s always been a genius at manipulating the press.

“He is surprised by the success of the campaign. He is like a kid in a candy store. And he’s fascinated by the polls.”

… You were talking about his dad. What was his dad’s attitude about Donald, who really wanted to come to Manhattan?

His dad was supportive of Donald in anything he wanted to do. He selfishly wanted him to stay in Brooklyn to help him, because they had a vast empire in Queens and Brooklyn of residences and rental apartments that needed to be run. I mean, it was really quite an establishment. But for Donald’s sake, he was totally supportive of him. And Donald’s mother, Mary, was the kindest, sweetest, most wonderful woman. She would urge Fred to be more generous with his time in being supportive of Donald, and not be so selfish.

Because he was selfish in what way?

Selfish in that he wanted Donald to be in Brooklyn. So eventually Fred spent more and more time in New York. And he was so proud of Donald, but driven, driven to do more, more, more and more.

What drove Donald about coming to Manhattan specifically?

The thing that drives him to be president of the United States. He always wants to do better. He always wants to do more. He always wants to explore. It’s never enough.

So the Penn Central deal and how he glommed onto it and understood it — this is at a time that the real estate market is dead in New York. He’s trying to make his way, and he comes back to real estate, and this is the turn. It’s the start.

… He completely turned around the 42nd Street Corridor. We were able to get the Convention Center moved. New York City had spent 15 to 20 years talking about and planning a convention center that was going to be located out in the middle of the Hudson River. We were able to change everybody’s mind and lobby for a convention center to be built on our Penn Central property, on 34th Street. And that is exactly what happened.

At the same time, we were trying to get the West Side Yards rezoned, bordering the Hudson River, which is now a city unto itself. I remember going to the Community Planning Board meetings with Donald, and they used to throw oranges at us and grapefruits at us and garbage at us. I mean, it was a fight for your life, you know, the West Siders of New York. They didn’t like us at all. But years and years later, Donald did accomplish that rezoning. It was an amazing feat.

He writes the letter. He gets meetings. He introduces them to the mayor. He sells himself in a very interesting way for a young guy, at that time. Just take us a little bit into the genius of that deal.

Donald is very, very smart, and he is able to see very far ahead. He has a very analytical and strategic mind, so not only was he able to figure out the real estate components of all of this, but he was able to figure out the political strategies. And I don’t want to give myself too much credit, but I was there to help him.

… Donald had a lot of vision. Not a lot — the most vision anybody could have. He had the ability to translate that vision into reality. And he hired the right people to help him, myself being one of them. And we got the job done.

The word “no” did not exist in our lives. It doesn’t exist in Donald’s life. It doesn’t exist. The word “maybe” doesn’t even exist.

One of the things you said in the past is that what attracted you to him was how he finds talented people, that he brings out the best of them and the worst of them. You become single-minded, and the rest of your life falls away. Explain that about him.

Working with Donald, it’s very intense. Everything is very go-go-go all the time. This sort of pressure, I believe, brings out the worst in somebody or the best in somebody. It brought out the best in me. I reacted well to that kind of situation. And more importantly, I never got enough of it. I could never get enough of it, because even to this very day, I’m bored if I’m not doing something every second, if I’m not using my brain every second, if I’m not being proactive, because in Donald’s life, you are proactive; you are not reactive. You don’t sit and wait. You think ahead. You’re on your toes all of the time. He is on his toes all of the time.

This could either kill somebody or it could make somebody great. It depends on what the qualities are in the other person who was working with Donald. It’s a make-or-break situation.

What was his life like back then? So he comes to New York. What was his life like? People talk about those early days of going to the clubs, meeting —

Donald’s life was work hard and play hard, and he always had a million beautiful women in pursuit of him. He loved [this] place called Le Club. He loved his car. He loved the flashy parts of life. And you know, he doesn’t drink; he doesn’t smoke. Never did, never will. But he liked to party. It really wasn’t long before he did get married to Ivana and have these three incredible children.

… Tell me a little bit more about all this early stuff happening in this three-room office.

It was just the most productive office ever. We finally moved to an office on 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in the Crown Building, and then eventually moved across the street to what is now known as Trump Tower on 56th Street and Fifth Avenue. Of course that building had to get built first. That building is an example of our first residential and mixed-use real estate development. Der Scutt was the architect. Donald and I, we were involved in every aspect of that development, from site identification, which occurred by riding through neighborhoods in New York City for months, trying to identify sites.

And Donald came upon this site, which had the Bonwit Teller building on it. It was kind of a landmark building. It was next door to Tiffany’s. He loved it.

“And he’d look at me and say: ‘Louise, don’t worry about it. Bad publicity is good publicity. What you have to worry about: no publicity.'”

Let me take you back for a second to the Grand Hyatt, because this job is the one that cemented his reputation. It allowed him to get to the Trump Tower. Tell me a little bit about the Grand Hyatt and why it was important.

Because it was part of the package of properties that he had purchased from the Penn Central in bankruptcy, because he focused on it, because his father focused on it, because it involved the Pritzker family, it involved the city of New York, because it was a very complicated development. It involved getting a [40]-year tax abatement; it involved a million city approvals. And it was a challenge. Donald loves challenges.

And for a young guy, how ridiculous a goal to make that happen?

Nothing is ridiculous for Donald. Nothing was ever ridiculous for Donald. The bigger the challenge, the more he liked it, the better he did at it. It was not a question of being young or old; it was a question of being Donald having his father’s support, having the right people working with him, and being proactive.

And the importance of the tax abatements to the deal?

Critical.

And your involvement?

Always. (Laughs.)

What does that say about him and his potential and how people looked at him afterward?

It said to the world that he was a serious real estate developer, not only because of his father, but because of him.

… Take us into some of your favorite stories about the complications of making it happen. You had to get the air rights from Tiffany.

The first challenge that we faced is, what kind of a building were we going to design on this site that gave us the maximum-view corridors? If you notice, the building has a lot of corner terraces and terraces that face right down Fifth Avenue. In conjunction with that, we had to be very concerned about the height of the building, so we had to acquire air rights from Tiffany’s in order to make the building higher.

… Then we had the challenge of marketing and selling the building. Unlike other developers, we opted to do everything ourselves so that Donald and I met every single purchaser at Trump Tower. They actually were ushered into our offices. We met them; we interviewed them.

Wined and dined them and everything?

We did everything. We consummated the sales ourselves. That’s really how we learned the marketing and sales business, from soup to nuts, and developed the Trump marketing and sales arm of the business. When Trump Tower was formed and built and occupied, we created the Trump Management Business. To this day, Donald manages all of his own buildings, sells all of his own buildings, never uses any third-party vendors.

… The bas-reliefs on the outside of the Bonwit Teller building. What was that all about? I think this comes into play with the “there’s no bad publicity” story.

The portal of the Bonwit Teller store had two reliefs, one on either side of the door, of these art deco female figures. When the building was torn down, people [were] concerned … that these two female figures would be destroyed. It was always reported in the press that they were destroyed, except they weren’t destroyed. One sits on my balcony in my Florida home, and the other one is somewhere. But they were not destroyed.

So then why all the controversy on the front pages of the papers?

Donald always attracts publicity, and he doesn’t mind that they write it. And he doesn’t do anything about it. The more the better.

So at that point, which is the first time the press really came after him, because he was a real darling at that point —

He doesn’t care. He simply doesn’t care. He simply thinks that bad publicity is good publicity and certainly better than no publicity at all.

… Putting the Trump name on the Trump Tower, why that decision? How did he view that?

We decided, right from the beginning, that we were going to name everything Trump. But there was a point at which we decided that the name Trump was worth $1,000 a square foot more than the building next door, anybody’s building next door, anybody’s. That was because of the superior finishes, the superior amenities, the locations. And there was this entire set of criteria that we could back up that statement with. … When Donald began to franchise his name, that’s how he got paid. When he franchised his name to Mr. Smith, and it became Trump Building, he was able to get paid for that franchise based on those statistics.

Is there a moment where a light bulb goes off?

Yes. Trump International Hotel & Tower at 1 Central Park West was the moment when the light bulb went off and we established those statistics and the value of the Trump brand.

Why?

Because it was just true, because when you took the Trump International Hotel & Tower and compared it against the building there or there, its value was $1,000 more a square foot.

Was there a meeting or a point where Donald comes into your office and says —

No, I went into his office.

And what did you say?

I said, “Your building sitting here [is] worth $1,000 a foot more than the building sitting there or the building sitting there.” And from now on, we’ve established the value of the Trump name.

And what did he say?

Fabulous. He was overjoyed.

Was this true for anybody else in the city?

No, because it was singular to Trump.

That became a hugely important moment.

Yeah, very important. And then, of course, it was supported by the fact that there was Rich and Famous; there was The Apprentice; there was this; there was that. It supported all of what Donald did, his golf clubs. All of that supported it. All of his showmanship supported it. But in real estate, there has to be a value. There has to be a proof, evidence. You know, people are not stupid.

And their evidence was?

Trump International Hotel & Tower.

“Nothing is ridiculous for Donald. Nothing was ever ridiculous for Donald. The bigger the challenge, the more he liked it, the better he did at it.”

So then the Trump Tower is going up, and you guys are sitting across the street, looking out at it. What was it like? He’s on the phone all the time?

First of all, we weren’t sitting across the street looking out at it. We were mostly in meetings with architects, with designers, choosing finishes, furnishings, designing sales offices, putting the retail component together, the dining component. There was so much to do. We were never sitting in an office looking out a window.

… What was your relationship with Donald at that point? How important [were you] to him?

We were just inseparable. Donald, when I married for the second time, gave me my wedding at Mar-a-Lago. We had many social dinners together. We were inseparable. We were on the phone, starting at 4:00 a.m., inseparable.

What’s he like socially? What kind of guy is he?

Fun. He’s fun and hilarious.

Any examples?

He’s a very good host. He’s extremely gracious, extremely generous. I mean, the entire Mar-a-Lago — I used to go down on his plane. Diana Ross used to serenade us on the plane going down to Palm Beach. There was always one surprise after another. These were excellent times.

… Ivana Trump was very involved in the business.

Ivana Trump was Donald’s — [it’s] like they were born from the same sperm. Donald and Ivana mimicked each other.

How so?

She was driven, too; driven, driven, driven; a perfectionist; excellent taste; worked hard; had very good values and principles; a great sense of family. She’s to be given a lot of credit for the values and principles that her children have.

… His interest in politics in those early days?

He’s always been interested in politics, always.

How would it come out?

Money, giving money to politicians. He wasn’t running for election; he was giving money to politicians, being the power behind the scenes, which is the most effective way to be involved in politics. Now, this election for president, he hasn’t accepted money from anybody, which I think is amazing.

But when you say he was interested in politics, what part of it? It wasn’t just the politics.

Power. He was interested in the power of politics, access. Access and power.

What would he say about it?

He didn’t have to say anything. It was expressed by the fact that he could get anybody on the phone whenever he wanted to or meet with anybody whenever he wanted to. And if he couldn’t, I could.

… So you quit in ’85. Why do you quit at that point?

Well, let’s not say I quit. I resigned because I wanted to take everything I learned and have my own company, which I did, which is very successful. And I later sold to a public company. It’s quite an accomplishment for a woman to be able to — and I’m very proud of it — absorb everything I learned from Donald Trump and then form her own company, and then be able to sell a service business to a public company.

I talked to Donald about that today. Donald introduced me to [a couple of people]. He said, “I’d like you to meet one of my most successful apprentices.” And I said, “Well, I’d like you to rephrase that, because I think I’m your most successful woman apprentice.”

By the time you all move into Trump Tower, what’s it like? How many people are working at that point? It’s still growing and growing.

By the time we moved into Trump Tower, there could have been 30 people working.

Still not a lot.

The Trump Organization was always lean. It was never overly populated with a lot of people who could do nothing. You either cut it or you didn’t.

… What was Donald like?

I can only tell you about my own relationship with Donald. My office was next to Donald’s, and I was in his office every minute. He said I was a pain in the ass, and I probably was. But I think I gave him very good advice, and I think he listened when he wanted to. Donald only listens when he wants to. But sometimes he listens, and he thinks about it later on. So it’s better to have tried to help him than not help him at all. And a lot of people are intimidated by him. They’re just “yes” people.

“He was interested in the power of politics, access. Access and power.”

The Art of the Deal: Why that was important in sort of growing the name and such?

The book?

Yeah.

Every book Donald writes is important.

Because?

And he writes them one after another. He’s prolific.

But why was it important to get that out? And also, what it did immediately after that book, his name recognition went up. He was more countrywide.

We’re talking about name recognition. We’re talking about brand recognition. We’re talking about celebrity. All of these things work together.

Let me ask you about this. You can tell me if you don’t want to talk about it. But it’s reported a lot that there’s the 5 percent dividend that you were given on Trump Plaza, and then you and Donald had a falling out. But you guys came back together afterward. What’s the story? What’s the lesson to be learned from the fact of his very generous offer to you to begin with, the tax claim afterward, and why you guys —

The lesson to be learned is not to pay attention to what you hear, because Donald and I were –were able to work things out very amicably.

Why?

Because we wanted to. When you want to work things out, you do.

Did that say anything about him being a hardball player?

It says that, you know, maybe it would have been easier not to work it out, and probably everybody would like not to work things out. But you certainly don’t throw away 16 years of such a great relationship over something like that.

And what did you learn about him after that, when you came back together again?

I learned to move on.

What it also says is that he’s very steely-eyed about his goals and where he’s going, and money is a part of business, and, you know, a lot of people don’t like him.

I understand, but I’m also very steely-eyed. I felt I worked hard, and I deserved what I deserved, and eventually everybody would come to their senses. I moved on, and I moved back. I mean, it all just came out fine.

He always talks about the fact that he’s a really hard negotiator.

He is.

What does that mean? And give me an example.

It means that he could torture you for the rest of your life. Every time he sees you, he could say, “Well, where is my million dollars?,” or, “You owe me a million dollars,” or something like that. But you just have to wear your earplugs. I have Trump earplugs.

What do you mean?

I have these imaginary earplugs that I keep in my pocket, and when Donald says something I don’t like or don’t want to hear, I just put them in and pay no attention and move on.

And he respects that?

I don’t know if he does or doesn’t, but I don’t get bothered by what he says. I just say, “It’s time for my earplugs.”

Ignoring your situation —

It’s called behavior modification.

Ignoring your situation with him —

In fact, maybe some of the people in this election should have behavior modification, because he says things sometimes that are so outrageous, you say to yourself, “Where did that come from?” Everybody would be better off with Trump earplugs, because he doesn’t really mean what he says sometimes.

Why does he say it then?

I don’t know. He says it because he wants to say it. And then the press talks about it for the next six days because they have nothing else to talk about. And everybody also is in a dither because he said it. And then the world goes back to where it was. Think about it. It’s Trump world. We should rename it. United States of America should become Trump Land.

Is that a proposal you’ve seen on his desk?

It’s my proposal.

… He’s renowned for himself saying he’s a hard-assed negotiator. Give me an example of anything that you saw, where he defines that as that kind of a negotiator, and why that’s important.

I would say that I’ve rarely been in a negotiation with Donald where he doesn’t succeed, so pointing out one thing is very difficult.

… He goes through the bad time. He goes through the late ’80s, and he’s purchasing lots of things: the Plaza for enormous amounts of money, the yacht, the casinos. He himself says that he took his eye off the prize; he trusted other people. What do you think was going on during that period of time?

I think that the down time for him was really a shock, and he was not prepared for it. It caught him totally off-guard. It was probably the biggest challenge of his life.

… When Trump announces that he’s running for president, were you there?

I wasn’t.

You’re watching on TV?

Yeah.

What do you think? Is this the guy you recognized?

I think, well, this is going to be the ultimate challenge for Donald, and he will succeed. I said, from the day one, he was going to be president when he came down that escalator.

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