The FRONTLINE Interview: Nikki Haskell
The host and producer of The Nikki Haskell Show, a 1980s television program featuring interviews with the rich and glamorous, Nikki Haskell saw Donald Trump at the exclusive Le Club in Manhattan and was immediately drawn to him. Haskell, who claims to be the first television producer to have interviewed Trump, has been friends with him and his first wife, Ivana, ever since. Inspired by Trump from the beginning—”he always thought big,” she recalls — Haskell helped him make connections in the city: “How else are you going to become an important person if you don’t hang around important people?” she explains.
In her interview, Haskell describes the young Donald Trump she met in Manhattan, explains why he needed mentors like the attorney Roy Cohn, talks about his relationship with and divorce from Ivana, and recalls the first time Trump spoke of running for president.
This is the transcript of a conversation with FRONTLINE’s Jim Gilmore held on August 3, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Donald comes to Manhattan. His dad made a name for himself in Queens and Brooklyn. He had a great business there, but Donald sees Manhattan. Why does Donald have to come to Manhattan?
When I met Donald for the first time, … he caught my eye immediately. I used to belong to this private club in New York, [Le Club,] and it was a very chic club on the Upper East Side. One night I am in the club, and I spot Donald. I had never seen him before, so this must have been about 1974, ’73 [or] ’74.
I went up to the maître d’, and I said, “Who is that?” He said: “Oh, it’s this new member. … His name is Donald Trump.” I said, “What does he do?” He goes, “I have no idea.” …I said, “Well, I would like to meet him.” He said, “I don’t even know him.”
Two or three times this happened, and I never got to meet Donald, and then one night I was invited to a dinner that Roy Cohn gave through some friends, and they sat me next to Donald. I was all over Donald like a blanket. We became new best friends that night, and I spent a lot of time with him.
I knew that he had big dreams. That was one of the things I found so inspiring about Donald. … He always thought big. Everything — big buildings and changing the landscape and changing the skyline, changing this and changing. … When you meet most people, they don’t like this; they don’t like that; they don’t know why they don’t like it. But Donald was this positive person that was on fire, that could just envision changing the skyline in New York. That is the Donald that I first met.
You’ve talked about the faith that he had in himself. Why did he have the faith in himself?
… Donald came from an incredible family, like a real family family. His father was amazing. Everybody was smart; everybody went to school. And don’t forget he was already in the business, so he was a visionary. He was just perpetuating the family business … realizing that Manhattan was the center of the universe, and he set his sights at the biggest places.
Where did he get the enormous faith in himself? As you said, he is a really young guy, and he is starting to put together these amazing deals.
I think you’re either born with it or you’re not. You’re either a leader or a follower, and Donald was always a leader. I asked him: “Did you play with Tinker toys? How did you ever want to build the biggest building, and how did you know?” He always had that insight. And don’t forget he was surrounded by people that he could actually have a conversation with, people that got the real estate business, people that understood where we were in this world. His father was very smart. His father was in the business.
I agree with that. … Here I was, a single woman all alone, and became friendly with Donald. I was a person that never took “no” for an answer. … I was among the first five female stockbrokers in the world. You want to talk about “No, you can’t do that,” “No, you can’t go there,” “No, it can’t happen.” I was right there. I heard so many “no’s” that to me, “no” is a soft “yes.” There is no “no” in my vocabulary.
… Did you ever have a conversation with Donald about all that, his philosophy on this as well?
I became a lot closer to Donald when he married Ivana, because Ivana and I became best friends, and every morning I would call the house, and Donald would answer the phone. I always had my early-morning conversations with Donald, which I always found to be inspirational. And if I was at a crossroads and somebody was giving me a tough time, because they were always giving me tough times as a woman stockbroker … Donald always reinforced it. And Donald was very, very part and parcel to me doing my television show and was always inspirational to me.
One of the messages I feel is so important that the American public knows about Donald is Donald is a champion of women. Donald never told me: “No, don’t do that. Nobody cares about it.” He said: “This is what you should be doing. Follow your heart.”
Who was Louise Sunshine?
… She and Donald got along well, and she was an extremely bright smart woman who knew the lay of the land. It’s very important: You can have hopes and dreams, but you have to have somebody around you that knows how to get around the troops, so to speak. I think she was very influential. … I always found that Donald had a lot of confidence in women. I think that is one of the messages that I want to go out and speak on Donald’s behalf, because I don’t think people really get Donald.
Donald is a pretty cool guy, and he always wanted to be president. I would call the house, and he would talk about the fact that he wanted to be president. He actually had Ivana get her citizenship papers because during that time he wanted to run for president.
How would it even come up?
He just brought it up. Donald did most of the talking. It was sort of like: “Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” I was talking about Donald, telling him how terrific he was, or he was talking about himself, telling him how terrific he was, and in between he would help me out with any kind [of] problem or direction. And he was always: “What did you do, Nikki? And where did you go? And who –” He was always very inquisitive about how I lead my life and about the market and the people that I hung around with, because I always knew so many people and I introduced so many people to other people in my lifetime that it’s really sort of awesome.
We’ve got to plumb this here. What is the first time that Donald told you, “I want to be president,” and what was the situation? How far back and why? What was motivating it?
I don’t know how the conversation got around to that. Oh, I do know. … Donald had asked Ivana to get her citizenship papers because he wanted to run for president, so that was the first time that I had heard that he wanted to run for president.
But was he serious?
Well, he must have been serious enough [if] he asked her to get her citizenship papers.
You’re talking like 1983 or something like that, or 1988?
They got married in ’77, ’76, so I was — it was at the beginning.
So he always had the intention.
His desire was to be president of the United States.
Not mayor, not governor, not senator.
I even said to him: “Are you sure you want to be president? Maybe you should be mayor.” “No, I want to be president.”
Why did he want to be president?
I think that he felt that he brought a lot to the table. And he will tell you in his own words that the city was in a state of disarray. He really cleaned up, aside from changing the skyline of New York, he walled in the skating rink. They didn’t know what to do — one, two, three, Donald got it done. They didn’t know where to put the convention center; Donald got it done. Donald was a person that came up with great ideas and got them done. I think that he saw that as a stepping-stone to being president of the United States.
He doesn’t dream small.
Who does? You either have leaders or followers, and Donald was a leader. It takes just as much time, more time to do something small than it does something big. I asked Donald, … “Why did you pick 56th and Fifth Avenue?” “Because I think big. The banks are going to give me more money at that place than at some remote location.” He always understood the viability of doing something big.
When you first met him, where was he living? Give us a little more understanding of what his life was when he first came to Manhattan.
When I met Donald he was living at this apartment building on Third Avenue called the Phoenix. It was a very new rental. … He moved out of there when he married Ivana. They moved into the Olympic Towers, and then when the 800 Fifth Avenue was finished they moved from the Olympic Towers to Fifth Avenue.
The first apartment, though, he writes in his book that he was very proud, like he was more happy with that apartment than moving into Trump Tower. Was he excited about being in Manhattan?
… He was getting his sea legs. Here he was, a young, hot, rich guy moving into Manhattan and had dreams of rebuilding the city.
He would drive around in his Cadillac; he would go to Le Club. People talk about the fact that every time you saw him, he had another blonde model on his arm. Was that the life he was leading?
When I saw Donald, nobody knew who he was. He was just a young, very aggressive, smart boy. Hotshot, so to speak, someone that had big dreams, and that’s what this town is built on.
New York is an amazing place. Your dreams can come true here.
He got himself into Le Club because, number one, he was a young guy, he was dating; and number two, he was making connections. This guy, he had great dreams, but it’s not easy to get to these great dreams. You have to have a plan, and he seemed to have had a plan.
When I met Donald, he was just taking his first baby steps in Manhattan. … Le Club was the A-spot. He never was a night owl. … He has never been a partier, and he has never been a person that likes to stay out late. He likes to go to dinner, and he likes to go home. But at that particular time you want to be involved with the hottest spot in town and the chicest, and a hard place to really get in. It was a members-only. You had to be sponsored by a very prominent member. Otherwise you couldn’t get in. I’m sure that Donald appreciated the fact that he got in.
Who was there? What was it like in the club scene? Who were the famous celebrities that were in places like this?
… You got a lot of social people in there, the carriage set, so to speak. Once in a while you would see a movie star in there or important people, but it really wasn’t that kind of a club. It was really a club that was predicated on the hotshots of that time that were in the real estate business, that were in the stock brokerage business, that were even in the garment business. There were a lot of Europeans that were members there. It was sort of a mix. It really wasn’t a show business place as much as it was a society-oriented place.
But you’ve got [George] Steinbrenner there; you’ve got Roy Cohn.
George Steinbrenner went there all the time, and he was friendly with Donald. Donald had his own football team, the Jersey Generals. That was fabulous. … I had this very close friend. … He and Ivana designed these costumes for the Jersey Generals’ cheerleading team, and it was sort of like Barbarella meets couture, and it was the funniest thing. We had tryouts for the cheerleaders in the lobby of the Trump Tower.
He meets Roy Cohn. Why was he attracted to Roy Cohn? Some people say that Roy was very important in guiding Donald through New York City’s sort of —
… When Donald first came to the city, he surrounded himself with people that had a mentor effect on him, and Roy Cohn was a real hotshot attorney; there is no two ways about it. He knew everyone and went everywhere and did everything, and he brought Donald to a lot of fabulous places and introduced him to a lot of interesting people.
He also, people say, taught him a lot. Donald’s dad was of course essential to his life, but Roy Cohn was also essential in this integral moment of his life.
I think that Roy Cohn was his mentor. He picked up the pieces where Fred left off. Fred gave him all the family values and the family lessons, but Roy Cohn brought him to another level. Roy Cohn knew everyone and everything, and he was very politically connected. It was a great time for Donald to meet these unique, interesting people to further his career. How else are you going to become an important person if you don’t hang around important people?
Roy also brought an understanding that you always play offense, not defense. If you’re punched, you punch back 20 times harder.
That’s exactly right. I think that’s —
Explain that part.
Roy was like a street guy. You know, he was like: “Punch. You punch me, I’ll punch you.” And I think he made Donald very confrontational, and I think you had that sort of tough-guy, “don’t take any kind of, you know, bullshit from anybody” kind of an attitude, and I think a lot of that, you know, he instilled in Donald.
An essential tool for a young guy trying to break into the real estate business.
… I look at Donald now, and of course he is quite different now than he was then —
Explain the difference. What was he like then? What is he like now?
I deal with this every day, because I am a historian; I am a person that had the foresight to get interviews with Donald when no one ever heard of him. When Donald started building the Trump Tower and I had my television show — the Nikki Haskell Show was a groundbreaking show, and since I never had to go to anyone and ask them anything, I did what I want[ed]. I was fascinated by Donald, fascinated by the fact that he was going to … build the Trump Tower.
The Trump Tower to this day is an amazing building. Yes, there are bigger buildings and smaller buildings and wider buildings, but the Trump Tower is a masterpiece. … I mean, it wasn’t an easy [thing]. Nothing is easy. The trick is to take something that is difficult and make it look easy.
I decided that I wanted to do the groundbreaking and all the building of the Trump Tower and do the topping off. So that is why I have all this footage, because I knew in my heart of hearts that this was going to be a monumental place and that I would have access to Donald during this period of time that he was developing this amazing property that really changed the face of New York.
People will look at the Trump Tower and say, “This is Donald Trump.” The size of it, the PR behind it, the monumental nature of it represents the guy in some important way.
It was a stepping-stone for Donald to put the word “Trump” on everything that ever moved, walked or talked. It was very important to build the landmark place at your first attempt. And let me tell you something, Ivana was so part and parcel to that you have no idea.
… They really complemented each other, and it was so great to watch. I was so privy to everything that was going on from a woman … a friend of mine who was starting a family and building this empire in New York. It was an amazing time. And when the Trump Tower came along, Ivana went to Italy and bought an entire mountain … of pink marble, and she came with the floor plan. I think the Trump Tower atrium is about six or seven stories high, and she rolled it out, and every piece of tile was matched; every piece of tile was numbered from top to bottom, and she picked out each piece to go into each section so that the entire entranceway matched. She was a phenomenon. I don’t know how she knew how to do this.
Tell me a little bit more about her. What is her background? Where did she come from? What was she like to be friends with?
Ivana is really one of my absolute all-time favorite people. She came from Czechoslovakia. She was the only child. She had a very close relationship with her father who walked her down the aisle when she was married to Donald. She was living in a communist country, and her way out was skiing. She was a champion skier. … She came up from nothing. I think her family had a shoe factory someplace. I mean, they came from nothing. They were hardworking people, and they spent their life putting Ivana in a position where she would become a champion skier.
When he met her she was a model living in Canada, and she came down [to New York City], because she was doing a lot of modeling work. She went to this restaurant … and she was at the bar with her girlfriends, and Donald came up and introduced himself. “Hi. I’m Donald Trump, and I see that you’re having a problem getting a table.” He went over to the maître d’; next thing you know the girls had a table. … He left, and when they went to pick up the check, the check was picked up, and when they went outside there was Donald in this chauffer-driven limousine and drove the girls to where they were going. … And then he started pursuing her.
She had a boyfriend in Canada. [Donald] started pursuing her, and she started coming down here more often. Since she didn’t have any friends here, I was her best friend. …We have this separated-at-birth situation where wherever we go, we end up wearing the same thing. It’s wild. We have been friends now for a lifetime and a half, and every time I go out with her I have to call her to find out what she is wearing — “What are you going to wear tonight?” — just so I don’t end up wearing the same dress.
You brought them to Studio 54 on opening night. Tell me about that.
You’re going too fast. Let me go through this whole thing. … Before Donald and Ivana got married, [we all] went to Aspen, and Donald didn’t know that Ivana was a champion skier. When we get to Aspen, she puts Donald in a ski school, and she zipped down the mountain like this (Gestures), and after two days, he has finally figured out that that was Ivana. … This was in January, and they got married in April of that year. They had their honeymoon, and they came back very quick after the honeymoon, because Donald wanted to get to work. And they started working right away.
She said to me, “Oh, I’m going to go to work for Donald.” I said: “What? You’re getting married and you’re going to work? I never heard of anything like that. Don’t you get married not to go to work?” She goes: “No, I told him that I wanted a job. Give me any job. I don’t care what it is. I can’t sit at home.” And that’s how she started working in the Commodore [one of Trump’s first developments in Manhattan that became the Grand Hyatt].
Why? What was [it] about her? Some people say [she’s] very intelligent, very driven, very competitive, very much like Donald.
… Donald and Ivana were very competitive, but she knew where to pull the line. They worked so well together that it wasn’t like they were being competitive; it was like they were being partners. … He told her what he wanted to do; she never stepped on his toes, and he gave her full rein to not only build the two buildings, but then Atlantic City came along.
… Did you go to the wedding?
Yes, I went to the wedding.
Who was the minister? Where was it?
Norman Vincent Peale.
What was it like?
The wedding was really quite charming. They were married by Normal Vincent Peale in this beautiful church, and Ivana wore this lovely, very simple wedding dress. Afterward they had the party at 21. It was really quite touching and quite sweet. And then they went right back to work. They were workaholics.
So a brief respite, and back to work.
They went on a honeymoon. They were back in 10 days. They were supposed to be gone three weeks; they were already back.
Who was at the wedding? At this point was he famous enough that there were a lot of glamorous folks there?
… It was not a movie star-laden wedding. It was just sort of the top-notch people that lived in New York.
Politicians, socialites, people in the building business, bankers.
… Talk a little bit about his relationship with his dad, the importance of his dad in the beginning of the business, for support, for advice, for political connections and everything else that goes into it.
Donald’s relationship with his father was a double-edged sword, because as close as they were, they became competitive. … When Donald decided to do what he did [concentrate on development in Manhattan], his father wasn’t against him doing it, but he really thought he was taking a big risk so that Donald had to prove himself not only to the world, but to his family. And I think that he did. His father was a tough guy. His mother was very, very nice. I saw them quite often. Of course I don’t know the interworking of their relationship, but I know that his father was really straightforward and really tough.
Did he ever talk to you about that, about having to prove himself to his dad, about taking that jump off the cliff?
Donald never spoke to me about having to prove anything to anyone. He just did it. I don’t know if he in his mind felt that he had to prove it to his family or to his friends or to himself. Donald was just the kind of a guy that never really talked about how he was doing it; he just did it.
When was the first time you actually interviewed him?
The first time I interviewed Donald was when they first started the Trump Tower project. I was the first person to ever interview Donald, and the first interview that I did with him was at 800 Fifth Avenue, and we stood and looked out over the city, and I asked him where he was going to build his next buildings, and we talked about the magnitude of the Trump Tower and how it would affect the landscape of New York and all the other projects that he had going for him. Donald was always a big dreamer.
In those first interviews, what do you remember? You look back at them — does he talk about his dreams?
… When I first interviewed him, I asked him: “Are you doing this for the money? Are you doing this for the fame? Or what inspires you?” And he said: “It’s not really the money. It’s the accomplishments.” Donald was very accomplishment-oriented. He dreamt big. He wanted to see big buildings with his name on it. He wanted to improve the economy of the city of New York.
New York was in really bad shape, and there were a lot of people who were criticizing him, saying: “You’re taking on too big of a job. We can’t afford it. Who is going to come here? Who is going to pay this kind of money for the apartments?” Donald just moved forward. He just looked at it as an accomplishment that he had to do. He never flinched, and he never complained, and he never said, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have done this,” or “Maybe I shouldn’t.” Donald was always on the target. He always knew what he wanted to do, and he did it.
Describe him during those interviews. Was he enjoying it? What was his affect? How did he come across?
When I interviewed Donald, you have to understand we were friends. … My communication with people is on more of a conversation level. Questions that I would ask him I would ask him over dinner. It wasn’t anything that was out of the ordinary. But … Donald told me a lot about himself, a lot about who he was, a lot about what he thought.
He was a lot more laid-back then than he is now, but once he got the bit in his teeth he really went for it. Donald was basically low key-ish, and then when he wrote The Art of the Deal he decided it was going to be on the best-seller list, and that’s when he went into full gear.
Once he started getting these amazing items about how great he was and how fabulous it was and this building was so terrific and everything, he loved it. The year that Donald built the Trump Tower they did a survey, and about 80 percent of the kids that went to school all wanted to be Donald Trump, so he had that inspirational attitude then.
He also loved being on the front pages of the magazines. He understood the importance. When did he get the idea that to really grow this business I have got to grow my name?
When Donald wrote his first book he realized the power of the pen. He realized that the press was the most important thing that you could possibly do. Getting press changes the world. … It’s better to get press about your building than run an ad. If you run an ad you’re just running an ad. If people are out there talking about you, if I’m showing the opening and George Steinbrenner is there and Roy Cohn and [co-owner of Studio 54] Steve Rubell and all these beautiful women and everything you actually see what is happening. Donald understood the press, and the press loved him. He and Ivana were darlings of the press. They were the perfect couple. They were the people that you lived to write about.
Did you ever laugh to yourself as you saw day after day the coverage of what he was getting, even in these early days? What attracted the press to him?
… Donald got it right away. He was the darling of the press. What’s not to love? It was great for business. It was great for him. It makes things easier. And they wrote about him, and he did amazing things. Everything that they were writing about was something that was important. Donald contributed a lot to this country.
… Hanging out socially with Ivana and Donald Trump, what was it like? Some people say that Donald doesn’t like to party too much.
He doesn’t. No, he doesn’t.
So what is it like? And what is it like being with him?
I saw a lot of Donald and Ivana, and one night I said to them, “You know, there is this new club opening up called Studio 54.” And I said, “Can we go to the club?” They go, “No, I don’t want to go to the club.” I said, “I’m telling you, this is going to be the club of all clubs.”
… So I dragged Donald and Ivana to Studio 54. It was about 10:00 at night, and there wasn’t anyone there. … We’re early. Clubs don’t even open until 11:30, 12:00 at night. We get out of the car, start knocking. … Just then a man opens the door, a painter. He was standing on the ladder, finishing painting Studio 54. He opens the door, and we walk in. It’s this ominous entranceway, this gigantic entranceway with these huge chandeliers.
There was no music, and we were like the first five or six people that ever walked into Studio 54. I was sort of embarrassed, because I expected to come in like in the hub of the party and Frank Sinatra and Cher and everybody would be there and everything, and that would be an amazing evening. … Maybe 150 or 200 people came into the club. Unbeknownst to us, there were thousands of people all the way around the block, all the way around 54th Street that couldn’t get into Studio 54. When people started to show up, nobody expected this many people. They had no stations out in front, and they couldn’t open the doors, so people were going crazy. And in a way that’s what made Studio so famous.
… We’re there about an hour and a half. Donald doesn’t drink, and he goes, “OK, I want to go.” So they said, “You can’t go out of the front.” “Well, how am I going to get out of here?” he said. So they said, “Well, you have to go out the back.” … We opened the door, and there were thousands of people standing there in tuxedos, and all they wanted to do was to get in. And we realized that we were in the middle of this phenomenon.
Did they all rush in the open door?
Yes, of course … Had guards there pushing them back. Oh, it was a scene and a half.
Did you stay?
No, I wanted to stay. I really wanted to stay, but I knew that I had to go.
Describe what that era was like with the clubs and Studio 54 and the stars and the celebrities.
… When I was a little girl, my parents used to take me to nightclubs. … I was always addicted to the nightlife. … The only two places that maybe Donald had ever been was Le Club, because we know he was a member there; periodically he would go to Studio 54 — like I know he went to Roy Cohn’s birthday; and maybe once in a while he would go to Regine’s. He was never a nighttime person. He was always a workaholic.
He used to say to the kids when they were born, “If you want to see me, you have to come to the office.”
Was he attracted to the celebrity lifestyle? Was it a business decision? Celebrities seemed to be attracted to him because of his growing fame. How was he tied into this world?
Fame and fortune has a great allure. … Donald was becoming more famous and becoming well known. … Going to these places — he went there very seldom — and socializing with these people …, you know, I’m sure had a little influence on him, but Donald would just as soon stay home, eat dinner, have a steak and a baked potato, watch television, and go to sleep. He is not a party person. He doesn’t drink. His brother died of alcoholism, and it was a mainstay in his conversation.
He told his children nonstop: “You will not drink. You will not drink. You will not smoke. You will not drink.”
… He’s quoted as saying that everybody in New York knew him before The Apprentice. But what The Apprentice did was, it taught Middle America about him, and it basically defined him as a top CEO in the country, an amazingly smart guy.
… One of the great things that Donald came away from the show being is inspirational. He inspired a lot of people. And then it was a tough show. Those broads were out there, and they were killers. I mean, they just came after you. I thought often, boy, you know, what would I do if I were on this show? And I’m pretty tough. I could take a punch better than most, and I could also give one. But those girls were out there. The girls were worse than the guys. And it was brutal. It was a competition. And it wasn’t fake.
But what did it do for Donald in the long run, do you think?
It gave Donald a whole new platform. People that knew Donald around the world as being this powerful, resourceful, clever man, … this is what catapulted him into the limelight.
… Describe Donald as a dad. I mean, he’s certainly not a diaper-changing kind of father.
Donald was a very hands-on dad, as was Ivana. Ivana really brought the children up; there’s no two ways about it. But Donald was there, and he always had strong input, because you know, Donald is very opinionated and very on the money. There’s no wishy-washy situation. And they dealt with the children in an amazing manner. They brought them up with great morals and values and instincts. They never stymied any of their dreams or hopes.
But they were very tough on their children. I remember one time Eric came to Ivana and said, “I want this boat …,” because they had a house in Connecticut. And Ivana said, “How much is it?” And he said, “I don’t know, $800 or whatever it is.” And she said, “If you work, and you make half the amount of money for the boat, I’ll pay for the other half.” So the kids were working from day one. They were not spoiled. Yes, they were flying around in airplanes and going to Mar-a-Lago, but one-on-one, these kids had to really toe the mark.
Donald was tough.
… Why did they all go work for their dad eventually?
Because Donald said to them: “If you want to see me, you have to come to the office. Otherwise you’re not going to see me, because I don’t go on vacations; I’m not a partier; I don’t go out to this. So this is your choice. You can see me every day. Come to the office, and go to work.”
There was a period of time where Donald says he took his eye off the prize, and this was at the time when there were problems with the marriage. This was the time when he was building the Taj, and the Taj was a black hole for [him] financially.
… Donald decided to build the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal was really a gigantic undertaking, one that backfired from day one. As he was opening the [Taj], he was divorcing Ivana at the same time.
… The Taj Mahal is opening, very big ceremony down in Atlantic City, and Donald is down there. It’s a really tough opening because they weren’t ready. And there were all sorts of problems.
Ivana and Donald had separated by that time, and the truth of the matter is, she did not have her hands in there to help it get finished. So when they had the opening, Ivana took the airplane and took all of her girlfriends … down [to] Mar-a-Lago, and we had the spa weekends and the lunches and the parties. …
What was the attitude of Ivana at that point?
… It was such an awful, terrible time. For 28 days, Marla Maples was on the front page of the New York Post: “Donald’s the best sex I ever had.” It was a devastating — I don’t know how she got through it. … Ivana, to her credit, was as brave and as smart, and she never talks about Donald, and she never came out against him, and she made sure that the children were all taken care of, that there was no break. It was a seamless situation. Donald wanted the kids; he got the kids.
I was heartbroken, heartbroken, because there was a perfect couple. They should never have gotten divorced. And I believe that Donald believes that, too.
… You talk about calling Donald up at a point when you first heard the rumors. Tell me about the phone call.
I must have been totally delusional, because I just couldn’t humanly imagine that Donald would ever cheat on Ivana. … I was at a party one night, and this girl said that Donald was cheating on Ivana. Of course I became very defensive. … I had lunch with Ivana. We went to the Russian Tea Room for lunch, and after lunch, we got in the car, and I said to her, “I heard that Donald is cheating on you.” So she said, “Let’s ask him.” They actually had a phone in the car. She called him up: “Nikki wants to tell you something.” It’s always “Nikki said.” “I heard that you were cheating on Ivana, but I told the girl that that was completely ridiculous, and that you would never do anything like that.” He said, “Oh, thank you so much,” and he hangs up.
Now I’m in the south of France, and someone is saying, “You know, Donald is cheating on Ivana.” I got up from the table — I’ll never forget this; I can’t even imagine I would do anything like this — and I went to the phone. It was really hard to get a phone call through. … This was close to the ’90s, but there still weren’t any cell phones, right.
So I got up; I made a pay phone credit card call to Donald’s office. Donald got on the phone. I said, “I just got in the biggest fight with this man, and he said that you were cheating on Ivana, and I told him off and everything.” “Well, thank you very much.” And I hung up, never even thinking for a second that he was cheating on her.
One day I’m on the phone with a girlfriend of mine, and she’s in Aspen. She goes, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe what I’m seeing.” She said: “There is Donald, and she’s next to Ivana. She’s wearing a pink ski suit. Marla, you know the girl that he’s been keeping?” I’m going, “What?” And [Marla] confronted Ivana on the mountain and said: “Your husband isn’t in love with you. He’s in love with me, and you have to give him a divorce.”
So my girlfriend was standing there telling me this as it was happening. I was mortified. I was like: “Oh, my God. I never heard anything like it in my life.”
For three months it was on the front pages of the tabloids.
Three months it was on the front pages of the tabloids every day. … Ivana took the kids to Florida so they would be away from all of this. But Donny Jr. was very aware of it, and he didn’t speak to his father for a year. He was really upset.
… The beginning of the ’90s, he comes back slowly. The bankruptcies happen, but he sells a lot of stuff. He slowly comes back. He starts understanding how much his name is worth, the popularity of the Trump brand.
His popularity waned during that time.
So how does he come back, and how important is his understanding of publicity?
Donald is really one of the smartest men I know. He understands the brand. He understands what’s behind it. And he kept the brand alive during this terrible period of time. And he did it all by himself. Several executives that worked for him got killed in this helicopter accident, and now he wasn’t married to Ivana anymore, and that whole piece of the pie was missing. His whole life totally changed.
I really feel that that was like a day of reckoning for Donald, realizing that the marriage failed, the business failed. … It was really a soul-searching time. And he just got in there and did it. He just didn’t take “no” for an answer. He fought his way back, and it wasn’t easy.
… In June of 2015, when he comes down that escalator and he announces for president in Trump Tower, where everything happens —
Trump Tower is great. … Look how many other candidates didn’t even make it to the finish line. When you think — … There were 17 people; you know, they put Donald right in the middle. And the first question Megyn Kelly went for him right away. … From day one, they’ve been on his case. He’s not used to that. He’s a man that’s used to making decisions. Usually his decisions are the right decisions, and nobody is confrontational with him. I don’t think he even had an idea what that would be like. I don’t think anybody ever did that to Donald in his life. And I think it threw him.
But he continued. He prevailed.
… After The Art of the Deal, he’d walk out on the streets; he was treated differently? Or after The Apprentice. Did he ever talk about that to you?
No, we never just — you know.
Or did you ever see it?
It’s so easy to look back in retrospect and say: “Well, did he talk to you about this? Or did he talk to you…?” As things are evolving, you don’t talk about it. You don’t even realize that they’re happening. When I flew down with Donald, when they had the opening of — it wasn’t the opening; it was a week after, at the Taj Mahal, people were mobbing Donald. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that, asking him for his autograph and everything. I mean, he had just catapulted into this rock star.
… I think he lived up to his image. He is a rock star. He’s a person that’s out there changing the world one brick at a time.
And how did he take the fact that these people were reacting to him differently?
I think he loved it. I think that he felt that all the things that he was doing was right and that his name had caught on, and that the Trump — even though everybody — kids, and you know, “Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump.” Hey, you know what? You’ve got to have the brand, and he did it. It’s so easy to look back in retrospect and say, “Well, you know, he had this; he had that.” It’s tough out there. I don’t even care if you’re rich or poor: Every day is a challenge.