Politics & Policy

Trump: The Art of the Bluff

(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

“I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see.”

— Donald Trump, in an interview for Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success, by business journalist Michael D’Antonio.

“Trump was willing to say and do almost anything to satisfy his craving for attention. But he also possessed a sixth sense that kept him from going too far.”

— D’Antonio’s conclusion to the book.

One often-underappreciated virtue of U.S. presidential campaigns is that their extreme length makes it very difficult to conceal what makes a candidate tick. (Barack Obama in 2008 was an exception, and he had help from an actively complicit media.)

This reality is finally catching up to Donald Trump.

As good as his “sixth sense” may be, Trump seems unlikely to avoid “going too far” in the long four-month stretch between now and the Iowa caucuses in February.

On Wednesday night, it came to light that Trump had made fun of rival candidate Carly Fiorina’s looks to a Rolling Stone reporter. “Look at that face,” he was overheard to say. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” Trump now claims he wasn’t talking about Fiorina’s appearance, but her “persona.”

RELATED: Trump’s White-Nationalist Fans Discredit His Candidacy

Before the news of his Fiorina remark broke, Trump spoke at an afternoon rally protesting President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and blasted Obama for failing to secure the release of four Americans jailed in the Islamic Republic. Then he misapplied a lesson from history: “If I win the presidency, I guarantee you that those four prisoners are back in our country before I ever take office. I guarantee that. They will be back before I ever take office, because [the Iranians] know what has to happen, okay?”

Trump no doubt remembers that Iran released the hostages it had held for 444 days at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on the day Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his first term as president. But foreign policy experts I’ve spoken to say that for Trump to “guarantee” a similar outcome for the four Americans imprisoned there today will likely lead to one of two disappointing outcomes: a) the Iranians stubbornly refuse to lose face by appearing to knuckle under to Trump; or b) Trump will feel pressure to use military force against Iran after he is sworn in so he won’t lose face.

RELATED: The Words Trump Doesn’t Use

“Reagan was careful not to comment on the hostages before he became president,” Martin Anderson, his late policy advisor, once told me. “That allowed him to exploit a vacuum and helped bring them home.”

In addition to the nationalistic fervor he can’t help whipping up, much of Trump’s support is predicated on his self-proclaimed genius in business deals. But National Journal reported this week that his business instincts are greatly exaggerated:

If he’d invested the $200 million that Forbes magazine determined he was worth in 1982 into (a mutual fund of S&P 500 stocks), it would have grown to more than $8 billion today. . . . That a purely unmanaged index fund’s return could outperform Trump’s hands-on wheeling and dealing call into question one of Trump’s chief selling points on the campaign trail: his business acumen.

Then there is the matter of Trump’s net worth itself. In June, Trump announced his presidential bid brandishing a document that claimed he was worth more than $8.7 billion. By August, when he filed reports with the Federal Election Commission, the number had ballooned to $10 billion.

#share#The game of hide-and-seek Trump plays with his “billions” was described by Tim O’Brien, a former New York Times reporter, in his 2005 book TrumpNation. The book quoted sources close to Trump as claiming he “was not remotely close to being a billionaire.” Trump promptly sued O’Brien for $5 billion in damages.

‘The secret to bluffing is knowing when not to bluff. Some people don’t know when to stop, and they always regret it.’

During the resultant litigation, O’Brien’s lawyers deposed Trump for two days in 2007. “Among the documents discussed was a Deutsche Bank assessment that pegged Donald’s net worth at $788 million in 2005,” O’Brien recalled in a Bloomberg View article this past July. “At the time, Donald was telling his bankers and casino regulators that he was worth $3.6 billion; he was telling me he was worth $5 billion to $6 billion.”

When Trump was asked about the wide discrepancy between his claimed net worth and the various independent estimates of his wealth, he revealed how his mind works. As D’Antonio reports in the excellent new Never Enough, “[Trump] explained the wide swings as a function of market conditions, and his own sense of the value of his name. This brand valuation — [Trump] estimated it was worth $6 billion.” Trump said in the deposition that the value of his brand “goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings.” He then added some thoughts about his net worth:

[Wealth] can change when somebody writes a vicious article like O’Brien. I mean, I didn’t feel so great about myself when I read that article. I would have said that — after reading that article I would have said that this psychologically hurt me.

Trump is perfectly suited for the current media age. He provides enough outrageous quotes and distractions to remain such a source of endless fascination that the press has trouble catching up with his contradictions. D’Antonio says Trump “understood that in the media age, the frontier that might challenge a man or woman was found, not in the wilderness, but in the media. The boundary of this wilderness was marked by propriety, which was an elastic concept.”

#related#Donald Trump has tested the media’s limits of propriety for three decades, and he’s usually succeeded in expanding them.

We will learn in the next four months just how far Trump can expand the equivalent political limits. As much as he may have mastered many of the lessons of the Robert Ringer classic Winning Through Intimidation, he might have forgotten a key one. “The secret to bluffing is knowing when not to bluff,” Ringer told me. “Some people don’t know when to stop, and they always regret it.”

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for National Review.

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