Rebranding for Profit and Elections

(Author image and book cover: Regnery Publishing)
In Donald Trump's eyes, nothing in his persona barred him from the presidency.

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt adapted from Conrad Black’s forthcoming book, Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other. It appears here with permission.

To a man of Donald Trump’s self-confidence, the idea of his becoming president of the United States was not at all outrageous. He had brushed shoulders with politicians and met presidents, and he was not at all intimidated by them and did not believe that they had any special powers or talents or mystique that he lacked. In fact, he had qualities that some of them didn’t. He was a rich celebrity whose tastes were not to hobnob with the swells and socially eminent benefactors, but, crucially for a presidential candidate, to harvest the affection of the lower, middle, and working classes of America who were not appalled, but rather, to some degree, inspired, by his bravura, buffoonery, and raw egotism, for behind it they saw an outrageously successful version of themselves, and one who, they intuited, understood them and their desires, fears, and hopes.

It was in this period that this author first got to know Donald Trump beyond mere social pleasantries. My associates and I owned the Chicago Sun-Times and its low-rise building on the Chicago River just south of the Wrigley Tower. The building was an obvious candidate for redevelopment, which to us was a potential source of a windfall profit. We commenced a normal bid process, and as Trump appeared to be the competitive winner, our American directors all warned me to “keep [my] hand on the company’s wallet,” that Trump was a scoundrel who could not be relied upon for anything. We were accordingly cautious and vigilant when he was the winning bidder, and followed advice to assure that he could not lay off on us any superfluous expenses such as jet-fuel bills for his airplane. But he came in on budget all the way through, and there were no significant issues. He started out promising to build the world’s tallest building, but after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, he scaled the project back to about 1,270 feet, still an imposing sight on the skyline.

Melania was charming, and her arrival in Donald’s life seemed to settle him.

He delivered exactly what he had promised under our contract, and it is a generally admired building, 98 stories designed by the distinguished firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and undoubtedly built to an extremely high standard. Donald and Melania came voluntarily to our annual shareholders’ meeting in 2003, and he intervened to speak very flatteringly of the manner in which my associates and I had conducted our side of the complex negotiations over the Chicago property, and I will say that I found Trump a good deal more ethical and honest than many other businessmen and corporate directors I have known. (A typical example of Donald Trump’s loyalty to friends was in February 2018, when the veteran vocalist Vic Damone, a neighbor in Palm Beach, was dying. On learning of this from a message from another neighbor, though he was overseas, the president telephoned Damone directly in his hospital room just ten minutes later and greatly cheered the singer’s last days.) Melania was charming, and her arrival in Donald’s life seemed to settle him. Trump’s marriage with Marla Maples had semi-publicly broken down in syncopated lurches, as it had begun, but without public acrimony.

Donald had happened upon Melania Knauss at the famous Kit Kat Klub in 1998, and was so astounded by her startling beauty and sultry, confident poise, that he effectively ditched his date, the formidably attractive and capable Norwegian businesswoman, and bearer of a famous name in that country, despite its awkwardness in English, Celina Midelfart. Melania modeled her way out of late-socialist Slovenia to Milan, then Paris, and in the mid 1990s, New York. She seems to have led a fairly restrained private life and has had no difficulty silencing media that have insinuated otherwise (collecting 2.5 million pounds from the London Daily Mail in 2014 for writing that she had something to do with an escort service). Once she was Trump’s companion, she had a relaxed view of the relationship, as in her cameo appearance on Howard Stern’s radio program confirming the couple’s robust sex life. She appeared on the cover of the British edition of GQ in January 2000, lying sideways on a bed in Trump’s airplane, naked except for diamond jewelry, with the headline “Sex at 30,000 Feet. Melania Knauss Earns Her Air Miles.”

Donald and Melania were married at Palm Beach’s Bethesda-by-the Sea Episcopalian Church on January 22, 2005. This and the Roman Catholic St. Edward’s Church just beyond the Breakers Hotel and Everglades Club to the north are two of America’s better-known society churches. The events board in front of Bethesda a few weeks before the Trump wedding had announced a visiting homilist who would speak on the theme “The Lord is my Shepherd, even in Palm Beach.” The denomination was apparently a compromise between Donald’s Presbyterianism, which doesn’t have a suitable church in Palm Beach, and Melania’s Roman Catholicism, where marriage to a twice-divorced man would have required a few prior formalities before it could be conducted in a church. It was a packed congregation, studded with celebrities from the entertainment, media, casino, and political worlds (including the Clintons), but with little representation from the couple’s neighbors in the great salons of Fifth and Park Avenues and South Ocean Boulevard. (The author’s wife had a very convivial conversation with flamboyant promoter and impresario Don “Only in America” King, who was sitting just behind us in the church, before the bridegroom appeared, looking very serious, with a slight pout and his soon-to-be-famous contumelious lip.) A very grand reception went very late at Mar-a-Lago.

The relationship has apparently lasted smoothly for nearly 20 years and has produced Donald Trump’s fifth offspring and third son, Barron (the name he gave himself on the telephone when pretending to be his own public-relations adviser during previous martial problems). Melania is a devoted mother, ignores the snide imbecilities of her husband’s media lampooners, is well-liked and respected by the public, and always makes an excellent and tastefully glamorous impression when she goes abroad. She is neither an employee of her husband nor a rival nor a scene-stealer; she is neither cloying nor bossy. She is confident and relaxed, cool and poised, looks whimsically on some of her husband’s eccentricities but is always very supportive. Her English is markedly accented but perfectly fluent and comprehensible (she speaks several other languages also). She exudes an exotic and mysterious composure that is often more becoming than the opinionated and busy nature of some of her recent predecessors as first lady. She never appears to the public to be either short-tempered or over-eager to please or impress. Her only historic rival as a glamorous chatelaine in the White House is Jackie Kennedy.

The decks were already fairly clear for Donald Trump to try his theories of celebrity in a race for president, but he would have to be patient. He was seeking the office, not the other way round.