What ‘ge­nius’ re­ally means to the pres­i­dent

It’s a state of mind, a dec­la­ra­tion that Trump won’t give way to those who be­lieve he doesn’t be­long

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARC FISHER

The ge­nius in the White House has al­ways be­lieved that what makes him spe­cial is his abil­ity to get things done with­out go­ing through the steps oth­ers must take.

In school, he bragged that he’d do well with­out crack­ing a book. As a young real es­tate de­vel­oper, his ju­nior ex­ec­u­tives re­called, he skipped the studying and winged his way through meet­ings with politi­cians, bankers and union bosses. And as a novice politi­cian, he scoffed at the no­tion that he might suf­fer from any lack of ex­pe­ri­ence or knowl­edge.

So when Pres­i­dent Trump tweeted last week­end that he “would qual­ify as not smart, but ge­nius .... and a very sta­ble ge­nius at that!” it was con­sis­tent with a pat­tern of assert­ing that he will do this his way, with­out bend­ing to

ex­pec­ta­tions about what con­sti­tutes proper presidential be­hav­ior.

The tweet, is­sued in re­sponse to a new book that sug­gests his clos­est ad­vis­ers doubt his men­tal sta­bil­ity, not only dou­bled down on his be­lief that smash­ing con­ven­tions is the path to suc­cess but also un­der­scored his life­long con­vic­tion that he wins when he’s the cen­ter of at­ten­tion. In the cease­less bat­tle of life, Trump made clear by claim­ing the ti­tle of ge­nius that he won’t give way to those who be­lieve he doesn’t be­long at the top.

“There is a cer­tain kind of ge­nius to win­ning the pres­i­dency like it was an en­try-level job,” said Dave Shi­flett, the co-writer of Trump’s first book about his po­lit­i­cal views, “The Amer­ica We De­serve,” which was pub­lished in 2000. “To go into those cam­paign ral­lies with just a few notes and con­nect with peo­ple he wasn’t at all like, that takes a cer­tain ge­nius. His ge­nius is he’ll say any­thing to con­nect with peo­ple. He won by telling the rally crowds that the peo­ple who didn’t like them also didn’t like him.”

To many peo­ple who worked with Trump through­out his ca­reer, last week’s tweets — and Tues­day’s vir­tu­ally un­prece­dented Cabi­net Room re­al­ity show, in which the pres­i­dent con­ducted an on-cam­era ne­go­ti­a­tion about im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy with stunned con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans and Democrats — were fa­mil­iar tac­tics: a bold, even brazen, drive to put on a show and make him­self the star.

Even when he is not overtly try­ing to win at­ten­tion, his nat­u­ral in­stinct — a form of ge­nius to some, a sign of in­sta­bil­ity to oth­ers — is to choose the un­fil­tered path, as he did Thurs­day, when he told sen­a­tors dur­ing a White House dis­cus­sion about im­mi­grants from Haiti, El Sal­vador and some African na­tions that the United States should bring in peo­ple from coun­tries like Nor­way, not from “shit­hole coun­tries.” Although Trump on Fri­day ap­peared to deny hav­ing used that vul­gar­ity, he tweeted that he did use “tough” lan­guage — a long-stand­ing point of pride for the pres­i­dent, whose po­lit­i­cal as­cent was fu­eled by his ar­gu­ment that, as a bil­lion­aire, he is lib­er­ated to say what some other Amer­i­cans only think.

From his ear­li­est days in the real es­tate busi­ness, Trump boasted fre­quently about be­ing smart, said Bar­bara Res, who was Trump’s top con­struc­tion ex­ec­u­tive when he built Trump Tower on Man­hat­tan’s Fifth Av­enue in the 1980s.

“He needed to be stroked all the time and told how smart he was,” she said. “Ev­ery de­ci­sion process was clouded by his sense that he knows more than any­body else. But you could work with that: The way we got things done was to ap­proach him with an idea and make him think it was his. It was so easy.”

Res added: “Don­ald was al­ways a for­est per­son; he never knew any­thing about the trees. He knew con­crete was brought in on trucks, but he re­ally didn’t know how to run a project. What he had was street smarts — good in­stincts about peo­ple.”

Those in­stincts did not al­ways bring about stel­lar results, as Trump’s en­ter­prises suf­fered a series of bank­rupt­cies and other set­backs from the 1990s through the years be­fore he en­tered pol­i­tics.

Those who have watched Trump for decades say he has al­ways en­cour­aged peo­ple around him to view him as some­one who could see things that oth­ers could not. A.J. Benza, a for­mer jour­nal­ist who cov­ered Trump for many years in New York and in 2001 had a pub­lic spat with him when Trump be­gan go­ing out with Benza’s girl­friend, said that Trump of­ten talked about be­ing the smartest guy in the room.

“He never meant ‘book ge­nius’ when he said it,” said Benza, who now hosts “Fame is a Bitch,” a pod­cast about celebrity. “He means, okay, he didn’t hit the brains lot­tery, but he’s bril­liant and cun­ning in the way he op­er­ates. He’s amaz­ing at tak­ing the tem­per­a­ture of the room and know­ing how to ap­pease ev­ery­one. You want that kind of in­stinct your quar­ter­backs, in your gen­er­als. It’s not what we’ve ever thought of as what makes a great pres­i­dent, but he’s never go­ing to be the guy who makes great speeches. This is who he is.”

Be­ing some­thing of a ge­nius was cen­tral to Trump’s self-im­age, his for­mer ex­ec­u­tives said. Ev­ery­one around him learned to cater to that — even his father, who trained Trump to fol­low in his foot­steps as a de­vel­oper.

In the first ma­jor news­pa­per pro­file of Trump, in the New York Times in 1976, his father, Fred Trump, de­scribes his son as “the smartest per­son I know.”

Through­out his life, Don­ald Trump has be­lieved that his in­stincts and street smarts po­si­tioned him to suc­ceed where oth­ers might strug­gle. At the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, he con­cluded that “there was noth­ing par­tic­u­larly awe­some or ex­cep­tional about my class­mates” in the real es­tate divi­sion of the Whar­ton School’s busi­ness pro­gram, Trump later wrote in one of his books. “Per­haps the most im­por­tant thing I learned at Whar­ton was not to be overly im­pressed by aca­demic cre­den­tials.”

Res said that Trump of­ten bragged that he was “first” in his class in the Whar­ton pro­gram or that he was a “top stu­dent” there, but his name does not ap­pear in school’s honor roll, and class­mates re­called him as some­one who skated by do­ing lit­tle work. “He did what it took to get through the pro­gram,” class­mate Louis Calo­maris told The Washington Post in 2016.

His father of­ten told Trump that “you are a king,” in­struct­ing him to “be a killer.” Fred Trump was a stu­dent of Dale Carnegie, the evan­ge­list of suc­cess through self­im­prove­ment, and an acolyte of Norman Vin­cent Peale, the New York min­is­ter who preached a gospel of pos­i­tive think­ing.

Never a strong stu­dent, Don­ald Trump said that he came to be­lieve he did not need to study as oth­ers did to make their way in the busi ness world. Rather, he be­lieved he had the in­her­ent smarts to make the right de­ci­sions. “I know in my gut,” he said in an in­ter­view last year. “I know in 30 sec­onds what the right move is.”

But that in­stinct was un­der­mined, ac­cord­ing to sev­eral for­mer Trump ex­ec­u­tives, by his Lone Ranger style: “He can’t col­lab­o­rate with any­body be­cause he doesn’t lis­ten to any­body,” Res said. “He doesn’t trust any­body, ex­cept his fam­ily. That’s why [his for­mer wife] Ivana was in­volved in ev­ery­thing and why now his chil­dren are, too.”

Trump said his father taught him about the me­chan­ics of real es­tate de­vel­op­ment, as well as the softer skill of mas­sag­ing the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem on be­half of his build­ing projects. But he also be­lieved he had some­thing more: a ge­nius for show­man­ship, a knack for sur­round­ing him­self with the trap­pings of suc­cess, thereby cre­at­ing the per­cep­tion that he was uniquely ca­pa­ble of bold ac­tion.

Ge­nius and ego were es­sen­tial el­e­ments of suc­cess on a grand scale, Trump said. He told an in­ter­viewer in 1990 that ev­ery great per­son, in­clud­ing Je­sus and Mother Teresa, found the path to suc­cess via ego: “Far greater egos than you will ever un­der­stand,” he said.

“I be­lieve in be­ing pre­pared and all that stuff,” Trump told bi­ogra- pher Michael D’An­to­nio. “But in many re­spects, the most im­por­tant thing is an in­nate abil­ity. I’m a big be­liever in nat­u­ral abil­ity,” which, Trump said, he had “al­ways had.”

Through­out his busi­ness ca­reer, Trump ex­pressed deep skep­ti­cism of book learn­ing, scoff­ing at the no­tion that aca­demics were smarter than oth­ers, con­tend­ing in­stead that his in­stincts would pre­vail over those who stud­ied a sub­ject to death.

In 2000, when Shi­flett co-wrote Trump’s book on pol­i­tics, a news­pa­per that was writ­ing about the book asked what author had most in­flu­enced Trump. Shi­flett said he called Trump’s of­fice to find out what he should tell the reporter, and he was told to pick any writer. “So I told them he likes Dos­to­evsky,” Shi­flett said. “It was all just good times; the spirit around him was kind of mirth­ful. Ev­ery­body un­der­stood that and no­body took any of it very se­ri­ously.”

In Trump’s vo­cab­u­lary, “ge­nius” is per­haps the high­est praise, and it refers to a street-level abil­ity to get things done. Trump of­ten re­ferred to his lawyer and early men­tor Roy Cohn as “a to­tal ge­nius” or a “po­lit­i­cal ge­nius,” even if he was also “a lousy lawyer.” Trump ex­plained in one of his books that his own true “ge­nius” was for pub­lic re­la­tions: Rather than spend­ing money on ad­ver­tis­ing, he said, he put his ef­forts to­ward win­ning news cov­er­age of him­self as a “ge­nius.”

De­spite his long his­tory of boasts and his many ad­mis­sions that he has a large ego, Trump has also had mo­ments of ex­treme self­doubt. Bi­og­ra­pher Harry Hurt de­scribed a pe­riod around 1990 when, as his mar­riage to Ivana Trump was break­ing up, he oc­ca­sion­ally spoke about sui­cide, ac­cord­ing to friends and rel­a­tives.

Ivana Trump de­cided that the cou­ple should see a psy­chi­a­trist. Her hus­band re­sisted at first but then agreed, telling her he’d go, “only if you think it will fix what’s wrong with you,” ac­cord­ing to Hurt’s 1993 book “Lost Ty­coon: The Many Lives of Don­ald J. Trump.” Hurt re­ported that the fu­ture pres­i­dent at­tended only one ses­sion.

Soon, he was back to his usual pub­licly bullish self, “Trump be­ing Trump,” as he some­times called it.

“He says things be­cause it gets at­ten­tion,” Shi­flett said. “He just wants peo­ple to talk about him.”

“He never meant ‘book ge­nius’ when he said it. He means, okay, he didn’t hit the brains lot­tery, but he’s bril­liant and cun­ning in the way he op­er­ates.” Pod­caster A.J. Benza


Pres­i­dent Trump at­tends a meet­ing last week in the Dis­trict on po­ten­tial changes to the prison sys­tem. In the wake of a new book, he also spent some time de­fend­ing his ca­pa­bil­i­ties on Twitter.


Pres­i­dent Trump at a news con­fer­ence with Nor­we­gian Prime Min­is­ter Erna Sol­berg last week. He has sug­gested that the United States should bring in peo­ple from coun­tries like Nor­way, rather than oth­ers.

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