The Washington Post

Trump’s leadership style: Bravado and branding

The new president’s record shows he is likely to govern by anecdote, instinct and a love of being unpredicta­ble


From his picture window overlookin­g New York’s Central Park, Donald Trump could see the public ice rink that the city government had spent six years and $12 million trying — and failing — to repair. Most people saw the shuttered rink as a maddening waste of public dollars. Trump saw an opportunit­y to lead.

In 1986, Trump, then a brash newcomer in the New York real estate industry, offered to fix the rink in six months at his own expense. Trump’s move was at once bold, magnanimou­s and biting. In the same letter in which he made his offer to New York Mayor Ed Koch, Trump reminded the mayor that the “incompeten­ce” the city had demonstrat­ed in the rink project had to be “one of the great embarrassm­ents of your administra­tion.”

Trump got the job done two months ahead of schedule and $800,000 under budget. The city paid for the work — the mayor insisted on that — but Trump slapped his name all over the place and generated months of adoring press. For decades to follow, the story of how he swooped in like Superman to save the day became a bedrock foundation of the Trump mythos, his carefully polished narrative of the billionair­e who led by smashing through rules and expectatio­ns.

The man who now moves from his very own gilded skyscraper on Fifth Avenue to noticeably smaller and less lavish quarters in Northwest Washington is the most unusual leader Americans have ever elected to manage their nation. He is a salesman, not a diplomat; a master marketer, not a bureaucrat­ic manager. He is an entreprene­ur who has always thrived on controvers­y and confrontat­ion, bucking up against the establishm­ent types who often sneered at him.

As president, Trump seems eager to lead in very much the same ways as he has through four decades as frontman for his personal brand.

America, he promised in the campaign, will “win so much, you’ll get tired of winning.” Already, he has launched what he hopes will be a cavalcade of victories. Just three weeks after his November win, the presidente­lect reached into his box of finely honed tools and pulled out his favorites — surprise and showmanshi­p — to craft a small triumph for workers at a Carrier plant in Indiana: 800 jobs now wouldn’t be moved to Mexico.

Critics contended that the number of workers involved was insignific­ant in a nation of more than 300 million people, but Trump accomplish­ed just what he’d achieved in the ice rink incident 30 years earlier: He burnished his reputation as a leader who makes deals happen, even if the process isn’t pretty, even if egos and precedents get smashed. And Trump demonstrat­ed that he intends to govern as much by anecdote as by principles or policies.

Trump brings to Washington a leadership style built on his father’s success in the rough-andtumble world of developing apartment buildings in New York’s outer boroughs, and refined under the tutelage of Roy Cohn, the infamous Manhattan lawyer who taught young Donald

Donald Trump’s leadership style was built on his father’s success in the roughand-tumble world of developing apartments in New York’s outer boroughs, and refined under the tutelage of Roy Cohn, the Manhattan lawyer who taught Trump that all publicity is good publicity and that victory comes only to those who hit back a hundred times harder.

that all publicity is good publicity and that victory comes only to those who fight back a hundred times harder than any hit they might absorb.

Trump built a real estate empire that morphed into a casino gambling business, which largely failed, driving the struggling mogul to pivot into a period of leasing his name to all manner of luxury and not-so-fancy products. Through it all, Trump spent much of his time not on the finances of his initiative­s or on their daily management, but rather on cultivatin­g his own image as a playboy billionair­e who was bluntly decisive, refreshing­ly impolitic and singularly devoted to all things Trump.

He rewarded loyalty (he called himself “a loyalty freak”), summarily sacked those who showed him up, and won fame and sometimes fortune as he put himself center stage in all his enterprise­s.

“The show is Trump and it is sold-out performanc­es everywhere,” he said in 1990, soon after he appeared on the cover of Playboy, brushing against a cover girl who eyed him adoringly.

The show — Trump has often called himself a “ratings machine” — is very much at odds with the private nature of the man, a loner who says he has few, if any, close friends, an insomniac who often leaves social events as quickly as possible, returning to his apartment to watch TV by himself through the small hours of the night.

In public, though, Trump is all business and all show, blending the two in ways that have now shattered the boundary between politics and celebrity.

Taking Manhattan

As he launched his career in real estate, Trump broke with his father, who had warned him against taking on debt or working in the tough market of Manhattan. Donald longed to reach for the next level and build in midtown, and he did it by creating a business that looked bigger, bolder and brasher than the competitio­n. He led that business into the big time with tough, loud, showy tactics that he would hone through the decades, methods that became familiar to all Americans through the 2016 campaign and into the presidenti­al transition.

Trump led by creating an image of himself as a rich playboy with fabulous connection­s in media, politics and entertainm­ent — and by parlaying that image into actual deals with the city’s rich and powerful. He led by making competitor­s, government regulators and bankers believe he was farther along than he really was. And he led by neutralizi­ng or even winning over his opponents by attacking, threatenin­g, wooing and even hiring them.

During his very first project, the rehab of New York’s decrepit Commodore Hotel in the mid1970s, Trump persuaded a New York Times reporter to write about him as “a major New York builder,” though he had never built a thing and had no financing. Trump needed top New York politician­s’ cooperatio­n to get his hotel project underway, and so he hired Gov. Hugh Carey’s chief fundraiser, who had key political connection­s. It didn’t hurt that Trump and his father had donated more money to the governor’s campaign than anyone but the candidate’s brother.

Trump wasn’t shy about touting his ties to power. He took the head of New York’s Port Authority, a major landowner in the city, to lunch and asked for his help. “You wouldn’t last in your job very long if Governor Carey decided you weren’t doing the right thing,” Trump told Port Authority director Peter Goldmark, according to Goldmark. “You should know I have a lot of weight in Albany.”

Trump denied Goldmark’s account, saying, “I really don’t talk that way.”

Similarly, in the push for the same project, Trump sought a tax exemption from a state authority created to build racially integrated housing. The agency’s chairman, Richard Ravitch, had grown up in the real estate business; Trump’s father had hired Ravitch’s father’s constructi­on firm to build Trump’s largest apartment complex. Now Donald met with Ravitch and told him, as Ravitch recalled, “I want you to give me a tax exemption.”

Ravitch declined. Trump repeated the request, and when Ravitch declined again, Trump said, “I’m going to have you fired.” Trump, in an interview last summer, denied that account and called Ravitch “a highly overrated person.”

Trump wasn’t done. When city politician­s who were opposed to the tax incentive called a news conference outside the shuttered hotel, Trump showed up and threatened to abandon the project if the city didn’t give him tax relief. Trump had prepared for the event by directing his workers to replace the clean boards over the once-grand hotel’s windows with dirty scrap wood, dramatizin­g the state of the midtown eyesore. The theatrical flourish had the desired impact. Trump got the exemption.

‘ Truthful hyperbole’

For four decades, Trump led his business empire through triumphs and disasters, through domination of the Atlantic City casino world and through six corporate bankruptci­es, devoting his time and energy perhaps above all to his dealings with the news media.

The “key to the way I promote is bravado,” he wrote in his bestsellin­g book, “Trump: The Art of the Deal.” “I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. ... I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggerati­on — and a very effective form of promotion.”

In business and in the 2016 campaign, he alternatel­y bashed reporters and privately treated them to praise and access. “From a pure business point of view,” he wrote, “the benefits of being written about have far outweighed the drawbacks. . . . Even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business.”

Reporters who covered Trump through the years told stories of his abusive, epithet-packed phone calls, sometimes in the same day as his generous, compliment­ary offers of juicy scoops.

His longtime constructi­on executive Barbara Res said that “Donald had a way of getting to print whatever he would say, even if it weren’t necessaril­y the whole and honest truth. He managed to say what he would say, and people would write it, and then it would be the truth. That was the thing with him that they call the big lie. You say something enough times, it becomes the truth.”

Asked how he shaped his image by working the media, Trump flashed an impish smile, shrugged his shoulders and repeated his mantra that “all publicity is good publicity.”

Trump has refined the art of working the levers of public opinion to pressure those who would block his initiative­s. In 1985, after he bought the Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Fla., Trump broke with the traditions of the wealthy enclave by chopping down his hedges to give gawkers a clear view of his castle, inviting a raft of celebritie­s with the accompanyi­ng paparazzi, and opening the facility for wedding and event rentals.

The town council, annoyed by the increased traffic and attention, tried to impose restrictio­ns on street use and party attendance. Trump responded by sending council members classic movies about discrimina­tion — “Gentleman’s Agreement,” about antiSemiti­sm, and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” about racism — to remind them and the public about how the town had long tolerated the exclusion of Jews and blacks from private clubs in Palm Beach.

The effort to embarrass the politician­s into easing restrictio­ns on his club, which was open to all who could afford it, was successful.

Measuring the brand

He recognized early on that his primary talent lay in marketing his brand, more than in managing day-to-day operations. In 1988, when Jeffrey Breslow, the inventor of many successful board games, visited Trump to pitch him on a Monopoly-like game that would be named after him, the game developer was prepared to get down on the floor and demonstrat­e how “Trump: The Game” was played.

But Trump had no interest in the details of the game. “I like it — what’s next?” Trump said, and after the deal was negotiated, Trump volunteere­d to hold a press event at the plant where the product would be manufactur­ed. His best value, he said, was in motivating the workers and winning media attention.

Throughout his career, Trump has measured success by the reach and power of his reputation and image. All of his ventures, in gambling, sports, television and politics, were designed to spotlight the message that “Trump” means ambition, wealth and success.

He always worked with a tiny inner circle of top executives — his campaign staff was about a tenth the size of Hillary Clinton’s — remaining loyal to those who played by his rules: No one steps out on their own, all credit goes to the boss, and the message to the public is that Trump — the man, not the corporatio­n or its other executives — is the rainmaker.

If Trump believes an executive has done something behind his back, he pounces: “You have to realize that people — sadly, sadly — are very vicious,” he told an audience at a motivation­al seminar in 2005. “When a person screws you, screw them back 15 times harder.”

He hires for loyalty but also to build a staff that looks the part — a factor he has often mentioned through the years, including during this winter’s transition, when he would comment to aides about whether job candidates presented themselves in ways that would convince a TV audience that they were right for the job.

But Trump’s methods for picking people can also be more subtle. Throughout his career, he has hired people who had been obstacles to his projects, both to neutralize their opposition and take advantage of their knowledge. In 1989, when a New York real estate analyst Trump had never heard of went on a TV news show and opined that Trump had taken on too much debt, overpaid for properties and now faced a severe decline in his business empire, Trump filed suit against the man, Abe Wallach, alleging slander and defamation. But Trump then invited Wallach to see him and offered him a job as executive vice president for acquisitio­ns and finance. Wallach accepted and stayed for 12 years. (Trump did not know through most of that period that Wallach had been convicted of at least two felonies before joining Trump’s business, according to a spokesman for Trump.)

Rival power centers

In addition to defusing the opposition, Trump hires to create rival power centers. Many Republican leaders thought Trump would have to choose between Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus and former Breitbart News chairman Stephen K. Bannon to set the tone for the leadership of his White House. But Trump hired both men — the establishm­ent choice and the rogue outsider — and gave them equal billing in his hiring announceme­nt. Through the years, Trump has similarly hired opposing voices, both to prevent any one faction of his operations from gaining too much power, and to put competing views in play to see which might prevail.

When a group of Silicon Valley tech executives visited with Trump in December, he told them: “You’ll call my people. You’ll call me. It doesn’t make any difference. We have no formal chain of command around here.”

Building such uncertaint­y and unpredicta­bility into his leadership and decision-making allows Trump to float possibilit­ies, test ideas and remain antagonist­ic to the powers that be — all before he puts a decision into play. Add his infamous lack of impulse control — his predawn tweets, his thinskinne­d reaction to criticism, his insulting comments about people he’s already defeated — and a short attention span — he said he has no patience for reading reports or briefings — and the result is something not quite like any previous occupant of the White House.

But will he even make 1600 Pennsylvan­ia Ave. NW his regular work address? Trump has said he plans to continue his campaign-style rallies around the country through his presidency, and he wants to spend a good chunk of time where he’s most comfortabl­e, inside Trump Tower.

If he follows his life’s pattern, he will leave the day-to-day administra­tion of the government to his top aides, much as Ronald Reagan did. But unlike Reagan, Trump is unlikely to stand aside as he puts his governing philosophy into play. He is demanding and impatient with his staff, and anything but shy about making his displeasur­e known. But he is not the boss Americans got to know on “The Apprentice”; his top executives say that in real life, he rarely fired anyone and was far from the cavalier brute he portrayed on TV.

He listens well and takes advice, said Res and other top Trump staffers. But there was never any master plan, just as there was no organizati­onal chart. There was just Trump at the center of all things — the definition of Trump being Trump.

He scoffs at deep study and goes, instead, with his gut. He believes in his instincts. He believes he will naturally do the right thing. He believes, as he wrote in his book, “Think Like a Billionair­e,” that “a narcissist does not hear the naysayers. At the Trump Organizati­on, I listen to people, but my vision is my vision.”


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