With special counsel Robert Mueller and his associates quietly and methodically doing their investigatory work, with November’s midterms looking for Republicans like a mixed bag at best, and with Bob Woodward’s new book Fear painting the president as “an idiot” and his White House as “Crazytown,” Donald Trump seems to be on the precipice of disaster like never before in his administration and even his life. He might succumb, or he might not. But what’s inarguably true is that he’s not unused to this sort of moment. He’s not even uncomfortable with it. At his previous point of maximum peril—his financial collapse and the detonation of his marriage in 1990—Trump came out with a book of his own. It was called Surviving at the Top.
The title at the time was presumptuous to the point of preposterous. “Surviving” was a premature claim that only he believed. The front-cover boast is actually far truer now than it was back then—he is, after all, the president of the United States—and the takeaway from Surviving at the Top is not even so much that he’s good at skirting calamity. It’s that a crisis is something he actually enjoys.
“I realized,” Trump writes in the book, with the help of collaborator Charles Leerhsen, “that I was doing what I love to do most—battle back from the brink.”
The stakes of course—and this is the essential caveat when trying to explain his current predicament based on his past performance—are exponentially greater now. He doesn’t understand Washington the way he did New York. He doesn’t know governance the way he did real estate. His current adversaries are by nature and magnitude fundamentally different. Has a president ever suffered the humiliation of one of his senior officials penning an anonymous op-ed to reassure the public an internal resistance is at work to save the country from their boss? Still, if there’s “fear” here, it’s not Trump who’s necessarily feeling it the most. And he has proved over the course of his life to be blissfully impervious to “a nervous breakdown.”
“He is fearless,” Roger Stone, the former campaign adviser who’s known Trump since 1979, told me in a text message Wednesday afternoon. “He is tough as nails.” Stone, who has a tattoo on his back of Richard Nixon because of his admiration for the late 37th president, then added something about Trump that shocked me: “Makes Nixon look like a cream puff.” Nixon? “Nixon was smarter,” Stone responded, “but Trump is tougher.”
“Trump is way more than a survivor. He is probably the ultimate survivor” — Jack O’Donnell
“Pure grit,” texted Sam Nunberg, another former Trump political adviser. Also on Nunberg’s Roy Cohn-like list of Trump’s survival skills: “confidence,” “a knack for spotting his rivals’ weaknesses” and “ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK … NEVER DEFEND!”
Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me “being a survivor” was “not just one of his strengths” but “a core and overriding strength.”
“Trump,” Jack O’Donnell, a former executive at one of Trump’s Atlantic City casinos, wrote to me in an email on Wednesday, “is way more than a survivor. He is probably the ultimate survivor. The fact that he is POTUS says it all. In the process of becoming the president, he made mistakes that no other politician would have survived. Refusing to release tax returns, his racist comments, his comments regarding woman … the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape. Name one politician that would have survived.”
Back at the time of Surviving at the Top, Trump survived largely because of the ever-present aid and cushion of his father’s fortune as well as the reality that banks had lent him so much money that they were as beholden to him as he was to them. “The banks,” in the words of a former Trump employee I talked to on Wednesday, “were his adversaries and his allies.” They didn’t want to snuff him out—they wanted him to survive. Other foes were the same way. Ivana Trump was his adversary—but a broke, ruined Trump was no good for her, either. New York’s then-mayor, Ed Koch, loathed him and constantly butted heads with him—but in the end, more or less, wanted Trump to keep building and being a character in his pro-business city. And the legion of his celebrity squabbles? Mostly mutually beneficial. “He has been shrewd for decades at figuring out how to make his preservation in the interest of whoever might be standing in his way,” said biographer Gwenda Blair.
With Trump, listening for too long, or reading too deeply, is an experience that inevitably devolves into self-contradiction that ultimately borders on ideological incoherence. Surviving at the Top is in this respect no different. In it, for instance, Trump tells his readers both not to “think you’re so smart that you can go it alone” and also that he’s “a guy who prefers to negotiate one-on-one” and doesn’t “like answering to a board of directors.” He makes his customary space for score-settling (Malcolm Forbes, investigative journalist Wayne Barrett and the “sick” press are some targets) and self-serving asides (“I’ve never had any trouble in bed …”). And he plays his usual role as the put-upon outer-borough boy everybody’s out to get. He says he thought about calling the book Everybody Hates a Winner. At the same time, I’ve long considered Surviving at the Top (relatively speaking) the most textured and revealing title of the Trump canon. There are snippets of self-reflection and tiny but unmistakable glimpses of vulnerability. “Anyone who makes it to the top of his profession will tell you, if he’s honest, that his worst potential enemy is himself,” he writes. And it’s hard not to sense that a small part of him really was wondering if he would emerge from his colossal indebtedness intact. “I’ve joked,” he says, “about ending sections of this book with a question mark.”
But those parts eventually lose out to a more familiar posture.
“My main purpose in life is to keep winning,” he tells his readers. “And the reason for that is simple: If I don’t win, I don’t get to fight the next battle.”
And the key to fight—and win—the next battle?
“Toughness,” he declares, “in the long run, is a major secret of my survival.”
He compares himself to “the great football running backs of years past. These were not gentle men—yet no one ever accused them of being unfair. Sometimes you saw them just plowing ahead, sometimes side-stepping, sometimes spinning off blockers, and sometimes straight-arming opponents. … and yet one thing never changed. They were always moving forward.”
And he adds: “Occasionally, yes, toughness does involve some old-fashioned ass-kicking.”
“It’s getting harder and harder to rely on the usual punch-back, double-down, blame-others strategy” — Gwenda Blair
“The opposite of toughness—weakness—makes me mad and sometimes turns my stomach,” he concludes.
When one rereads Surviving at the Top, going on three decades later, the question is whether any part of this equation remains applicable now. With danger, it seems, increasingly everywhere Trump looks, can he still manage to not fail or fall? Can his stubbornness overcome the incompetence that his own staffers have revealed to multiple authors?
His biographers are conflicted.
“I think he could completely keep on going,” O’Brien said.
“What’s different now is that he’s exposed in a way he’s never been before,” Blair said. “It’s getting harder and harder to rely on the usual punch-back, double-down, blame-others strategy.”
Fellow Trump chronicler Michael D’Antonio agrees that the “geopolitical implications” are so much starker. He worries that “the office itself will be degraded.” But Trump? “He can go from debacle to debacle,” D’Antonio said, “and remain in office.”
On Wednesday, when we talked on the phone, Nunberg predicted Republicans would keep the House of Representatives and Trump would win again in 2020. Trump himself said Wednesday at the White House that “nobody is going to come close” to beating him.
“Sometimes,” Trump writes on the last page of Surviving at the Top, “if you hang in there long enough and, as the boxing trainers always say, ‘keep punching till the bell,’ people take notice and give you a boost.”
Trump presents as evidence a passage from an editorial in the New York Times in June 1990.
Trump “has given non-admirers plenty of reasons for the malicious glee with which they hear of his problems,” he quotes the editorial as saying. “Good at his business, at every opportunity he tells the world how good. He feels compelled to paint the name TRUMP on every acquisition. He flaunts his possessions: the biggest yacht, the biggest house, the grandest helicopter, and not long ago pronounced his intention of building the tallest building in the world. His main motive was not greed but triumph.”
It continues: “Arrogance? For sure, and yet in a world lacking individual heroes, even some of the Donald’s critics must confess to a sneaking respect for his insistence on being himself, however outrageous, and catch themselves hoping he’ll find the strength and luck to escape.”
I checked, just to make sure he had quoted this editorial correctly, and he had—except for the deletion of three key words at the very end.
“… the strength and luck to escape,” it read, “his just deserts.”