Trump Off Camera: The Man Behind The 'In-Your-Face Provocateur'

Originally published on October 5, 2017 9:27 am

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, is known for his outspoken personality and oversize public image, which he believes help build his brand name.

"Whether it's good press or bad press, it's getting your name out there," Washington Post investigative reporter Michael Kranish tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "Getting your name on the gossip pages and the front pages and even the sports pages, [is] all in the effort of building the name."

Kranish and his Post colleague Marc Fisher are the authors of Trump Revealed, a biography about Trump's life and career that is based on the work of more than 20 of the Post's reporters, editors and fact-checkers.

Fisher says 20 hours of interviews with Trump helped him come to a better understanding of the candidate. "The man we've come to know and understand is someone who has led a strikingly solitary life given how public he is and how glad-handing his image is," Fisher said. "When I asked him about friendships, he said he really doesn't have friendships of the kind that most people would describe."


Interview Highlights

On what Trump was like as a kid

Marc Fisher: He was, by both his friends' description and his own, a rambunctious kid who got in trouble a lot and who was a bit of a ruffian. From the youngest age, about age 6 or 7, he pelted the neighbor's toddler with rocks from across the yard. He pulled the pigtails of a classmate. He got into a physical altercation with one of his teachers, and so he was someone who was kind of a rambunctious kid, even obnoxious by some accounts, and he says that he hasn't changed since second grade. So that kind of in-your-face provocateur character that we've come to see in the campaign is something that traces back very cleanly and consistently to this childhood as kind of a tough kid.

On how a lawsuit that charged his father's real estate company with racial bias influenced Trump's business philosophy

Michael Kranish: This was a very serious lawsuit, one of the most significant racial bias cases at the time, and it's very interesting. We were able to obtain, under Freedom of Information Act requests, all of the transcripts for this court case. What happened was, Donald had to decide, was he going to settle this case or was he going to fight the federal government? One night in Manhattan he walked into a nightclub that he belonged to, and there was a man named Roy Cohn, and Roy Cohn of course is the famous or infamous lawyer who was the aide to Joseph McCarthy of the Army-McCarthy hearings that was held in the 1950s. Donald got to talking to Roy Cohn and told him about this racial bias case brought by the federal government, and Cohn, who himself had fought the federal government many times in his career, said: "Don't settle. Fight like hell. When they hit you, hit back 10 times harder."

The bottom line is, after this discussion at the nightclub, Donald Trump decided that he would, in fact, fight like hell, and he absorbed in a philosophy that he maintains to this day — when you're hit, hit back 10 times harder.

On Trump using a pseudonym to be his own press agent

Fisher: So what happened is in an effort to kind of spread his image around the city and around the country eventually, Donald Trump would act as his own press agent. He would call reporters as "John Miller" or "John Barron," he wouldn't bother even to disguise his voice, but he would call them up and say, "Donald Trump is going to be out at this club with this amazing celebrity or this model," or "Donald Trump is going to be groundbreaking for a new building." And he would kind of gin up press coverage as this alter ego, and he would also call reporters to complain about their stories or to encourage them to think about Donald Trump in a better light. ...

Some of the reporters who got these calls knew that it was Trump, and they thought this was kind of weird, but they went along with it; others didn't know. We were lucky enough to get a recording that someone sent me of one of these calls in which he presents himself as John Miller to a reporter for People magazine and if you listen to the recording, it sounds astonishingly like Donald Trump because it is Donald Trump. He carries this on as if no one knows what his very distinctive voice sounds like, and he talks about Donald Trump in this very extremely complimentary way and about what a ladies' man he is, and how women can't stop themselves from coming to him and seeking to go out with him, and this is something that he did for many, many years.

On Trump's debt in the 1990s

Kranish: [The banks] really felt that if they basically forced Donald Trump to repay his debts that they were going to lose everything themselves. Donald Trump had such extraordinary leverage that there came a day when the bankers were concerned that Donald Trump did not have insurance on his yacht, which he bought for some $20 million. Trump's associates basically told the bank, "Look, you need to pay for the insurance on the yacht, because if something happens to it, you'll have nothing." He eventually got the bank to pay insurance that Donald Trump himself didn't have. Similarly, Donald Trump had five helicopters the banks wanted to take back. For a time, he actually hid those five helicopters, because he was concerned they'd be swept up by the banks. Eventually they were turned over, but it just shows you the difficult times that Donald Trump was having at that time.

On Trump's business model of selling his name and his image

Fisher: Over time, what Donald Trump learned was that he could do all these things for himself. So the big question is, is he capable of doing this for anyone other than himself? And the track record really makes me kind of skeptical about that, because what we have is someone who, throughout his career, has found ways to enrich himself at the expense of others.

What Donald Trump learned from that experience in New York and Atlantic City was that he could build his entire business model around this idea of selling his image and his name. The more he got people to believe that his image was worth millions, the more he would be able to go out and sell just his name. So many of his latter day projects over the last couple of decades, in fact most of them, do not involve Donald Trump building anything, do not involve Donald Trump creating jobs, they involve Donald Trump going to a developer and saying, "I will sell you my name that you can put on your building that you have invested in, with your money, and that you will give me a steady, guaranteed income flow." That's the arrangement he had on many if not most of his building projects in the United States and around the world that have been done in the last 10, 20 years, and similarly with all the other businesses that he's gotten into, whether it's selling medicines or selling a university that he created. All of these things are cases where his involvement on a day-to-day basis is marginal or even nonexistent — what he's sold is the name, and he gets a set multimillion-dollar fee every year that's guaranteed, even if the project fails.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross who's off this week. It's fair to say no one's gotten more media attention this year than Donald Trump, maybe more attention than any presidential candidate ever. Our guests today have spent a long time looking into Trump, but they aren't here to talk about the Trump controversy of the day or his most recent provocative statement.

Michael Kranish is an investigative reporter for The Washington Post. Marc Fisher is a senior editor. And they've written a book about Trump's life and career that's based on the work of more than 20 of the Post's reporters, editors and fact-checkers. The authors say the Post wants to examine the major candidates' lives to help voters understand how they think, decide and act and how they might behave in office.

Trump gave the Post team more than 20 hours of interviews but declined to give permission for them to talk to his siblings or past associates who'd signed non-disclosure agreements. Much of the information about Trump's business dealings had to be gleaned from court records and other public filings as well as hundreds of interviews. Some of the findings of the Post's investigation have appeared in stories in the newspaper, and there's more in the new book "Trump Revealed: An American Journey Of Ambition, Ego, Money, And Power." I spoke to Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher yesterday.

Michael Kranish, Marc Fisher, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, there's a debate about whether Donald Trump's wealth is mostly self-made or inherited. And I learned from your book that it was actually his grandfather who started the family real estate business. Tell us a little about him.

MICHAEL KRANISH: Sure. Well, his grandfather came from Germany, although Donald Trump, for whatever reason, wrote in his 1987 autobiography "The Art Of The Deal" that his grandfather came from Sweden. That's not correct. The family definitely came from Germany. We actually sent a reporter to Germany, to that town. Frances Sellers went to Germany and visited the town, did a story for the paper and reporting for the book. So it's an example of how we're really able to write an all-encompassing biography here.

And she found that the grandfather did make a reasonable fortune - not a huge one - but went west, went out to the Klondike and then eventually moved to New York City. So there was a business starting. And then Donald Trump's father Fred became very successful in New York real estate.

DAVIES: And what kind of business did Fred Trump, Donald's father, build?

KRANISH: Well, Fred Trump was an extraordinary builder for his time. He built many thousands of apartments in what they called dumps on stumps in Brooklyn and Queens. And there were rentals, there were house sales. And he was very, very successful.

You look back at the clippings of that time and you see actually what a big deal Fred Trump was. He wasn't the same kind of self-promoter that Donald turned out to be, but he was pretty good in his own right. And he eventually brought his son Donald into the family business in which they rented thousands of apartments in Brooklyn and in Queens.

DAVIES: So the family was well-off. Did Donald Trump himself grow up in a world of wealth and privilege?

MARC FISHER: Yes, very much so. Donald Trump grew up in a very fine home in Queens. He went to private school. His father took him out of the private school and sent him to a private military boarding school. They grew up with a lot of money. They grew up with the only Cadillac in the neighborhood. They grew up with a lot of the kinds of accoutrements of wealth that their neighbors and friends didn't have.

And Donald Trump was very cognizant of this. And when he was in high school, he began what became a lifelong pattern of trying to be one of the guys, one of the people, close to people, very much a the kind of plainspoken character we've come to know. And he took pride always in having this kind of easy rapport and connection with the construction workers on his father's sites and with the other blue-collar workers around town. He saw himself as someone who could connect with blue-collar people in a way that others of his wealth might not.

DAVIES: The Donald Trump we know, of course, is proud of his success, (laughter) you know, brash. You didn't talk to his siblings. You did talk to some of his childhood friends. What kind of kid did he seem to be?

FISHER: He was by both his friend's description and his own a rambunctious kid who got in trouble a lot and who was a bit of a ruffian. From the youngest age, about age 6 or 7, he pelted the neighbor's toddler with rocks from across the yard. He pulled the pig tails of a classmate. He got into a physical altercation with one of his teachers.

And so he was someone who was kind of a rambunctious kid, even obnoxious by some accounts. And he says that he hasn't changed since second grade. So that kind of in-your-face provocateur character that we've come to see in the campaign is something that traces back very cleanly and consistently to this childhood as kind of a tough kid.

DAVIES: I have to ask, did he crave attention then?

FISHER: (Laughter) Yes, he certainly did. And he was someone who was very full of himself. He had some good friends early on. But after he left middle school to go to the military academy, from then on it's hard to find any evidence of close relationships, friendships. In fact, when I asked him about friendships, he said he really doesn't have friendships of the kind that most people would describe. He said, if you think about friendships as people going out and having dinner together, he said he doesn't have anyone like that and never really has.

DAVIES: Is that because he's so busy, because he doesn't want intimacy?

FISHER: Well, intimacy is the right question about Donald Trump. I think the man we've come to know and understand is someone who has led a strikingly solitary life given how public he is and how glad-handing his image is. He has cultivated an image of someone who is out on the town. He went through the Studio 54 period in New York going out to the discos. He was always arranging to be photographed with the prettiest models and with the hottest celebrities and being on all the top shows.

And yet what we're told by people very close to him, and including women who were publicly linked to him romantically, is that one would never end up in the bedroom with Donald Trump. In fact, he would go upstairs to his apartment by himself with a bag of candy and watch TV. And that was his pattern. That was his preferred way to spend an evening. And the romances that he touted on the gossip pages were not necessarily actual romances. They were for show.

DAVIES: There is a moment late in the book when you ask him to name some close friends, and he says...

FISHER: Yeah, I asked him well, who would you turn to if you're going through a troubled time, if you have some problem that you want to discuss? Are there any friends you could turn to? And he paused and he was uncharacteristically quiet and almost humble, and he said, well, I don't really have anyone quite like that. I would turn to my children. And he does have a close relationship with his older children, his adult children.

And it's interesting, he followed the same pattern with his children that his father did with him where when Donald was growing up, he found that his father was actually kind of cold and distant in the early years. But when Donald was old enough in his mid-teens to spend time at the office, he would go there and hang out with his father and go out and collect rents together and drive around to the various properties. And they really bonded over the business, learning the business.

Donald has now done the same thing with his children. Each of them lived with their mothers once the couples had divorced and were really quite distant from their father until, again, that period in the teens when they were able to come to the office and learn the family business and become a part of that. And that's when Donald Trump really engaged with his kids as he had not previously.

DAVIES: So Donald Trump goes to a military academy in high school, then to Fordham University, keeps him close to home and close to the family business for a couple of years, then transfers to the Wharton School in Pennsylvania and then joins the family real estate business. At 25, his dad makes him president of Trump Management. Tell us about the company and what Donald Trump did there.

KRANISH: Well, this is an office that's around Coney Island, and Donald for several years worked for his father. And they rented to a lot of modest-income residents. So they provided a great service to a lot of people in New York City. Donald was pretty much turned off. He'd grown up in a very elitist lifestyle, and he did not love the idea of going to apartments where he was afraid someone might come out with a gun. He found it, to use his words, quote, "unpleasant," quote, unquote. And after a couple years, he decided he wanted to move to Manhattan - go across the bridge and start his own real estate empire there.

Just as he was preparing to do that, however, the U.S. government filed a lawsuit against Donald and his father Fred and their company, alleging that they had discriminated against blacks in their policies of renting to tenants at their apartment buildings. So this was a very serious lawsuit, one of the most significant racial bias cases at the time.

And it's very interesting. We were able to obtain under Freedom of Information Act requests all of the transcripts for this court case. What happened was Donald had to decide - was he going to settle this case? Or was he going to fight the federal government? And one night in Manhattan, he walked into a nightclub that he belonged to. And there was a man named Roy Cohn.

And Roy Cohn, of course, is the famous - or infamous - lawyer who was the aide to Joseph McCarthy of the Army-McCarthy hearings that was held in the 1950s. And Donald got to talking to Roy Cohn and told him about this racial bias case brought by the federal government.

And Cohn, who himself had fought the federal government, said, don't settle. Fight like hell. When they hit you, hit back 10 times harder. And the bottom line is after this discussion at the nightclub, Donald Trump decided that he would, in fact, fight like hell. And he absorbed a philosophy that he maintains to this day. When you're hit, hit back 10 times harder.

So for a couple of years, Roy Cohn and Donald Trump were fighting the federal government. In the end, in fact, Donald Trump did have to settle the case, which he could have done a couple of years earlier. But he maintained that philosophy all along that - what Cohn had been teaching him.

DAVIES: Let's let's just spend a moment on this episode 'cause it's an interesting one. What were the facts? What caused the government to charge that the Trump company was discriminating in renting apartments?

KRANISH: Well, agents of the Trump company allegedly were - when a black person would come in to rent an apartment in a certain area, they would mark down codes on sheets. They would write C for colored or number nine.

And these would indicate whether or not a black person had come and whether or not they wanted to put that person in a certain apartment. And time and again, testers were sent. There were city agency officials. There were housing officials.

And they would go and represent themselves as potential tenants. And then they would file reports. And they eventually filed enough reports showing that there were - there was bias. For example, I interviewed a woman who was part of this testing. And she recalled she was a white woman and her husband was African-American.

Her husband went to rent an apartment one day and was told, there was no space at this apartment for you. The next day, his wife came back for the same exact apartment and was told, we'd be delighted to have you. Little did the Trump folks know - but this woman was accompanied by housing officials who were waiting outside to see what would happen.

They then confronted this rental agent and went over to the Trump company offices. And it became part of the case that was built against Donald and Fred Trump. And so what I would underscore here is that this was a case that named Donald. It named Fred, and it named their company.

It's a very, very serious case. To this day, Donald Trump's very upset that the federal government sued him. As part of their strategy - this is really interesting 'cause it's - you see the same thing today - Roy Cohn actually filed a $100 million counterclaim against the government, saying they hadn't proved their case. This was outrageous.

It was immediately thrown out of court. But it gives you a sense of that tactic. And as part of the settlement that Donald eventually agreed to, he actually had to agree that he would proactively advertise - looking for black tenants.

And while he did not admit wrongdoing, it was something that he did not want to do. He didn't want to sign this kind of agreement. But he eventually, after two years, decided to do so.

DAVIES: This was a company that had 14,000 rental units in the boroughs. So it wasn't a small matter. And Trump - you know, the facts seem pretty compelling. Trump settled the case. What does he say about it now?

KRANISH: Well, when we talked about this at Trump Tower a couple of months ago, I asked him about this case. Initially, he told us - and this exchange is described in the book - that, oh, I was just one of many people sued in a lawsuit.

And I said, no, actually, this was a lawsuit specifically against you, your father and your company. And he said, oh, yes, that's right. But we won that case by settling. And we were ahead. Now, whether they really won or whether that's the way he thinks about it today, in his view - because he didn't admit wrongdoing - that's a victory.

But it was a settlement. And when the Justice Department issued a press release at the time, they called it one of the most significant settlements in the history of such cases.

DAVIES: You know, it raises the question of Trump's views about race. And one could argue that this might have been simply a bottom-line decision. He felt they would make more money doing this. But you do describe another incident later when he's talking about an accountant for the Taj Mahal Casino, which he owned. You want to just tell that story?

KRANISH: Sure. This is years later in the 1980s. And Donald Trump has several casinos. He was the largest casino operator in Atlantic City, N.J. And this is a allegation that comes from a book written by the former president of one of those casinos.

And he describes a conversation. This is Jack O'Donnell, in a book called "Trumped." He describes a conversation in that book, which we cite in our book, in which he says that he doesn't want black accountants working for him. He prefers people in yarmulkes.

So the impression that's given is that he wants a white, Jewish accountant and not a African-American accountant.

FISHER: In his defense, when he was in high school - when his school - the military school finally admitted the first black students, Donald Trump was offended when some of his classmates called those students by a racial slur.

And so there is evidence throughout his life of someone who does not really interact with black people except at this very sort of superficial celebrity level.

And thereby, he believes that he's tolerant of all and open to all. And yet, if you look around his organization, there are not black executives to be seen. And there is this history of comments that that just seem a bit off.

DAVIES: Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post. Michael Kranish is an investigative reporter. They are co-authors of a book based on reporting by many Post reporters about Donald Trump called "Trump Revealed." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher. Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post, Michael Kranish, an investigative reporter there. They're part of a team of reporters who did a lot of research on Donald Trump's life, and they are co-authors of the resulting book called "Trump Revealed."

In his 20s, Donald Trump was working in his dad's real estate business which had a lot of, you know, middle-class and working-class apartments in the boroughs of New York. He wanted to make it big in Manhattan. And you describe how in his 20s, he wanted to make a splash, and he went after properties of the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad and targets the Commodore Hotel, which I guess was in the - this aging hotel in the Grand Central Station area.

And this is a fascinating deal, and we can't tell this whole story here. It spans years, but I think it's revealing a bit of how he operated. Just give us a summary of how he got the property, how he got it financed and got it done.

FISHER: Donald Trump wanted to get the Commodore Hotel because he saw this as his first big splash in Manhattan. He saw that he could make a really big splash as a developer by taking this rundown, decrepit property and turning it into a jewel, eventually a Hyatt Hotel. And in order to do this, he needed an enormous amount of money. This was a really aging building in terrible shape. Its systems were shot, and so he wanted to do this without using any of his own money. He didn't have any money, really, of his own. He had some from his father, and so he needed to get financing. And the way he decided to do that was to work the system. He'd grown up in a family that knew how to work the Democratic machine of New York City. His father would take him to the Democratic clubs where he would meet the politicians who could help with zoning issues as they built their apartments in the outer boroughs.

Now in Manhattan, Donald Trump took those same skills and started working the politicians with the aim of getting tax incentives, getting essentially subsidies from the government to do this big project. New York was down on its heels. It was the absolute worst period in New York's modern history - the 1970s. It's the time of Needle Park and drugs in the streets and high crime. And so Donald Trump said to the city fathers, look, the city is going nowhere. No one is investing in this place. Nothing's getting built. You've got to give me these tax incentives, so that I don't have to pay taxes which allows me to raise money and get this building done more cheaply. And through working the politicians and making deals and playing one party off against the other, he managed to sort of trick his way into getting this deal off the ground. And I say trick because what he did was he would tell the people at Hyatt who he wanted to manage the hotel that he already had a deal with the city fathers. He would tell the city government that he already had a deal with Hyatt. In fact, neither of those were true at the moment, but he was able to finesse it and make each party believe what he said about the other.

And finally got everyone to the table and got the deal that he wanted, so the building gets built. And Donald Trump has kind of the cheapness of his father. He's trying to save money in every possible way, and he gets these tax incentives. And only later, do people realize that there were indeed other developers who were willing to invest money without getting these tax breaks from the city and get that hotel built. But Donald Trump got the deal, and he got it done.

DAVIES: Yeah, the New York mayor Abe Beame, I think, who had a relationship with Donald's father was helpful. There was, I think, a fundraiser for the governor Hugh Carey. And, you know, when I read this story, you know, Donald Trump likes to say, look, nobody knows the system better than me and when I read the story I said, wow. He's right. He really works it.

FISHER: He really does and when he - this is the sort of clever genius behind the stories that were in his first book "The Art Of The Deal" where he touted himself as this master dealmaker, this master of Manhattan. And he legitimately in a period when very little was being built in Manhattan, when the city was truly suffering, that was really the prime time for Donald Trump.

DAVIES: You know, we noted that Donald Trump would use campaign contributions and political leverage to get both government assistance and kind of approvals that he needed. Over the years in general, to what extent have Donald Trump's projects relied on government assistance?

FISHER: Really to an extraordinary degree. One of the most ingenious things about his early career is that he was able to get tax incentives and other subsidies and to get politicians to push through the changes that he might have needed on zoning and other building regulations, and so he was really, in that sense, a master builder.

When you talk to other New York City major developers, they all hate him. They all think that he cuts corners ethically. They all think that he has stiffed vendors and contractors, which is true and we document this in the book, but they have a kind of grudging admiration for the way he built his brand. They're kind of embarrassed by him because of his sort of boorishness and coarse language, and the way he does business. But he did get buildings built in that early period. It was only later in the 1990s when things started to fall apart.

DAVIES: Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post. Michael Kranish is an investigative reporter. They're co-authors of the book "Trump Revealed" which is based on the work of more than 20 of the Post's reporters, editors and fact-checkers. We'll hear more about Trump after a break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're talking about Donald Trump's life and career with Michael Kranish, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post and Marc Fisher, a senior editor. Their book "Trump Revealed" is based on the work of more than 20 Post reporters, editors and fact-checkers. Donald Trump gave them more than 20 hours of interviews for the project.

He built Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue, and that was a huge thing for him, to use a Donald Trump phrase. He acquires this site at which there was an aging Bonwit Teller department store and has it demolished. And there was a controversy that you describe about some beautiful bas-relief sculptures on it. And he ends up kind of tearing them down. And what was the controversy?

FISHER: Well, this was the real first chink in his armor. This was the first deal that got him on the wrong side of public opinion in New York City. So Trump is starting out and he's making a splash, and there's a big front-page profile of him in The New York Times. And he's building Trump Tower, and it's going to get great architectural reviews and that sort of thing.

But in order to build Trump Tower, he has to tear down Bonwit Teller, one of the grand-old department stores of New York. And on the front of that building were these friezes that were beloved by the historic preservationists. And he has a big face-off against the preservationists and says they are elitists, artsy types and they don't understand that for progress to happen, he's got to tear these things down.

And he makes a deal to save them and - or at least conversations about saving them. The folks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art think that they're going to be saved. And then all of a sudden, one day they get a call at the museum that the workers are in the process of demolishing these friezes. And so the curator from the museum goes rushing downtown to try to stop this from happening, and it's too late.

It's already being destroyed by a crew of Polish workers who Donald Trump had imported expressly for this purpose and was putting up in the building - they were being paid less than $5 an hour. And sometimes they were being paid only in vodka. And when they complained that they were working these extraordinarily long days with hardly any compensation, they were threatened with deportation.

So this was a battle over the use of that labor that was eventually adjudicated, and Trump was found responsible for treating these workers the way he did. But this is one case where Trump really lost some of his PR shine in New York City and had to say, look, I'm doing this my way because this is the only way to get this building done.

DAVIES: Is it true that Trump would at times in speaking with reporters adopt a pseudonym claiming to be John Barron, an executive at the company?

FISHER: Yes. So what happened is in an effort to kind of spread his image around the city and around the country eventually, Donald Trump would act as his own press agent. He would call reporters as John Miller or John Barron. He wouldn't bother even to disguise his voice. But he would call them up and say, you know, Donald Trump is going to be out at this club with this amazing celebrity or this model or Donald Trump is going to be groundbreaking for a new building. And he would kind of gin up press coverage as this alter ego.

And he would also call reporters to complain about their stories or to encourage them to think about Donald Trump in a better light. And he would always introduce himself as either John Barron or John Miller. Some of the reporters who got these calls knew that it was Trump, and they thought this was kind of weird but they went along with it. Others didn't know.

We were lucky enough to get a recording that someone sent me of one of these calls in which he presents himself as John Miller to a reporter for People magazine. And if you listen to the recording, it sounds astonishingly like Donald Trump because it is Donald Trump. And he's just - you know, he carries this on as if no one knows what his very distinctive voice sounds like.

DAVIES: In the '80s, he's achieved a whole new level of success and celebrity. And he kind of became more aggressive moving beyond real estate. Just - there's a lot here, but just give us a sense of to what extent he expanded, how aggressively, whether this was a different kind of approach to his business.

KRANISH: Well, Donald Trump after the success in Manhattan decided that he wanted to go into the casino business. He had first hoped that gambling would be legalized in New York City and that it could be established at his hotels. Failing that, he went to New Jersey. At first, he hoped this would put pressure on New York City officials, but it did not. Instead, he decided to create several casinos in Atlantic City. In the end, he built three very large casinos. And at first they were successful, but the strategy started to falter when he did not find a way to stop the casinos from competing with each other. So he started drawing customers from his own casinos for the new ones.

But he saw himself in this world of glamour and gambling and women and boxing and sports, all this together. I mean, he was just at his epitome. He bought a huge yacht. He bought the Trump Shuttle airline. He bought the Plaza Hotel in New York City, which he vastly overpaid for. As he said - he took an ad out basically saying no one can justify this price. But he had this idea in his head that he would be this extraordinary mogul and that the Plaza Hotel and the Atlantic City casinos were just enormous benefits to the empire that he was trying to build.

But when you look at this period deeply and a team of reporters at The Post really tried to examine this month by month, what you see was that Donald Trump did not take the advice of his father, who had said don't go deeply into debt. Instead, as Donald Trump likes to say, he's the, quote, "king of debt." And to keep on making these purchases, he had to borrow heavily time and again. As I think we document pretty well, a lot of these catastrophes occurred, and he was able to survive because he ran roughshod over a lot of people who had invested with him.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, he did survive all this. But you make the point that a lot of people were hurt. You want to give us some examples?

KRANISH: Well, Donald Trump relied on bondholders. He relied on investors. He relied on contractors. And oftentimes, throughout his career, Donald Trump would then try to say, well, I can't pay you this, so I'll offer you that.

There are scenes we describe in the book through the work of various Post colleagues who talk to a lot of bankers who work with Trump, and Donald Trump would basically say, look, if you make me repay it this way, then we're all going down. There's a remarkable quote from one of the bankers in the book who says, we basically decided that Donald Trump was worth more to us alive than dead because they were concerned that if they let Trump fail, they would get nothing back. And Trump, time and again, used that leverage to his advantage to survive.

In many ways, that is the art of the deal. It's a phrase that certainly sounds great if you just say it off your tongue. But if you dig beneath behind it, what he's talking about is making a great deal for himself. Donald Trump himself says that. He said it to us. We asked him very directly about it, and he said, look, at the time I was doing the best for Donald Trump. And other people, if they made an investment that didn't work out, you know, that was their risk.

But he felt he was making the best deal for himself. And he says if I'm president, then I'll look out for everybody. But during that time, I was looking out for Donald Trump.

DAVIES: You also write about a couple of contractors in Atlantic City, I mean, small-to-medium sized businesses who thought wow, they've scored big by getting a contract to install signage or plate glass for a Trump casino, and it was terrible for them.

KRANISH: Well, once again, these are examples. There were shareholder suits filed. There were lawsuits filed by contractors who didn't get paid the amount of money they thought they'd get paid. What they found was that Donald Trump often held the cards, that if they wanted to get any payment they had to settle with him or bring a lawsuit, which was very difficult. Donald Trump had a lot more assets at his disposal than a small contractor. So it was very tough, and a number of them complained to us about what happened, that they lost money but that they felt basically they had no option but to make a deal with Trump.

DAVIES: And the bankers wanted to keep Trump in because his name was still worth something?

KRANISH: That's right. They really felt that if they basically forced Donald Trump to repay his debts that they were going to lose everything themselves. So Donald Trump had such extraordinary leverage that there came a day when the bankers were concerned that Donald Trump did not have insurance on his yacht, which he bought for some $20 million. And Trump's associates basically told the bank, look, you need to pay for the insurance on the yacht because something happens to it, you'll have nothing. And he eventually got the bank to pay insurance that Donald Trump himself didn't have.

Similarly, Donald Trump had five helicopters the banks want to take back. For a time, he actually hid those five helicopters because he was concerned they would be swept up by the banks. Eventually, they were turned over. But it just shows you the difficult times that Donald Trump was having at that time.

DAVIES: You know, when I read about these business dealings, it struck me that how often he really does go by his gut and gets himself into situations where he's running an airline, something he doesn't know anything about, I mean, didn't necessarily know how to run casinos, takes on too much debt and is often ruthless with creditors. But he gets into these situations and structures deals so that he comes out OK and makes money, even when a lot of people are hurt.

And of course, a lot of people are troubled by that. When I've talked to Trump supporters at rallies I've covered, one of the things I hear from them is, yeah, that's exactly the kind of guy I want negotiating with the Chinese, dealing with the Iranians, going after ISIS, somebody who can be smart and ruthless and press for the best deal. I wonder about your reaction to that.

FISHER: Over time, what Donald Trump learned was that he could do all these things for himself. And so the big question is, is he capable of doing this for anyone other than himself? And the track record is - really makes me kind of skeptical about that because what we have is someone who throughout his career has found ways for him to enrich himself at the expense of others. What Donald Trump learned from that experience in New York and Atlantic City was that he could build his entire business model around this idea of selling his image and his name. The more he got people to believe that his image was worth millions, the more he would be able to go out and sell just his name.

So many of his latter-day projects over the last couple of decades - in fact, most of them do not involve Donald Trump building anything, do not involve Donald Trump creating jobs. They involve Donald Trump going to a developer and saying, I will sell you my name that you can put on your building that you have invested in with your money and you will give me a steady guaranteed income flow. That's the arrangement he has on many, if not most of his building projects in the United States and around the world that have been done in the last 10, 20 years.

And similarly, with all of the other businesses that he's gotten into, whether it's selling - selling medicines or selling a university that he created. All of these things are cases where his involvement on a day-to-day basis is marginal or even nonexistent. What he's sold is the name, and he gets a set multimillion dollar fee every year that's guaranteed, even if the project fails.

DAVIES: Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post. Michael Kranish is an investigative reporter. They're co-authors of the new book Donald Trump - "Trump Revealed." It's based on the work of a team of Post reporters, editors and fact-checkers. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Marc Fisher. He's a senior editor at The Washington Post and Michael Kranish, an investigative reporter. They are co-authors of a book about Donald Trump and his life and businesses. It's called "Trump Revealed." How litigious is Donald Trump?

FISHER: The sure-fire way to get sued by Donald Trump apparently is to question the amount of his wealth, the extent of his wealth. And he said as much to us several times that - that's something that he gets quite angered by. In fact, when Comedy Central, the cable channel, did a roast, a celebrity roast of Donald Trump, the word was put out to all of the comedians coming on the show that you can joke about anything to do with Donald Trump and his family - you could even joke about his children - but do not question the extent of his wealth. And the comedians abided by that rule.

And similarly, when Trump did sue Timothy O'Brien, the author of a previous biography, the thing that ticked him off, the thing that triggered the lawsuit was in fact a question - a chapter that goes into just how wealthy is Donald Trump really.

DAVIES: You write a lot about any number of cases in which he really got enraged when someone underestimated his net worth or he thought he was being underestimated. What do we know about what his net worth really is and how consistent has Trump been in his own estimates of his wealth?

KRANISH: Well, when Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign in June 2015, he said, quote, "I'm really rich," unquote. And then he issued a series of documents, one of which said he was worth $10 billion. Now, Donald Trump has not released his tax returns and a lot of other documents that would help us independently verify that. He did release a number of financial statements. But you need a lot more information to independently know exactly what he's worth.

Indeed, in the lawsuit that Donald Trump brought against the biographer Tim O'Brien, O'Brien's lawyers were able to depose Donald Trump. And during that deposition and various court testimony, Trump basically said, well, the way I value myself depends on how I feel that day about my brand. So he has to basically decide himself what am I worth? What is the worth of my name on a building? That's not something that you can calculate in a spreadsheet. That's based on his own intuition, so it varies day to day.

FISHER: But what we do know is that by his own testimony, he does inflate the value of his properties, and so whether they are golf courses or hotels, the stated value, the assessed value that his taxes - the tax rate is based upon that is often extremely a great deal lower than the amount that he values it at when he's touting his wealth. And so there's this big disconnect between the assessed value that's in public records and the stated value that Trump uses in press releases. And that difference can be in the hundreds of millions of dollars on even a single given project.

DAVIES: You know, a lot of people call Donald Trump a narcissist. Listen to me - a lot of people - that's the way Donald Trump describes things that - when he wants to make...

FISHER: (Laughter) You're not saying it, just a lot of people are saying it.

DAVIES: Well, more than one observer has suggested that he seems to have narcissistic tendencies. But I bring this up because you note something he said in, I guess, one of his books about the value of narcissism and successful business pursuits.

FISHER: He wrote in one of his books about his belief that narcissism is an extremely valuable and important asset for a business person. Only through narcissism, he wrote, can someone have the kind of drive and dedication to their task and to their work that would allow them to be successful on this grand scale. So he truly believes this about himself.

Now, does he have the self-awareness to say, hey, look, you're a narcissist, not just when you're working on a business deal, but in the rest of your life? I don't know. I mean, we were in his office one time and before we could even sit down, he said, hey, come with me, come across the hall. And he took us into a conference room where there was one big table filled with magazine covers, and he's on the cover of every one of them. And he - his line to us was astonishing. He said, hey, look what I just discovered, as if he didn't know what was in the conference room immediately outside his office.

And then he brought us in there and just sort of reviewed everything for us, hey, three times on the cover of Time magazine in four months that's a record. And he'd gone back and checked and found out that no one else had had that concentration of cover stories before. And so his office is - has sort of the ego wall of all time. It's just floor-to-ceiling jammed with plaques and proclamations and pictures of himself, and so it is an unusual celebration of ego and whether you call that narcissism or not I don't know. But it is someone who is driven by this and doesn't seem entirely aware of it, at least not in the way that most people would be.

DAVIES: Well, Michael Kranish, Marc Fisher, thank you so much.

KRANISH: Thank you.

FISHER: Thanks.

DAVIES: Michael Kranish is an investigative reporter at The Washington Post. Marc Fisher is a senior editor. Their book "Trump Revealed" is based on staff reporting at the paper. The Post is also investigating the life and career of Hillary Clinton. The authors say there was less interest among publishers in a book on that subject, but the Post's findings will appear in an e-book. Trump reacted yesterday to the publication of "Trump Revealed," calling it a hit job and offering some advice - don't buy, he said, boring.

Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the new album from Lydia Loveless. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.