Most of the talk about Donald Trump has been about his antics during the election campaign. But what about Trump the businessman? DW talks to Wall Street reporter Max Abelson who spent time with the president-elect.
Deutsche Welle: Mr. Abelson, please break it down for us, who is this guy?
Max Abelson: The thing that really sticks out in my mind is realizing when I was sitting down with him that he had pictures of himself on the wall on his left. He had pictures of himself in front of him. He had pictures of himself behind him. And I think he may have even had pictures of himself to his right. And he definitely had a gun above him. That's the image that sticks in my head. This is a guy who clearly loves himself, and I'm not sure I've ever met anyone quite like him.
When I was growing up in Wisconsin, I remember hearing stories about the massive fortune that belonged to Donald Trump. Let's go back to the beginning. He says he built himself up rags-to-riches style. Is that true?
On the one hand, he really is self-invented in the sense that he created this image that would reach a little boy in the Midwest that somehow he was this incredible all-American hero. That's self-created. What isn't self-created though is his fortune. He is the heir to an outer-borough real estate developer named Fred Trump. Fred Trump was a complicated guy and a colorful salesman. His company got in trouble with the United States government in the 1960s for discriminating against would-be black renters [investigations began in the 1960s and the Department of Justice sued Trump Management in 1973]. But, Fred Trump had a taste for flair and salesmanship selling houses in Brooklyn and Queens.
What Donald Trump did was bringing that outer-borough empire into Manhattan, and he did that using his father's wealth and political connections. Even though he rails against the global elite, Donald Trump really only exists today thanks to those political connections that allowed him to get tax breaks on redeveloping the Commodore Hotel on 42nd Street and then of course Trump Tower.
From watching the TV show "The Apprentice," one gets a sense that Donald Trump is the god boss who drinks from the holy grail of business acumen. Did you get a sense from your reporting of how he conducts his businesses?
In the same way he is a politician who is completely post-politics, which is to say he had no experience in public policy, he had none of the politeness we associate with politics, in the same way he's almost a businessman who is post-business. Because on the one hand, he shows himself as the world's great negotiator and the world's great businessman. But on the other hand, he really is a builder who no longer actually builds skyscrapers.
If you're in New York City, you'll see an extraordinary amount of garishly tall buildings. Trump hasn't built any of those. He's really been left behind in the race toward the sky in New York. Trump Tower in a way is sort of outdated. And of course most of the buildings that go up with Trump's name around the world are not actually built by him. So he really has been able to do something that very few people have been able to do: To sell his name on real estate and half-pretend it's his.
You say in your writing that anyone looking for insight into how Trump will lead the country "need look no further than the building he already rules." What's it like to be in Trump Tower or the Trump Building at 40 Wall Street?
Trump Tower is really his headquarters. It's where he lives, where he works and where he ran his campaign. It's where he famously took the escalator down to announce his presidential run last year. We combed through public records to try to understand who lived in Trump Tower. What we found is that it's like a microcosm of the Trump world.
There's the celebrity side - Michael Jackson, Johnny Carson and Liberace lived there - but also gangsters who have been involved in international poker rings and have ties to the Russian mafia. We also found gangsters with ties to Trump. Felix Sater, for example, who helped develop Trump's hotel in Soho, worked on the 21st floor - after going to prison for stabbing a man in the face with a broken margarita glass. Then there was a man named Joseph Weichselbaum, who had a helicopter company. He lived in Trump Tower after serving prison time for cocaine trafficking. And we found people connected to the FIFA scandal like Jose Maria Marin, who is currently living in Trump Tower under house arrest.
Taking into account what you described as Trump's narcissism and the oddities with regard to how he does business, do you think he has the ability to come through with what he's promising - that he's going to unite Americans, that he's going to be able to listen to advisers, and negotiate with world leaders?
I don't think anyone in the world can really say what's going to happen when Trump becomes the 45th President of the United States. But as a journalist, what I can talk about is what I've seen him do so far in his career. Considering how much Russia was talked about during this election, it's worth talking about Trump's vodka endeavor. He picked a person to work with who basically didn't have experience launching a product like Trump Vodka. The fellow had recently done a failed startup with Britney Spears, of all people. And when Trump signed on with this man who was going to market Trump Vodka, they picked a distiller in the Netherlands who also didn't have experience. And then they started branding it in the United States just before the financial crisis. Of course, vodka stopped selling and the distillery went bankrupt.
So all I can say is that it's a little disconcerting, because Trump's failures suggest that Trump has a bad track record of relying on people who are not experienced. You can only hope he will learn a lesson from his failures - like the bankruptcies in the casinos or the strange people who've gotten into 40 Wall Street, or the failed products like Trump Vodka - and that somehow he becomes a good public leader nevertheless.
Max Abelson is a Wall Street reporter for Bloomberg News. He can be followed on Twitter under the handle @maxabelson.
The interview was conducted by Gabriel Borrud.