President Trump is increasingly isolated in the White House, alienated from Congress and cut off from old associates and allies, said journalist Michael Kruse. But throughout his life, he’s trusted no one.
A loner by choice
ISOLATED?” READ THE subject line. “Friend,” Donald Trump wrote recently to supporters in a fundraising email. “The fake news keeps saying, ‘President Trump is isolated.’... They say I’m isolated by lobbyists, corporations, grandstanding politicians, and Hollywood. GOOD! I don’t want them,” he fumed.
Sent on Aug. 28, two days after Hurricane Harvey inundated Houston, Trump’s defiant appeal acknowledged the mounting perception that eight months into his first term, he’s never been politically more lonely. He’s at odds with Congress—including leaders and members of his own party—and his deal making with Democrats is angering some of his most ardent conservative supporters. He’s been abandoned and censured by art leaders, business leaders, and world leaders. His Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida is bleeding bookings. And he’s losing favored aides because of the actions of his own chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, who restricts access to the president with the diligence of a border guard. Last month, The New York Times described Trump as a “solitary cowboy,” reminding readers he once called himself the Lone Ranger.
His critics might see his growing isolation as a product of his political inexperience. But it’s merely a continuation of a lifelong pattern of behavior for Trump. Take away the Pennsylvania Avenue address, the neverending list of domestic and international crises, and the couldn’t-be-higher geopolitical stakes—and this looks very much like... Trump throughout his entire existence. Isolated is how he’s always operated.
The middle son of a stony, workaholic father with whom he had an “almost businesslike” relationship, Trump is a double divorcé, a boss with a professed distaste for having partners or shareholders, a television- tethered, hamburger- eating homebody, and a germophobe who has described shaking hands as “terrible,” “barbaric,” and “one of the curses of American society.”
He’s been a loner most of his life. At New York Military Academy, everybody knew him, but few of his fellow cadets knew him well. In college, he made no friends he kept. After he moved to Manhattan, he lived in a sealed-off triplex penthouse, relied on a small, family-first cadre of loyal- ists, and mainly made more enemies than allies. At his casinos in Atlantic City, he was adamant about not mingling with the gambling masses.
“He was and is a lonely man,” Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump casino executive, told me.
“One of the loneliest people I’ve ever met,” biographer Tim O’Brien said in an interview. “He lacks the emotional and sort of psychological architecture a person needs to build deep relationships with other people.”
It’s been this way always, because he’s always been foundationally, virulently untrusting. “There’s a wall Donald has that he never lets people penetrate,” a former associate told me. Trump has a dark, dour view of humanity. He considers the world “ruthless,” “brutal,” and “cruel.” Seen through this zero-sum, dog-eat-dog lens, friends aren’t friends—there’s no such thing. “They act nice to your face, but underneath they’re out to kill you,” he wrote in his 2007 book, Think Big. “They want your job, they want your house, they want your money, they want your wife.”
Why he’s like this is the subject of vigorous discussion among psychology experts. The deep-seated influence of his formidable father? The wound of the alcohol-fueled death of his more mild-mannered older brother? Simple genetics? Trump is not selfreflective—“ I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see,” he told a biographer several years back—but he can be self-aware. And on this front, he’s been quite clear, and consistent.
“My business is so all-encompassing, I don’t really get the pleasure of being with friends that much, frankly,” he said to one interviewer in 1980.
THE FIRST PEOPLE who really noticed Trump’s tendency to withdraw were his classmates. As a teenager at New York Military Academy, he often disappeared into his solo room in the barracks after dinner. “The reason I went in the first place,” Trump himself would say later, “was that I didn’t get along with a lot of people.” Pictures in yearbooks show Trump morphing from a gangly boy to a sturdy young man, but this much didn’t change: Classmate Doug Reichel characterized him to me as “very distant.”
“I don’t know anyone that he was particularly close to,” said Ernie Kirk, another classmate, who is now an attorney in Georgia. “He was so competitive,” according to a former roommate, “that everybody who could come close to him he had to destroy.”
“You just couldn’t be friends with him,” said Sandy McIntosh, who was two years younger but knew him from home too, because their families both had cabanas at the Atlantic Beach Club on Long Island. Trump wouldn’t laugh at his jokes, or anybody else’s, McIntosh recalled. “And you think of humor as a basic, empathic way that friendships are formed—and he just didn’t.”
It was the same way at Fordham University in the Bronx, where Trump spent his freshman and sophomore years of college playing on the squash team and wearing a three-piece suit to class. Trump and Brian Fitzgibbon sometimes carpooled to school, because their families both lived in Queens. They were “friendly,” Fitzgibbon said in an interview, but not “friends.” “I can’t recall any real friendships he had at Fordham,” he said. When Trump transferred from Fordham to the University of Pennsylvania, he left without telling people goodbye.
And it was no different, either, down in Philadelphia, where he studied real estate at Wharton and boasted in class that he would be bigger than then-nonpareil Manhattan developer Bill Zeckendorf— but, for the most part, one classmate told The Daily Pennsylvanian, Trump “was really off by himself.” He didn’t participate in extracurricular activities or go to fraternity parties or football games. He returned every weekend to New York to work for his father collecting rents at his outerborough apartment buildings. “His footprint at Penn was virtually zero,” classmate Lou Calomaris told me. “I don’t think he had any best friends. I never saw him pal around with anyone, quite frankly.”
The whole of the ’80s were heady for Trump. He built Trump Tower, his masterwork until The Apprentice led to the Oval Office. The Art of the Deal was a runaway best-seller, and he talked about running for president. Even his failures, like his ownership of the New Jersey Generals of the second-rate United States Football League, were successes of a sort, because they boosted his national renown, which was actually the point from the start. And yet as ascendant and ubiquitous as he was, Trump was fairly friendless, too.
It wasn’t just high society, said George Arzt, a veteran, connected New York politico. “Most of the real estate industry separated themselves from him,” Arzt told me. “His personality rubbed people the wrong way.”
“Friendship is not a part of his agenda,” a Trump business associate told Newsweek in 1987. Trump didn’t disagree. “I hate to have to rely on friends,” he said. “I want to rely on myself.” His only “real friends,” he added, were family members.
By early 1990, as Trump confronted selfinflicted financial calamity and marital failure, Connie Chung of CBS questioned his solitary nature.
“Do you have a best friend?” she asked.
“Well, I have so many different friends,” Trump said, “and it’d be hard to say a best friend...”
“Is your wife a best friend?”
“She’s a great friend, she’s, uh—I have a father who’s a great friend.”
“I mean, is there somebody that you really confide in?”
“I tend not to confide. I really tend not to confide. I’m very closed in that sense. I think that’s my own, maybe, guarded mechanism.”
“Is it that you don’t trust people?”
“I don’t trust people, no,” Trump said, self-assessing in the most explicit possible terms. “I’m a nontrusting person.”
On newsstands nationwide at the time of this interview was an extensive conversation in Playboy. In it, Trump echoed something he had discussed with Chung too—the death of his older brother, Fred Trump Jr., and its lasting effects. His brother had been too trusting with too many people, “a fatal mistake,” in Trump’s estimation, and he had been taken advantage of, and that had led to his alcoholism and finally his demise at only 43 years old. “The lesson I learned,” Trump concluded, “was always to keep up my guard 100 percent, whereas he didn’t.” He ended up later in the interview musing about the prospect of a President Trump. “He wouldn’t trust anyone,” Trump said.
PERIODICALLY OVER THE past few months, I have found myself thinking back to 1990. It was the moment before the current moment when Trump seemed the most isolated and alone. His business was listing, and he was losing inner-circle loyalists. His marriage was over. His oldest son, then 12, angry and hurt, wasn’t speaking to him, it would later be reported. In telephone public opinion polls, readers of New York tabloids were siding overwhelmingly with his wife, not him.
The early portion of that year has always seemed to me to be an unusual and even unique stretch in the scope of Trump’s life. Rewatch that Connie Chung interview, and reread that Playboy conversation, and he presents as not only irritable, but also rattled—vulnerable, or at least his version. Even his book that came out in 1990, Surviving at the Top, is in my mind different from all the other books he’s put out over the decades. It has plenty of platitudes, too, but there’s also in the text and between the lines a certain detectable pathos. That spring, according to Vanity Fair, Trump holed up in Trump Tower, in an apartment separate from his soon-to-be-ex up in the penthouse, ordering in burgers and fries, his belly getting soft, his hair getting long, staying on his back in his bed, staying up late, calling people to talk, staring at the ceiling.
“You remind me of Howard Hughes,” a friend told him.
“Thanks,” Trump said. “I admire him.”
He wrote about the tycoon turned neurotic hermit in Surviving at the Top. “The Howard Hughes story is fascinating to me,” Trump told readers, “because it shows that it’s possible to fall very far very fast. As time goes on I find myself thinking more and more about Howard Hughes and even, to some degree, identifying with him.” He cited Hughes’ aversion to germs, and the downsides of fame, such as when he’s approached in restaurants and people end up “spraying their good wishes all over my food.”
“Every time that happens,” Trump wrote, “Howard Hughes and his reclusive lifestyle look a little less crazy to me.”
Journalist Wayne Barrett, who started reporting on Trump in the late ’70s, addressed Trump’s interest in Hughes in his seminal 1992 biography.
“Over the years,” Barrett wrote, “he had openly toyed with a final surreal twist to the plot that had become his life—he told friends that he might end up a Howard Hughes–like recluse, squirreled away, allowing his fingernails to grow longer than his stubby fingers. That poignant script may have appealed to the loner quality in him that had always kept him apart. The Hughes scenario only worked, though, if he could figure out a way back to the top.”
Excerpted from an article that originally appeared inPolitico.com. Reprinted with permission.