Origin stories
May 10, 2019

In July 2016, Tony Schwartz started a long apology/demythologizing tour for ghostwriting Donald Trump's 1987 hit origin story, The Art of the Deal. On Thursday, Charles Leerhsen, Trump's ghostwriter for his 1990 follow-up, Surviving at the Top, jumped in with his own recounting of what it was like to get inside Trump's head during a time when, as The New York Times discovered, Trump's businesses were hemorrhaging money to the tune of $1.2 billion from 1985 to 1994.

In a Yahoo News essay, Leerhsen describes the Trump he worked with from 1988 to 1990 as mostly "bored out of his mind," a "failing real estate developer who had little idea of what he was doing and less interest in doing it once he'd held the all-important press conference."

Trump was making huge, outrageously leveraged, financially ruinous deals, but day-to-day, he spent "surprisingly large" amounts of time "looking at fabric swatches," Leerhsen writes. "Indeed, flipping through fabric swatches seemed at times to be his main occupation," and "some days he would do it for hours," probably because fabric swatches "were within his comfort zone — whereas, for example, the management of hotels and airlines clearly wasn't."

Leerhsen elaborated Thursday evening on CNN. "At this time, like, things were really going to hell in his business," but "in the center of that was this quiet office where he was going through fabric swatches most of the day, and in the middle of all this Sturm und Drang, he was oblivious to it," he told Erin Burnett. "Did he believe the spin he was giving you?" she asked. "The only thing I think he's above average at is compartmentalizing," Leerhsen said. "I think it only really bothered him when it became public."

Leerhsen also explained why all of Trump's late-'80s purchases "were really stupid deals," and how he and the editors tried to salvage the book with made-up "lame explanations" when Trump was exposed as broke. Watch below. Peter Weber

January 7, 2019

A significant part of the federal government is shut down indefinitely because President Trump is insisting on $5 billion for a border wall (or steel fence) and Democrats are saying no. But Trump's "wall" fixation actually began as little more than "a memory trick for an undisciplined candidate," Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Peter Baker report at The New York Times.

As Mr. Trump began exploring a presidential run in 2014, his political advisers landed on the idea of a border wall as a mnemonic device of sorts, a way to make sure their candidate — who hated reading from a script but loved boasting about himself and his talents as a builder — would remember to talk about getting tough on immigration. [The New York Times]

Trump embraced the idea once he saw the enthusiastic response his promise of a Mexico-funded border wall received among conservative audiences. "He's very obsessed about carrying out his campaign promises — I think to a degree that's unhealthy — but that's important to him, and that's not a bad thing," Trump friend Christopher Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax, tells the Times. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway says Trump is "focused on the wall" because "he thinks you need a very robust physical barrier at the border that you can't climb over, slide under, drive through or walk around." Her husband, George Conway, had a different interpretation:

Many of Trump's fellow immigration hardliners view his wall as a counterproductive, minor-to-insignificant part of broader restrictions on legal and illegal immigration. You can read more about the genesis of Trump's wall, and its critics on both sides of the immigration debate, at The New York Times. Peter Weber

April 20, 2017

Carter Page's six-month stint as a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign may have been relatively brief, but it also appears to have been consequential. Page had been on the FBI's radar since a Russian spy tried to recruit him in 2013, and when he convinced the Trump campaign to allow him to travel to Moscow to give a Russia-friendly speech in July, the FBI took notice and began to dig into connections between Russia and the Trump campaign, The New York Times reports, citing "current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials."

Trump announced that Page was a campaign adviser in March 2016, at the recommendation of Iowa economics professor and Tea Party activist Sam Clovis, The New York Times says, adding:

It is unclear exactly what about Mr. Page's visit caught the FBI's attention: meetings he had during his three days in Moscow, intercepted communications of Russian officials speaking about him, or something else. After Mr. Page, 45 — a Navy veteran and businessman who had lived in Moscow for three years — stepped down from the Trump campaign in September, the FBI obtained a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court allowing the authorities to monitor his communications on the suspicion that he was a Russian agent. [The New York Times]

Page's ties to both Russian state energy official and the Trump campaign set off alarm bells but not in isolation — campaign chairman Paul Manafort was already under investigation for his work with a pro-Moscow political party in Ukraine, and Trump's own consistent praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin was considered odd — and in the months after the FBI opened its investigation in July, "more evidence came to light, including intercepts of Russian officials discussing Mr. Page and other Trump associates," The New York Times says.

Carter is not known to have met individually with Trump or even written a policy paper that anyone in the campaign read. But he obviously found the experience gratifying. "The half year I spent on the Trump campaign meant more to me than the five years I spent in the Navy," Page said last month. You can read more at The New York Times. Peter Weber

September 25, 2014

Just about every serious and influential Islamic authority has denounced Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for its medieval theology and derided ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's self-proclaimed caliphate as a bloody, horrific vanity project. If you're interested in the finer points of the mainstream Islamic critique of ISIS's theology, 126 Islamic scholars and clerics (to date) have signed an "open letter to al-Baghdadi," explaining to him in 17 single-spaced pages exactly how and why he is wrong.

Late to the party have been the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia. It wasn't until Aug. 19, with a little apparent prodding from the Saudi King, that Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the kingdom's grand mufti, publicly denounced ISIS as "enemy No. 1 of Islam." The delayed condemnation, suggests David D. Kirkpatrick in The New York Times, citing Muslim scholars, may be because ISIS's extremist theology is based on the Saudis' Wahhabi school of Islam.

Al-Baghdadi's "ruthless creed," Kirkpatrick explains, "has clear roots in the 18th-century Arabian Peninsula." He continues:

It was there that the Saud clan formed an alliance with the puritanical scholar Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab. And as they conquered the warring tribes of the desert, his austere interpretation of Islam became the foundation of the Saudi state.... "It is a kind of untamed Wahhabism," said Bernard Haykel, a scholar at Princeton. "Wahhabism is the closest religious cognate." [New York Times]

How extreme is ISIS's strain of Islam? Al Qaeda believes that terrorism is a way to redeem Muslim nations and communities, while ISIS and its Wahhabist forebears embraced killing infidels and aberrant Muslims as a way to purify the faith. "For Al Qaeda, violence is a means to an ends," Haykel tells The Times. "For ISIS, it is an end in itself." Read more about ISIS's theological foundations at The New York Times. Peter Weber

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