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The Making of Trump: Character in the 2016 Election


And this morning, we're taking a closer look at both major party presidential candidates and why this election has come down to a question of character. In another part of the program, we're exploring the roots of Hillary Clinton's trust gap with the American public. Now we're going to dig into the character of Donald Trump. There has never been a presidential candidate like Trump. He's a rich real estate tycoon who became an NBC reality TV star.


DONALD TRUMP: You've been lazy. You've been nothing but trouble. And now you cut them off as they're fighting each other for who should be fired. Michael. Michael.


TRUMP: You're fired.

MARTIN: He has no political experience and has run a presidential campaign based almost exclusively on his personal charisma and ability to grab headlines. Hyperbole is part of his style, but it also gets him into real trouble on the campaign trail.


TRUMP: ISIS is honoring President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He's the founder of ISIS, OK? He's the founder.


TRUMP: They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.


TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.

MARTIN: Each time Trump has said something provocative in this campaign, it makes headlines and it makes waves within the party establishment. But his diehard followers have not been deterred. This is British TV journalist Piers Morgan.

PIERS MORGAN: The turning point for me, actually, was when he was able to denigrate John McCain for his war record by saying, I prefer my war heroes not to have been captured.


TRUMP: He's not a war hero.

FRANK LUNTZ: He's a war hero.

TRUMP: He's a war hero.

LUNTZ: Five and a half years...

TRUMP: ...He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK?

MORGAN: And he got away with it.

MARTIN: Morgan has been friends with Donald Trump for the past decade.

MORGAN: That was a moment that could've ended many a campaign stone dead. And it showed me that Trump's uniquely personal style was actually resonating with the public in a way that people didn't anticipate.

MARTIN: He is a man of remarkable confidence. Do you, as someone who knows him - does he recognize where he falls short?

MORGAN: He believes that it's weak to constantly apologize and constantly backtrack. And he believes it's strong to stand by your opinions, however unpalatable they may be to other people.

MICHAEL D'ANTONIO: I actually think that he's aware of his image and aware that people think of him as a braggart and a bully. And he knows that that's not a good thing.

MARTIN: This is Michael D'Antonio. He wrote a biography called "The Truth About Trump."

D'ANTONIO: His father would tell his sons, you're killers and you're kings. And they were supposed to rise up in life as killers and kings, and nothing was quite good enough.


MARTIN: The Trump family was also big into the idea that if you could just believe strongly enough in yourself, if you trusted yourself enough, you could make anything happen - otherwise known as "The Power Of Positive Thinking," the 1952 book by the minister Norman Vincent Peale.


NORMAN VINCENT PEALE: Positive thinking works.

GWENDA BLAIR: The Trump family was very influenced by Dr. Peale.

MARTIN: This is Gwenda Blair. She wrote another biography called "The Trumps: Three Generations Of Builders And A Presidential Candidate."

BLAIR: The parents went to his church in New York City. Donald and his sisters were married in the church. His parents were - funerals were in the church.


PEALE: I've made a lifelong study of success because it's something that all of us, admit it or not, would like to round out our lives with.

BLAIR: And in Norman Vincent Peale's 10 guidelines to success, number one, and I quote, "formulate and stamp indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding. Hold this picture tenaciously. Never permit it to fade." And I think we have seen that with Trump through the years, and especially on the campaign trail. He's always successful at everything in his mind. He is always a winner. And the only measure of anything is winning and losing, and he wants to win.


TRUMP: We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning. Believe me. I agree, you'll never get bored with winning. We never get bored.

MARTIN: Here's Piers Morgan again.

MORGAN: He's always said to me privately and in public and in interviews, you trust your gut instinct and you won't go far wrong.


MARTIN: But trusting his gut has not always worked out, which leads us to Atlantic City, N.J. and a man named Steven Perskie.

STEVEN PERSKIE: I served from October of 1990 to May of 1994 as the chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.

MARTIN: Perskie remembers when Trump started investing in Atlantic City and local officials thought they had hit the jackpot.

PERSKIE: At the beginning it was, oh my goodness, here comes this major real estate developer in New York. And he's going to enter the casino business, he's going to do so in Atlantic City, and he's going to do it in a first-class way. And for the first six or seven years, he was a giant here. Then he - has never acknowledged making, but he did make a series of major and eventually catastrophic bad decisions.

MARTIN: One of those bad decisions, according to Perskie, was financing the Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino with so-called junk bonds.

PERSKIE: The terms of the debt were dramatic. Several financial analysts at the time indicated that the market could not and would not sustain that kind of debt structure. But Trump insisted that it could and would.

MARTIN: So Trump went ahead with it. And in April of 1990, he opened the Taj Mahal. Steven Perskie was there that day.

PERSKIE: It was a incredibly exciting experience. I don't know how many hundreds - maybe more than a thousand people - many of them little old ladies who took one look at Trump and started to scream, Donald, Donald.


ROBIN LEACH: At a historic meeting of showbiz and big biz, music's magic man and the Midas mogul ran the media gauntlet to open the world's glitziest casino. Donald Trump gave Michael Jackson a personal tour of his $1.2 billion extravaganza.

PERSKIE: That was in early April of 1990. By July 4, six or eight weeks later, the hotel was in financial trouble.

MARTIN: Did he - I'm sure this was beyond the scope of your regular conversations with him, but at any point did you talk to him about it? Or did you hear his public statements? Why was he so convinced that the analysts were wrong?

PERSKIE: Well, the conversations that I had with him were later, but the message that he was giving was, I'm Donald Trump. I have never failed at anything, and I'm not going to fail here. And anybody who says I am doesn't know what he's talking about. When I got to the casino commission, which was in October of 1990, I walked in the door the day I was sworn in, and the staff was there and said, glad you're here. The first thing you've got to do is to decide whether Donald Trump and his companies are sufficiently financially stable to continue to hold a license in New Jersey.

MARTIN: For the record, at the time, was it just the Taj that was suffering or were his other two businesses starting to falter?

PERSKIE: By the end of 1990, it was still just the Taj.


PERSKIE: The Plaza and the Castle were still OK. That changed rather rapidly over the next couple of years because the problems were so significant at the Taj that it wound up draining a lot of the assets from the Castle and the Plaza so that by the time the exercise got finished in the late '90s and in the early 2000s, all three properties were unsupportable.

MARTIN: Steven Perskie says Trump has never owned up to the mistakes he made in Atlantic City.

PERSKIE: He blames the failure - his failure in Atlantic City - on others, on the economy, on whoever. The fact is that it was his failure, which he has never acknowledged.


MARTIN: The story of Donald Trump's investments in Atlantic City illustrates how Trump's unwavering faith in his own judgment can create blind spots. And acknowledging any failure undermines the public persona he's created for himself as a winner, a winner who can succeed where everyone else has failed. And that message has become a main theme throughout his political campaign.


TRUMP: Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.


ROGER STONE: No mistake about it - Trump's nomination was a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.

MARTIN: This is Roger Stone. He's a longtime Republican strategist and informal adviser to Donald Trump. The GOP nominee has at times in this campaign personally attacked key leaders of his own party. I asked Stone how Trump can repair those relationships if he wins.

STONE: If his policies are popular, the establishment Republicans will come to him. Remember, their major objective in life is getting re-elected, and therefore they will be for whatever they think the people are for. So in Trump's case, if he can't make them see the light, he has to make them feel the heat.

MARTIN: Piers Morgan says it's how Trump has operated his entire career in business and now in politics.

MORGAN: If you're with Trump, if you're supportive of him, he's incredibly loyal back to you. If you cross him, if you take him on, if you abuse him, he will fight fire with fire. He can be very, very effective at burying opponents.

MARTIN: Donald Trump has buried his Republican opponents in this campaign. He's even buried his potential allies, leaving him virtually alone at the top of his presidential project. That means he will likely take all the credit if he wins and he will have no one left to blame if he doesn't.

That was an excerpt from our special program, The Making of Clinton and Trump. You'll hear our story on Hillary Clinton elsewhere in the show. You can hear the special on many NPR member stations over the next month and on the NPR One app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.