Everything he touches,” Fred Trump once said of his son, “turns to gold.”
That was in 1973. Things are … a little different now.
Ronny Jackson is only the latest to join the ever-growing scrap heap of the Trump administration—people who volunteered or were summoned to serve, only to find themselves discarded and disgraced. The Trump-adjacent damage ranges from blaring-siren legal woes (Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, and poor-man’s-Roy-Cohn, fixer-attorney Michael Cohen) to reputational taint (Sean Spicer, Reince Preibus, Anthony Scaramucci, Steve Bannon, global-CEO-turned-spurned-Secretary-of-State Rex Tillerson) to unexpected political collapses (Luther Strange, Roy Moore, Rick Saccone) in which the president’s support proved to be less Midas touch and more kiss of death. Rear Adm. Jackson was the mostly anonymous White House physician. Now, largely as a result of Trump’s decision to put him forth to be to be Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, he’s better known, fairly or not, as an ill-tempered, drunk-driving drug-dispensing “candy man.”
There’s always been a Trump World scrap heap—in particular in the moments in his life of maximum stress and duress—but it’s never been like the past 15 months.
“It’s something new,” Louise Sunshine, a former Trump Organization executive who’s known Trump for more than 40 years, told me.
“It’s a whole different world than he’s used to. What he did as a CEO, if he hired somebody, who’d question it? That’s not true on the world stage. He just wasn’t ready for it,” longtime New York lawyer and lobbyist Sid Davidoff said in an interview. “He was a CEO of a privately held corporation that did what he wanted to do. … It’s no news that he wasn’t prepared for what was ahead of him. And obviously the learning curve isn’t as sharp as it should be.”
And others, far more than Trump, are paying the price. That much, at least, is not new.
Three and a half decades ago, he bought the New Jersey Generals of the upstart United States Football League. Riding high thanks to the new Trump Tower, Trump was dead-set on being a George Steinbrenner-likeprofessional sports team owner. “Creating illusions, to an extent, is what has to be done,” he told a reporter. Instead, it took him fewer than three years to effectively extinguish the USFL. One of his fellow owners, John Bassett of the Tampa Bay Bandits, threatened to punch Trump “right in the mouth” in a letter he wrote to Trump in 1986. “You are not only damaging yourself with your associates,” he said, “but alienating them as well.” Michael Tollin, the film director and producer, made a documentary for ESPN about the USFL. He called it Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL. The answer to the question in the title was Trump. “He killed the USFL,” said Tollin.
Four years after the Trump-led death of the football league, in early 1990, when his marriage was exploding and his finances were cratering, Trump let go or forced out most of his small cadre of key aides on Trump Tower’s 26th floor—public-relations wizard Howard Rubenstein, government-relations point man Tony Gliedman, shrewd attorneys like Gerald Schrager and Harvey Freeman.
At the same time, down in Atlantic City, in the wake of the snafu-riddled opening of the debt-heavy Trump Taj Mahal casino, he raged through another round of firings and demotions, calling his top managers there “scum,” “jerkoffs,” and “incompetent shit,” according to former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell’s 1992 book, Trumped! “I want people in here who are going to kick some ass,” he fumed in one meeting. “I want pricks. What I need are more nasty pricks in this company. Warriors.” He went on CNN and degraded one of the fired executives as “a Type C personality”—in retrospect a bit of an antecedent to the dig of “low-energy” Jeb Bush. “Type C is low key, you know, people that fall asleep,” Trump told Larry King.
“The truth is now I’m running my business the way I once used to, which is basically doing it all myself,” he told Newsday in 1991.
“A loner,” said a longtime adviser.
On Thursday, former Trump Shuttle president Bruce Nobles recalled Freeman, one of Trump’s most important attorneys. “I never went to a meeting that Harvey wasn’t in,” Nobles told me. “And he was sort of his sounding board. And when Donald got into his real financial trouble, he fired everybody—including Harvey.”
“He certainly doesn’t ever seem to be loyal to anybody except himself,” Trump biographer Gwenda Blair added.
Then and since, Trump has left in his wake small-business wreckage, people who were harmed in measurable ways by their interactions with Trump. Ditto for casino bondholders—they lost money on Trump. Creditors at the collection of banks to which he owed money lost money on Trump. Trump is the one who made money on Trump—literally on the remarkably durable strength of his name. Bankers didn’t force him to personal bankruptcy because he was worth more to them alive than he was to them dead. “Every dollar of value that Donald has created since 1990,” one of those bankers told American Banker in 1994, “has been created for us. He will work for the banks forever.”
By 2015, of course, he was running for president. The scrap heap started fly-trapping new victims, and at an increasingly rapid pace. Former political aide Sam Nunberg was up first—fired, re-hired, fired again. “I haven’t spoken to him in a very long time—I don’t think he cares that much,” Nunberg told me in January before his televised multi-channelmeltdown last month. Nunberg says “the wall” was his idea. “And I lost business working for him!”
There are of course exceptions. Plenty of people have benefited from his business-oriented lessons or just the reflected glow of his celebrity. Sunshine, for instance, split with Trump in the mid-80s and became a wealthy woman in her own right. Former Trump Organization employee Billy Procida took his experiences with Trump in the ‘90s to start something for himself. “He gave me an opportunity as a 26-year-old to take on a very significant role,” Procida told me in 2016, and “after working for him for that year, my career catapulted.” More than a decade later, some of the more spot-lighted “Apprentice” candidates turned their 15 minutes into more—Troy McClain, Kwame Jackson, Omarosa. Mark Burnett used Trump to turbocharge his reality-TV cred just as much as Trump used Burnett to shake off the last of his ‘90s doldrums and engineer an amped-up star turn that looks now like the start of a runway to his presidential candidacy.
And the antithesis of the scrap heap? The longtime loyalists. Secretaries Norma Foederer and Rhona Graff. Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg. Body-guard-cum-chief-operating-officer Matt Calamari (“Would you kill for me, Matty?”). “The people who were with Trump were with him for 15 and 20 years,” Sunshine said.
What’s different now is this: He always had publicity. He seldom had scrutiny.
“He’s now under a microscope. Instead of giving the story, he is the story,” said Davidoff, the longtime New York lawyer and lobbyist. “It’s a world that he doesn’t accept. He’s fighting that world.”
And other people again are paying the price. It remains to be seen, of course, whether or not Trump himself will, too.
“I think it’s this way now because Donald is not a politician,” Sunshine told me. “He doesn’t play the political games. He’s very outspoken, very forthright, and he doesn’t play the way they play in Washington.”
I asked her if she thinks he eventually will adjust.
“No—I think everybody will adjust to him,” Sunshine said. “The people who adjust to him are the people who survive.”