For months now, real estate mogul and television personality Donald Trump has terrified the country by threatening to run for president. Trump says he won’t make any final decisions until May 22, when NBC plans to air the season finale of his game show, Celebrity Apprentice. But he’s certainly been acting like a candidate. He’s consulted with pollsters and campaign strategists. He’s cobbled together a platform: trade war with China and—this is not a joke—pillaging the countries America invades. He made a surprise appearance at February’s Conservative Political Action Conference. A couple of weeks ago he tried to sweet-talk Charles Krauthammer (no luck).
Above all, Trump has been attacking—bashing, pummeling, verbally assaulting—Barack Obama. He treats the president like the mutant offspring of Omarosa and Rosie O’Donnell. Obama’s birth certificate, college grades, leadership abilities, economic and foreign policies, basic motor skills—there’s nothing about this president that Donald Trump won’t question, mock, or subject to scathing criticism. As the other likely GOP candidates play Hamlet, brooding over their campaigns and debating the precise legal definition of “exploratory committee,” Trump has taken a hole-punch to the president’s reputation. And Republicans love it. Trump is neck-and-neck with Mike Huckabee, at the front of the pack of Republican 2012 hopefuls, in the Real Clear Politics poll of polls.
Still, Trump is not one to ignore his true constituency: the media. The klieg lights, camera crews, and print and television correspondents were out in force last week when Trump spent a day campaigning here. In the morning everyone assembled inside a windowless hangar at a Portsmouth air terminal. The vast room was crowded with small aircraft. A microphone bank had been placed in front of the closed hangar door. More than a dozen cameras were arrayed in a semicircle before it.
There are nine months until the Granite State primary, but Trump had attracted a presidential-sized gaggle. The only ones not there were the foreign press, but they probably just missed their connection. Space was so tight that print journalists, sandwiched between the television crews and mikes, sat Indian-style on the concrete flooring like kindergartners at story time. Every now and then a reporter would walk to the lobby, where he’d gaze out the window and search for Trump’s helicopter in the cloudy sky.
A few minutes before Trump arrived, word spread that President Obama had decided to release his long-form birth certificate. The timing couldn’t have been accidental: Trump was the most famous “birther” in the land, searching for Obama’s true identity on the Today show, The View, and (among other places) Hannity. Two days earlier he’d told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the document was “missing.” Guess not.
The huge hangar door began to rise. As it opened, inch by inch, one could see the tarmac, then the helicopter—the name “Trump” emblazoned on its side, in case he forgot where he parked—and finally the Donald himself, surrounded by aides and security guards. Trump knows how to make an entrance. He strode purposefully to the microphones and surveyed the scene. “Wow,” he said. His reddish blond hair was tossed across his scalp. He wore an ill-fitting black suit with a red power tie. He gazed into the cameras. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said. The cameramen jiggered with the machinery. Trump waited patiently for his cue. A few seconds later he got it.
“Good morning,” he said in his New York monotone. “Today I’m very proud of myself, because I’ve been able to accomplish something that no one else has been able to accomplish.” The release of Obama’s birth certificate, Trump said, was nothing less than a capitulation. “I want to look at it,” he said, “but I hope it’s true. He should’ve done it a long time ago. I feel like I’ve accomplished something really, really important. And I’m honored by it.” Trump 1, Obama 0.
Trump grew wistful at the mention of New Hampshire. “It’s a place that I’ve always liked and have been to many times,” he said. In 1988, a friend here had asked him to deliver a speech on success. Trump obliged. “The buzz was unbelievable,” he said. “It was great.” A political career was born—23 years later.
Trump has as much respect for the press as your average American, which is to say, none. “Why don’t you announce?” someone asked.
“Are you an intelligent person?” Trump replied. “I hate saying it because it sounds trivial, but I have a very, very successful show on television.” Later, the same reporter asked why Trump opposed the stimulus. “Look, I know you like Obama,” Trump said, and moved on.
One reporter asked Trump about statements he’s made in support of universal health care, progressive taxation, and other liberal shibboleths. Trump deployed the time-honored political tactic of pretending the reporter had never been born. “I’m a very strong conservative,” he said. “I think that I’m quite conservative as a Republican.” They say life is a voyage of discovery. Recently Trump has discovered he is pro-life, for limited government, and against Obamacare.
Another reporter asked Trump about an article in that morning’s Washington Post. Most of Trump’s political giving, the Post reported, has been to Democrats, including Rep. Charles Rangel and Sen. Harry Reid. Trump shrugged. “I’ve had a lot of friends who are Democrats, and a lot of friends who are Republicans,” he said. New York is a blue state, he added. His ideological and partisan elasticity may even be a strength. “When I watch Washington and see the way they fight like cats and dogs,” Trump said, he’s disgusted. “Now we’re at a stalemate. I think it’s time for people to sit down, get together, and fix this mess.”
The press conference was wide-ranging. Trump discussed Obama: “The word is, according to what I’ve read, that he was a terrible student at Occidental.” He took on the issues: “Education has always meant a lot to me. I think education is good.” He dabbled in foreign policy: Libya is a “total disaster”; China’s leaders are “much smarter” than ours. He mused on the nature of celebrity: “It’s very cool being a television star.” And he addressed the deficit: “The United States is broke.”
As he was talking, a black Chevy Suburban, a black stretch limo, and another black Suburban pulled up on the tarmac behind him.
“Mr. Trump, are you playing with us, or are we playing with you?” asked a reporter.
Trump pursed his lips, squinted, and pondered the question.
“I actually think you’re playing with me,” he said. Then he and his entourage piled into the waiting cars and drove away.
The caravan sped to the nearby Roundabout Diner and Lounge, a ’50s-style greasy spoon with checkered tablecloths and Golden Oldies playing in the background. The roadside grill was packed with breakfast regulars, as well as folks who’d shown up to see Donald Trump. That was easier said than done, because Trump toured the restaurant’s narrow aisles enveloped in an impenetrable bubble of cameras.
The flash photography was blinding. One second a dozen people would take pictures with their cell phones, the next second the photojournalists would do the same, and when your eyes recovered the first thing you saw was the back of a television camera about to decapitate you. Duck to avoid the camera, and the crowd would shove you against a table or the counter or a customer or one of Trump’s dirigible-sized guards. Amazingly, no one was harmed.
“Misteh Trump, we got a twenty-first birthday over hea’h!” someone shouted. Trump wished them well.
Someone else brought up Detroit. “You watch what’s going to happen with Detroit,” Trump said.
As the parade of cameras, reporters, and onlookers wound around the restaurant, I found myself trapped between Trump and a booth containing the members of an all-male coffee klatsch.
“Why aren’t you guys working?” Trump asked in mock outrage.
“We’re retired!” the men replied.
For the briefest of moments Trump seemed to be at a loss for words. I could almost see the wheels spinning in his head as he tried to come up with the politic thing to say: retired . . . coffee . . . old people . . . money . . . aha!
“Don’t touch Medicare, right?” Trump asked.
The men nodded their assent.
Trump met privately with a few voters in a back room. On the walls were two flat-screen televisions tuned to MSNBC, where David Gregory was analyzing Obama’s birth certificate. When Trump emerged from his meeting, he paused beneath one of the televisions to savor his victory. At last, after years of prodding and fantastic, paranoid conspiracism, Trump and the birthers had bent Obama to their will. “He should have done it a long time ago,” Trump said, to no one in particular. And then, just as quickly as they had arrived, Trump and his coterie were gone. The limo sped off to the next event.
The parking lot of the Roundabout Diner was strangely calm. A few stragglers milled about. Questions filled the air: Had the onlookers just witnessed a campaign stop, a celebrity-sighting, a publicity stunt, or all of the above? And who was playing with whom? And was it appropriate?
A blonde woman looked glum. She’d come to the diner to catch a glimpse of Trump but hadn’t anticipated the media would block her view. “I couldn’t see him,” she said. Then she thought about it some more. The morning hadn’t been a total loss, she realized. “I did see his hair.”
Matthew Continetti is opinion editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.