Donald Trump
© James Ferguson

“Give him some rice, too!” Donald Trump instructs the server behind the buffet counter. Rice? I haven’t asked for rice. I’m more of a potatoes person, and that is what I have just ordered from the display cabinet, to go with my stuffed baked chicken. But if the Donald wants me to try the rice as well, it seems churlish to refuse. This, after all, is his restaurant, the Trump Grill, a wood-panelled, clubby enclave serving American fare in the basement food court of his best known Manhattan building, Trump Tower.

If truth be told, I would prefer to be ordering from the Grill’s set menu – the tourist in me wants the “Trump Grill Burger” followed by “Trump’s Ice Cream” – but the billionaire real estate developer has intimated that it would be good to try the buffet, which he tells me is “the best in New York”.

Business is not exactly brisk at the best buffet in New York. In fact, Trump and I are the only people ordering. But it is a bitter winter’s day, not the tourist season when, Trump insists, the queues down here get very long.

Tall, broad and erect, Trump looks good for his 66 years, though his gravity-defying bouffant hair is whiter and not quite as bouncy as I had expected, while wrinkles are invading the bland smoothness of the face beneath. He is wearing his familiar working uniform of grey suit, white shirt and a plain silk tie, today in bright red.

He helps me choose my chicken. “That piece looks like a winner!” he says, pointing out the plumpest, most golden-brown portion. For himself, he orders a livid beef sandwich and potatoes. As we return to our table, I marvel at his urge to lavish superlatives on the most commonplace Trump-related things. Hype seems hard-wired into him. There ought to be an adjective to describe it: trumptastic, perhaps?

But then Trump, or the “blowhard billionaire” as the New York tabloids call him, has created one of the world’s most recognisable brands through relentless self-promotion, using any available medium: he has a shelf-full of books to his name, with uplifting titles such as Think Like a Billionaire; he is a TV regular, while his own hit show The Apprentice, now rebranded Celebrity Apprentice, is about to begin its 13th US series; and he tweets avidly to his 2m followers on all things from politics (Obama's re-election was “a total sham and travesty”) to business philosophy and golf. “I’ve won many club championships,” he tells me – twice.

I am hoping that in the relaxed atmosphere of Lunch with the FT I may get beyond the outer showman but the setting is hardly confessional. The buffet means we don’t linger over a menu. Sipping Diet Coke as we wait for our dishes to arrive, I open the conversation by asking about his tastes in food (“all types – pastas, steaks …” he says) and the fact that alcohol has never passed his lips.

He leans forward, and answers carefully with press-conference formality, his voice surprisingly soft. “I’ve seen over the years too many people who have destroyed their lives with alcohol …I have some good traits and some bad traits. The bad traits I never talk about.” I joke that we can get on to those later but his face does not register amusement.

Far from breaking the ice, I seem to be thickening it. I turn the conversation to the safer subject of property and tell him we have a link: my home is on Riverside Boulevard – a cluster of newish Trump-built apartments that line the Hudson river for 10 prime blocks of the Upper West Side.

He becomes less stiff, more animated. I’m relieved but not surprised: real estate is where he started and, despite his new wrapping of showbiz glitz, is still central to his business.

The son of a self-made millionaire builder in the New York boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn, Trump was sent to a military school to install some discipline in him. He later attended Wharton business school before starting in business with his father – a hard taskmaster and profound influence. Against the elder man’s advice, he set his sights on building in glitzy Manhattan. Displaying an eye for location, a genius for self-promoting bull and extraordinary self-confidence for one so young, he had completed Trump Tower by 1983, while still in his mid-thirties.

But then came his comeuppance. The recession and property crash of the early 1990s badly hurt his operations – particularly highly-leveraged casinos and hotels in Atlantic City. Businesses there bearing the Trump brand have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection several times since. But – a vital distinction – Trump himself has never personally been bankrupt, and he has bounced back to create an empire that stretches from property, through an extraordinary array of Trump-branded goods, to entertainment. He co-owns not only The Apprentice, now a worldwide franchise, but the Miss Universe beauty pageant.

Trump Tower, where he has chosen to lunch with the FT, is still at the heart of his empire. With its bronze curtain glass walls and distinctive sawtooth design, it has worn the years well, and its location, on Fifth Avenue next to Tiffany & Co, is a shopper’s dream. Trump works here and lives at the top of the tower with his third wife, Melania, a Slovenian-born former model 24 years his junior, in an apartment of gold-plated rococo luxury with fabulous views over Central Park. It is the fantasy life of any hot-blooded teenage male.

The story of the Upper West Side development is more down to earth: the 100 acres used to be abandoned railway yards. Trump, still only in his twenties, realised that it was among the best undeveloped land on Manhattan. But it took some three decades, with extraordinary financial ups and downs and planning battles, before he finally developed the area, with Chinese backing. And his original vision, to anchor the development with a television studio and the world’s tallest building, would be watered down to a line of bland apartment blocks – since sold on.

Trump asks which building I am in. “Very good,” he says, “You have to be happy there. It’s a great place. You know I built that whole thing; it’s been very successful for me …And people love the neighbourhood!”

I point out that it took a very long time to pull off. “It’s the old story. Never give up. But I ended up making a tremendous amount of money and, perhaps more importantly, having built a city within a city …People love it. They absolutely love it. So that’s great!” He congratulates me on my good taste in real estate and I compliment him on the quality of staff his management company employs in my building. The ice is broken.

Our food arrives. There is chicken and rice on my plate but no potatoes. No matter. Trump points to his potatoes. “These are great! Do you want the potatoes or the rice?”

“I’ve got the rice,” I say, keen to avoid further delay.

I ask him what he is working on now, and he turns the conversation to Scotland, and the golf course he has built on the coast near Aberdeen, which opened last summer.

“It is very, very highly rated. Unbelievably rated. Meaning, critically, it’s been unbelievable. They are saying it is one of the best golf courses in the world.” The claim may sound trumptastic but the course has, indeed, received stellar reviews from top golfers.

Still, I say, you’ve had a lot of opposition: the development won backing from politicians and business leaders but was attacked by environmentalists and some local residents, furious that it got planning permission, despite being set amid dunes designated a site of special scientific interest.

“You know,” says Trump, “there’s always opposition when you do something big.” He runs off a list of his developments – in New York, Chicago and Scotland – that have provoked protest. “I do many things that are controversial. When people see it, they love it!” Indeed, he adds, the Scottish opposition has been tremendously good publicity, making the course an even bigger success.

The conversation pauses as a young man stops by the table and says hello. It’s Eric, the third of Trump’s five children, who, like his elder siblings Donald Jr and Ivanka, works for the Trump Organisation. He has been eating lunch in the Grill.

Eric disappears but, almost immediately, two more faces are there saying hi. It’s Donald Jr and Ivanka, and they, too, have been in the Grill, celebrating a “good deal” their father has just signed for them.

“The best restaurant in Midtown,” volunteers Ivanka, with a winning smile. “We know, because we eat here all the time!” chimes in Don Jr.

Ivanka is a celebrity in her own right, with jewellery and fragrance products – a living, breathing intergenerational line extension of the Trump brand. There is even a salad in the Grill named after her. Maybe I should have had that?

As they disappear, I am left wondering whether there is a genetic component to trumptastic utterances. “It’s good when you have the kids working with you,” says Trump, “and they are very capable.” Capable? It suddenly sounds shockingly modest.

Trump has been talking for many minutes now about his construction triumph amid “these very monumental dunes, the great dunes of Scotland, the very largest dunes in the world” without mentioning a rather substantial problem: he is now in a fight with Alex Salmond's government lest it give the go-ahead to an array of offshore windmills in sight of the Trump course, and a second one he is planning to construct.

I raise the subject. “I don’t think they’ll be built,” he says. “I built a masterpiece. I don’t want to see it destroyed by windmills. Windmills are going to be the death of Scotland and even England if they don’t do something about them. They are ruining the countryside.”

Warming to his theme, he continues: “I’ve done a great favour to Scotland and even Great Britain …A lot of people were devastated when their houses were ruined and their values destroyed when they put up a windmill near it. But they had no voice. Now they have a voice: me. I’ve empowered them to fight. And people are fighting these ugly monstrosities.”

The irony of Donald Trump as the people’s champion against monstrous development seems lost on him. And if the windmills get the green light? “I’ll bring a lawsuit and I think it will be tied up for many years in court. How’s your chicken?”

“Good,” I venture.

“Great food, isn’t it?” he says. “This place is the hottest place in New York.” I look around for confirmation. Business still seems rather desultory. It must be because it is winter.

A waiter arrives to clear our dishes. “Look at that empty plate,” Trump exclaims. “I think he liked it! For a non-heavy guy to wipe out a whole chicken, that’s pretty good! OK, good job, fellows!” he says to the staff.

Momentarily, my mind goes all trumptastic. Yes! For a “non-heavy” (in less euphemistic language, small) guy such as me to wipe out a whole chicken must be testament to my manly appetite and the amazing quality of the food. But the instant passes and I reflect that I did not eat a whole chicken, merely a thigh, and my total calorific intake was probably no more than on any other day. Still, I think, it would be nice to float with such an intoxicating, self-delusory sense of achievement all the time.

I order coffee while Trump sticks with Diet Coke. We move on to politics, where Trump has a record of heavy-handed interventions that provoke derision among Democrats and unease among Republicans. The latest was his promise in October to announce something that would change the course of the presidential election. In the event, he merely resurrected the “birther” issue – the claim that President Obama was born outside the US – and said he would give $5m to a charity of the president’s choice if Obama released college and passport applications and records. America yawned and moved on.

Did he regret this? “No, many people love me for it,” he says, and claims that he had even raised the sum at stake to $50m.

I turn the conversation to ageing: he is known for working extremely hard but is he slowing down? “No, I feel good …I’m in good health – knock on wood!” He strikes a wall panel and praises even it: “It’s nice wood!”

“If you love what you do, if you love going to the office, if you really like it, not just say it, but really like it, it keeps you young and energised. I really love what I do.” There’s a touch of real passion about this.

And his legacy? “You know I’ve become very successful over the years. I think I own among the greatest properties in the world. I’m worth more than $8bn.”

Amid the lunch civilities, this is a tricky moment. The private ownership of his company, along with his deals and extensive licensing of the Trump brand, make it hard for outsiders to gauge his fortune independently. I brace myself and say that, according to Forbes, his net worth is closer to $3bn.

Trump bats away the suggestion. “I don’t know what they say. People don’t have access to my numbers but I’m worth more than eight.” He adds that when he was thinking of running for politics, he made a filing that supports this figure. And with such wealth, he says, he doesn’t work for money any more. “I just enjoy creating things.”

Does he see himself handing the business on to his children? “Yeah, at the right time.” But, he adds, real estate people never retire. “They get older …It’s funny, we take out our cosmetic surgery on buildings instead of fixing ourselves, right?”

It is time to pay. He is amused that the FT insists on footing the bill for his lunch in his restaurant. “That’s very funny. The first time ever – usually, we just leave, right?”

He escorts me up to the pink marble lobby, lined with stalls selling all manner of Trump-branded goods: books, caps, shirts, ties, teddy bears, cologne, cufflinks. He asks how sales are going. Really well, enthuse the staff, who tell us a particularly strong seller is a tiny book of The Donald’s wisdom wrapped together in cellophane with a gold chocolate bar, stamped TRUMP.

Yet business does not seem brisk. In fact, I can see no other customers. It must be because it is winter, I tell myself as I emerge on to Fifth Avenue, my body numbed by cold and my mind by superlatives.

Martin Dickson is the FT’s US managing editor


Trump Grill

725 5th Avenue, New York

Chicken Fresco $21.00

Steak Sandwich $21.00

Diet Coke x3 $12.00

Coffee $3.00

Total (incl service) $74.06

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
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