Trump Once Said He's 'Too Honest' to Run for President, According to Biography

Journalist Robert Slater, who wrote the 2005 biography 'No Such Thing as Over-Exposure: Inside the Life and Celebrity of Donald Trump,' could not have known how prophetic he was.

Donald Trump.
Duardo Munoz Alvarez, AFP

In 2004, Robert (Bob) Slater, a Jewish-American journalist and writer who lived in Jerusalem, decided to write a book about Donald Trump. Until then, Slater, who had already written 16 books about key business figures, had had little interest in Trump, whom he considered to be a rather unimportant businessman. It was that year, however, that Trump became a household name in the United States, thanks to the TV reality show he hosted, “The Apprentice.” Slater decided that the time had come.

He started to interview relevant people and also asked Trump’s office for an interview with the subject of his proposed book. Shortly afterward, Slater received an astonishing email from Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s legal adviser at the time. This is the same Greenblatt who is now President Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East and who recently visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas, in an attempt to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track.

Greenblatt’s message to Slater was sharp and admonishing. He informed the journalist that Trump would not authorize a book about him and would not contribute to it in any way. Greenblatt also threatened that Trump would resort to every possible means, including legal action, to prevent the book’s publication and distribution. Slater was taken aback by the style and tone of the message, but after consulting with his publisher decided not to be deterred and to carry on with his research.

And then, as always with Trump, the unexpected happened. On May 18, 2004, Bob Slater’s phone rang. On the line was none other than Mr. Trump himself. Slater braced himself for a tongue-lashing. But the conversation went very differently. Trump was friendly and didn’t mention Greenblatt’s email. He told Slater that he’d spoken to a few of the people the journalist had already interviewed and that they had spoken of him with praise. He said he would meet with Slater in two weeks in the vaunted Trump Tower in New York.

That first meeting was followed by other sessions, some lasting several hours. Trump agreed to let Slater attend meetings in New York and elsewhere. The interviews with Trump and others, along with Slater’s presence at various events presided over by the magnate, led to the book “No Such Thing as Over-Exposure: Inside the Life and Celebrity of Donald Trump,” published by Prentice Hall in 2005, and recently reissued. The book sheds light on Trump’s character and is a highly relevant document for assessing the man who’s now president of the United States.

Slater explains what he perceived as the secret of Trump’s success. Trump, he says, receives immense public attention “because millions of people delight in getting a peek into a billionaire’s life – and he is very accommodating: Cheerfully, willingly, boastfully, he opens up his fantasy world of gilded mansions, sleek helicopters, lavishly accoutered jet planes, and beautiful women to friends and business acquaintances (often the same), with stunning disregard for his own privacy.”

Slater describes Trump’s primary traits, to which the whole world became privy during the campaign and since he entered the White House. He has an ego the size of a stadium: He frequently exaggerates and wants to be considered better, smarter and more popular than others. But all is forgiven him, because he’s one of the biggest real estate entrepreneurs in New York, a big player in the gambling world and a TV star.

In his dealings with Trump, Slater was bowled over by the man’s readiness to reveal his private world. In a speech at a jewelers’ convention in 2004, for example, “he spoke candidly of the problems of being engaged to a much younger woman.” Trump was 58 then and engaged to Melania Knauss, 25 years his junior. She is now the First Lady. He related that his ex-wife, Marla Maples, was a “wonderful woman” but “cost me a lot of money.” In contrast, when his then-recently engaged son, Donald Trump, Jr., wanted to give his fiancée a $65,000 ring, he had no objections, as he told the audience: “That seems cheap to me.”

Trump claimed at the time that he was worth $6 billion, but then as now offered no corroboration. Forbes Magazine reported then that he was worth $2.6 billion and was thus the 74th-richest person in the U.S. Slater quotes businessmen who termed Trump “the greatest salesman in the world,” but who, in contrast to others, “sells himself as much as he sells his products. Therein lies his true uniqueness.”

Slater, who died three years ago at the age of 70, was a remarkable individual in his own right. Born in New York, he immigrated to Israel with his wife, Elinor, and their son, Adam, in 1971; the couple subsequently had two daughters. Slater came to Israel as a correspondent for the UPI news agency. I met him when he and I and others would wait outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem for Golda Meir or one of her aides to brief us on the cabinet meeting or another subject. I was the diplomatic correspondent for Israel Radio and translated for Slater, who didn’t yet know Hebrew.

Some time later, he was appointed Time magazine’s correspondent in Israel and later served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association. He was also a truly prolific author, writing biographies of Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin, and also books about Jack Welch of General Electric, the Jewish investor George Soros, IBM’s Lou Gerstner and Bill Gates. All told, he wrote nearly 30 books. Throughout, Slater lived with his family in a modest home in Jerusalem’s French Hill neighborhood.

In his book about Trump, Slater notes the real estate tycoon’s obsession with what’s written and said about him in the media. Attacks on him there, whether real or imagined, are very distressful for him, according to Slater. And even if the man knows that negative publicity can be good for business, he wanted to have full control over his image. The same traits mark President Trump.

The book reveals that Trump had the idea of seeking the presidency 30 years ago, at least as a publicity gimmick. In 1987, Trump was about to publish his first book, “The Art of the Deal” (co-written with journalist Tony Schwartz), in which he discusses his methods of conducting business. To promote the book, a PR man persuaded Trump to take out full-page ads in four key newspapers – The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times – in which he assailed American foreign policy. Suddenly he “sound[ed] more like a presidential candidate than a real-estate developer or casino manager,” Slater writes.

After the ads appeared, the PR man, Don Klores, planted the idea in the media that Trump was considering running for president as a Republican. He later arranged for Trump to visit New Hampshire, ahead of the Republican presidential primary scheduled there. The media naturally asked Trump if he was going to run for president. His reply: He hadn’t yet made up his mind. We know that Trump did not enter the presidential race at that time, but his book got a lot of publicity and is still quoted today.

A decade later, it seemed once more that Trump was going to made a bid for the presidency. He himself was stunned to see that a survey conducted by the sensationalist weekly National Enquirer placed him first among potential candidates. On October 8, 1999, not long after the poll was published, Trump appeared on “Larry King Live” on CNN and was asked if he would run. He replied, “I haven’t even started campaigning yet. Now, maybe when I start campaigning, I’ll do worse. Perhaps I shouldn’t campaign at all, I’ll just, you know, I’ll ride it right into the White House.” Afterward, he did decline in the polls and gave up the idea.

Still, he prepared election-campaign photos for a possible run. “One showed him on the phone to a world leader with then-girlfriend Melania Knauss draped in an American flag across his desk, gazing up at him,” Slater writes. “Trump winced when he saw the photo. ‘This is over the top, even for me.’” The photo was shelved.

Afterward, he explained his moves. He had delivered a speech in New Hampshire as a favor for a friend, but he wasn’t running for president. Trump told Slater that Henry Kissinger had urged him to run and thought he would win. Pressed by Slater about the presidency issue, Trump replied, “It’s not my thing. I think I’m too honest in many respects. I have great respect for a great politician. It’s not easy to be a great politician, but I think I would do a good job [as president].”

In 2015, the idea of running for president again crossed Trump’s mind. It’s possible that this too started as a publicity stunt to boost his businesses and his television career, but when he triumphed over nearly 20 Republican candidates, one after another, Trump began to contemplate the idea seriously. Success generated an appetite, and then the unbelievable happened and he triumphed over Hillary Clinton, too.

More than two months after taking office as president, Trump is displaying the same traits that Bob Slater described in his book. He indulges in constant self-praise and in squabbles with the media, and he continues to be extremely sensitive to criticism of him, responding fiercely. To his ammunition box he’s added Twitter, and even now he probably believes that “there’s no such thing as over-exposure.” Time will tell whether Donald Trump is proved right again.