During the coronavirus pandemic — a time of prolonged national mourning — the president has rarely offered public displays of empathy or grief. Many who knew Fred Trump say this is yet another example of his influence on his son.
Our reporters Annie Karni and Katie Rogers spoke to over 20 of the president’s friends, family members, political allies, administration members and business associates for an article examining the complicated relationship between father and son.
Annie answered a few questions about what she learned while reporting the piece.
If you could sum up the core values that Fred Trump sought to instill in Donald, what would they be? How would you describe the importance of Fred’s influence on his son’s public and private persona?
The core worldview that Fred Trump passed on to his son was a black-and-white outlook where people are loyal or disloyal — where you win or lose, dominate or submit. He also passed on this idea that work was valued above all else (see also: Trump refusing to ever call his weeks golfing in Bedminster, N.J., anything more than a “working vacation”), and that success in the family business was basically all that counted.
In the article, you write that Fred Trump pushed his son hard to succeed — but also that he invested hundreds of millions of dollars in backstopping Donald’s business ventures, often helping him get out of financial jams. If you had to choose between one, would you say that Donald Trump was inculcated with more of an emphasis on “winning,” or on truly doing the hard work needed to get ahead?
It’s hard to separate out nature and nurture, or to figure out how much of Donald Trump’s personality comes from his upbringing and how much is simply because he was born that way. But it is clear that what matters to him is winning, and the perception of winning. Throughout his career — maybe all the way until the coronavirus — he has been able to spin his own losses as wins, and most of the time, it worked.
I interviewed people who worked with both Donald and Fred Trump, and they said that Fred always marveled at his son’s marketing and publicity skills. This was where father and son differed: Fred was a behind-the-scenes player, not a household name, and by design. He was scared and astounded by his son’s preternatural interest in selling himself. That part Donald Trump made up himself, and Fred was very proud of it.