Donald Trump Is Thinking About Running For President ... Or Maybe Not

Apr 21, 2011
Originally published on April 21, 2011 6:00 pm

Donald Trump is making the rounds on TV and in key states to explain that he may — just possibly — be interested in running for president.

Many voters are taking his presidential aspirations seriously, but does Trump himself?

When Barack Obama, then a senator, ran for president the first time, Republicans took out ads calling him a celebrity. But Donald Trump doesn't run away from that epithet — he embraces it. One of his NBC TV shows is called Celebrity Apprentice, for crying out loud. And all the powerful, no-nonsense business acumen he brings to kicking actor Gary Busey off the show right in front of Meat Loaf, he says he'll bring to, say, conflicts with the Saudis over oil. As he recently told ABC News, it's "all about the messenger."

Ah yes ... the messenger. The developer has put together epic deals, but several of his companies have endured bankruptcy — the latest just two years ago — and he's a front man with just a slender stake in a significant number of the casinos and buildings that bear his name. This particular messenger is a showman at heart.

He's also flirted with politics before. Back on New Year's Eve 1999, Trump talked about the new millennium with NBC's Tom Brokaw, who asked him the seemingly unavoidable: Was he running for president? Trump told Brokaw that he was "looking at it seriously."

Would we take P.T. Barnum seriously if he wandered into a straw poll in Iowa? I turned to Jonathan Weisman, a veteran political reporter for The Wall Street Journal, for guidance. Weisman pointed me to polls showing Trump toward the front of the Republican pack. He reminded me that it's for the voters to decide whom to take seriously, and that in New Hampshire and Iowa, his candidacy is no joke among party activists most likely to vote in caucuses and primaries.

But there are reasons for caution. Trump has never run for office, and he hates scrutiny from the press. How much does he hate it? He once unsuccessfully sued a guy who wrote that Trump was worth only $250 million. Trump is also very aware of the financial disclosures required of actual candidates. He hasn't taken steps to create the on-the-ground organization typically needed to win primaries.

Despite these apparent stumbling blocks, Weisman says Trump has other cards to play. He directed me to the Iowa Republican Party's web site, where I was greeted by a huge picture of Trump — hair, teeth and all — promoting his keynote speech at a June fundraiser. Weisman told me he was in the state Republican headquarters on the day Trump's appearance was announced. He says that the phones lit up, but at this point, you can't separate Trump's numbers from his fame.

As Weisman says, for all of Trump's insistence that he's serious, when he's interviewed, he'll wind up talking about Celebrity Apprentice and how high its ratings are, which makes it hard to tell whether he's "boosting Donald Trump the celebrity television host or Donald Trump the candidate."

That show he can't stop talking about, by the way, would have to go away if Trump formally announced. For now, he's enjoying himself, boasting about his wealth to interviewers and tormenting senior Republican figures. For instance, Trump has given new life to the so-called birther movement by saying he's sent private investigators to Hawaii to investigate the facts of President Obama's birth there, despite a bounty of evidence proving it. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News pressed Trump about that the other day, and Trump insisted that it's "not a big part of [his] campaign."

But in fact, it's a rallying cry in TV interviews and at public appearances, including a Tea Party event last week in Florida where he told the crowd Obama is "unwilling and unable to show his birth certificate."

So look: If you're intrigued by a self-promoter with a Tea Party philosophy who's best known for plying his trade in the heart of Manhattan, you have your candidate. I'm talking, of course, about the Naked Cowboy, better known as Robert Burck, who can usually be found strumming his guitar wearing little more than briefs, leather boots, and a wide-brimmed hat.

Burck actually says he's running, so that already puts him a step ahead of Trump. The Donald, the ball is in your court.

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Donald Trump has told a lot of people that they are fired. Now, it seems he'd like to say the same to President Obama. Trump has been making the rounds on TV and in key states to explain that he may just possibly be interested in running for president. Many voters are taking his aspirations seriously, but does Trump take them seriously?

Here's NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: When Barack Obama, then a senator, ran for president the first time, Republicans took out ads calling him a celebrity. Donald Trump doesn't run away from that epithet, he embraces it. His NBC show is called "Celebrity Apprentice," for crying out loud.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Celebrity Apprentice")

Mr. DONALD TRUMP (Business Magnate): You're very talented. You're very unique. You're an amazing guy. And, Gary, you're fired.

FOLKENFLIK: Trump says he'll bring that same kind of no-nonsense business acumen to, say, the Saudis over oil. This to ABC News.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Good Morning America")

Mr. TRUMP: Oh, it's so easy, George. It's so easy. It's all about the messenger.

FOLKENFLIK: Ah, yes, the messenger. The developer has put together epic deals, but several of his companies have endured bankruptcy, the latest just two years ago. And he is a front man with just a slender stake in many of the casinos and buildings that bear his name. Trump is a showman at heart. And he's flirted with politics before.

Back on New Year's Eve 1999, Trump spoke with NBC's Tom Brokaw, who asked that question.

Mr. TOM BROKAW (Journalist): And does that mean that you're going to run for president or has this just been putting your toe in the water or gaining a little more publicity for the Trump empire?

Mr. TRUMP: Well, I'm looking at it. I'm looking at it seriously.

FOLKENFLIK: Would we take P.T. Barnum seriously if he wandered into a straw poll in Iowa? I turned for guidance to political reporter Jonathan Weisman of The Wall Street Journal. Weisman pointed me to polls showing Trump toward the front of the Republican pack.

Mr. JONATHAN WEISMAN (Political Reporter, The Wall Street Journal): You know, it's not really for you to decide, David, who to take seriously. It's really up to the voters. And if you go to New Hampshire, if you go to Iowa and you talk to Republican primary voters, you'll be surprised how many people are taking him seriously.

FOLKENFLIK: On the other hand, Trump hates scrutiny from the press. He once unsuccessfully sued a guy who wrote he was worth only $250 million. And Trump is very aware of the financial disclosures required of actual candidates. He's made little effort to build an on-the-ground campaign. But Weisman says Trump has other cards to play.

Mr. WEISMAN: If you go onto the Iowa Republican Party's website, type it up, OK, here we go. Oh, right there. There you go.

FOLKENFLIK: I instantly saw a huge picture of Trump - hair, teeth and all -advertising his appearance at a June fundraiser. The party's phones lit up the day it was announced, but Weisman said you can't separate Trump's numbers from his fame.

Mr. WEISMAN: Inevitably, in an interview, he will slip in a reference to "Celebrity Apprentice." You never know whether this is all about boosting the ratings for "Celebrity Apprentice" or really boosting the ratings for Donald Trump the presidential candidate.

FOLKENFLIK: That show would have to go away if Trump formally announced. For now, Trump is enjoying himself, boasting about his wealth and tormenting senior Republican figures. For instance, Trump has given new life to the so-called birther movement by saying he's sent P.I.s to Hawaii to investigate President Obama's birth there, despite a bounty of evidence proving it.

George Stephanopoulos of ABC News pressed Trump about that the other day.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Good Morning America")

Mr. TRUMP: Obviously Obama and his minions, they have co-opted you. And by the way, this is not a big focus of my campaign.

FOLKENFLIK: Not a big part of his campaign? It's a rallying cry. In his TV interviews and public appearances such as this Tea Party event last week in Florida.

(Soundbite of Tea Party event)

Mr. TRUMP: Obama is unwilling or unable to show his birth certificate.

FOLKENFLIK: So, look, if you're intrigued by a self-promoter with a Tea Party philosophy who's best known for plying his trade in the heart of Manhattan, you have your candidate. I'm talking about the guy typically found strumming a guitar while wearing just a pair of leather boots, a pair of briefs and a wide-brimmed hat.

Mr. ROBERT BURCK (Performer): My name is Robert Burck. I'm better known as the Naked Cowboy. I would just like to say from the heart that I believe my life story is a testament to America's promise of individual liberty.

FOLKENFLIK: Burck says he's running. So that already puts him a step ahead of Trump. The Donald, the ball is in your court.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.