In 1996, Trump Was Still in on the Joke

E. Jean Carroll’s stunning accusation forced me to remember who the president used to be.

Donald Trump and Melania Trump seated at a fancy dinner.
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump at Mar-a-Lago in 2018. His self-aggrandizing vision from 1996 has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

I don’t remember exactly when I first saw the photo. I just know it was when Donald Trump wasn’t yet president—that’s why it was still funny. The Republican nominee had been photographed in a three-piece white suit, his arm around his 14-year-old daughter Ivanka, who is bizarrely stroking his face, and the two of them are both perched, somehow, on a sculpture that looks like it depicts two parrots having sex.

The parrots are not, in fact, having sex, as Slate’s Matthew Dessem discovered. There are actually three parrots in the sculpture, and none of them are in flagrante delicto—it just looks like they are because of the angle. This is, if anything, weirder: If the parrots aren’t having sex, how strange that a photograph of Trump and his teenage daughter was taken from an angle that made it look like they were sitting next to copulating birds. Did no one notice?

For as long as I’ve been obsessed with this photo, I hadn’t known its exact origin until Thursday’s episode of The Daily. In that episode, E. Jean Carroll, Lisa Birnbach, and Carol Martin discuss Carroll’s alleged assault by Trump in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room. Carroll and Birnbach both said the attack occurred when Birnbach was in the midst of interviewing Trump for a magazine story about Mar-a-Lago. That story ran in New York magazine in February 1996, and the opening photo is the one of Trump with Ivanka perched atop the parrots. The caption reads: “A personal moment: Donald with his daughter Ivanka, poolside. You’re welcome to join them.”

The odd image fits perfectly with Birnbach’s story, which also includes a photo of a landscaped, silvery-gold Mar-a-Lago fire hydrant (caption: “All that glitters”). Trump had recently transformed Mar-a-Lago from a private estate to a pricey golf club, where one of the perks of membership was proximity to the Trump family. The piece is structured as a near-verbatim transcript of Trump leading Birnbach on an elaborate tour, one in which the future president appears to be in on the joke. Yes, we may mock his parrot sculpture, but that’s the price he’s willing to pay for free publicity. And New York magazine was certainly willing to play along. The subhead of Birnbach’s story: “Donald Trump spends the weekend with our lucky reporter inside Palm Beach’s Mar-a-Lago Club, his first-classiest, best-people-iest, most-exclusive (and yet unrestricted) vacation home–cum–not quite hotel.” In 1996, if not today, these Trumpian superlatives surely read as a harmless way for a magazine to mock its bombastic subject.

The rest of the piece offers up more of the same, and all of it reads eerily now. After Trump jokes that a top golfer will play at his club, his PR guy adds that observers will be moved to say that the player “hit it almost as good as Trump.” (No wonder Trump has delusions about his golf skills.) In another section, Trump goes on a familiarly nonsensical self-aggrandizing rant: “I deal with architects all the time. They have zero talent. I can draw better than they can. And you know, drawing is an important part of being an architect, in my opinion.” What is he talking about? He doesn’t really know himself—when Birnbach asks him why the corners of Mar-a-Lago’s pool and tennis courts are cut off, Trump says these are chaffered corners, going as far as spelling the word for her. Trump was wrong about this—it’s actually chamfered, Birnbach clarifies. But the real point is to laugh and fantasize with this silly guy who is pouring ungodly amounts of money into making his club (memberships started at $25,000 but by November 1996 had jumped to $75,000) as “gorgeous” and “perfect” as possible. “There’s never been anything like it. There never will. You could never do it again,” he explains.

Reading Birnbach’s story, and time-warping back to 1996, helped me contextualize the essay that Carroll published in New York last week. When I first read her piece, I was taken aback by her admission that she’d been worried that she would “mak[e] him more popular by revealing what he did.” I initially thought that she was referring to Trump’s victory in 2016, which came after the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tape—a sequence of events that suggests that his voters are willing to excuse if not embrace the president’s willingness to have his way with women. But upon reflection, I think Carroll is saying that her description of what happened at Bergdorf’s—Trump forcing himself on her in a dressing room—would make him seem “lusty” and “powerful.” As Birnbach’s profile shows, that’s exactly the persona Trump has sought to craft for himself. It’s an image of a cartoonish (and cartoonishly successful) man who gets whatever he wants, a self-aggrandizing vision that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s jarring to admit is that the man Carroll encountered at Bergdorf’s was desirable—she writes that “perhaps it is the dusky light but he looks prettier than ever.” For Carroll, shopping with Trump for a gift for another woman genuinely seemed like a fun game. He was flirting, and she was flirting back, because that’s how you were supposed to interact with the rich and powerful but also kind of ridiculous Donald Trump of 1996.

The line between 1996 Trump and 2019 Trump is certainly not straight. But it is clear. Trump is still as addicted to hyperbole as he was two decades ago, and still as obsessed with the notion that everything he touches is unparalleled in its greatness. In 1996, he presided over a golf club. In 2019, he’s lording over the United States. In the past 20-plus years, he’s gone from being defined by his charm to being defined by his anger. He’s no longer in on the joke. It’s disturbing to remember that not so long ago, we were all in on it together, at the expense of women like E. Jean Carroll.