Mary Trump’s Truth

Listen to this episode

S1: OK, Sir Shane, you’ve had some interesting beach reading this year.

S2: Yes. It’s not how I expected to be spending my summer reading. Mary Trump and John Bolton’s books, but such as life.

S1: Shane Harris reports on national security over The Washington Post. He’s one of the few people out there with early access to the latest Trump World tells. There’ve been so many of them over the last couple of years, you’d be forgiven for wondering, is there really any more to say? But these latest books, Shane says they’ve gotten particularly blunt.

S3: To be clear, one thing I found actually interesting about Mary Trump’s book is she explicitly says she wants to take down Donald Trump. So she’s hiding her guards on why she wants this book out now.

S1: Mary Trump is Donald Trump’s niece. Her book comes out next week. Shane’s already absorbed all 240 pages of it. Last month, it was John Bolton’s memoir. He was speed reading.

S2: I do think you can read them as companions. I have no doubt that they weren’t intended to be so. But they’re both making a strikingly similar argument or really set of arguments about Donald Trump. Mary, Trump’s coming from the perspective of someone who knew him when she was growing up and knew him before, long before he became president and Bolten, obviously the perspective of someone who worked with him very closely in the White House as his national security adviser. And really, the bottom line between these two books is that Donald Trump is only in it for himself. He is without empathy. He is incapable of understanding a greater good. Everything he does is motivated by his own self-interest. And the argument that Mary Trump is making is he has always been this way.

S1: It’s a pretty brutal way to frame it. And also it kind of leans into the worst caricature of Donald Trump.

S3: Yeah, I feel that way, too. We’re used to seeing memoirs or appraisals of prominent people that, you know, have a levels of nuance and sort of do the you know, well, here’s the good and the bad. And on the one hand, yes. But on the other hand, that and, you know, really both of them are just coming at this with. No. I mean, this man is exactly who we say is who you see. What strikes me, too, is that Mary Trump is writing this. You know, from a clearly a position on the political left. I mean, she, you know, is was an avowed supporter of Hillary Clinton. And John Bolton comes at this from the far right. I mean, he’s, you know, well-known, hawkish foreign policy Republican. And yet they still come out the same side.

S1: Today on the show, a book club of sorts. It’ll give you a fresh perspective on the Trump White House. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us. So let’s start off by talking about Mary Trump’s book. It’s called Too Much and Never Enough How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man. There’s just not a lot of ambivalence at all. Talk to me a little bit about who Mary Trump is.

S3: So Mary Trump is the daughter, one of two children of Fred Trump Junior, who is Donald Trump’s older brother, often called Freddie. And Freddie was one of five Trump children and was sort of the person, I guess early on in life, you would say, was the era parents, the presumed heir to the Trump real estate business. And of course, it didn’t work out that way. Mary Trump, his daughter, grew up around her father and his extended family, as well as her mother. Her parents divorced when she was younger. What was also interesting is that her father kind of becomes this black sheep, if you will, of the Trump family and actually is living a life that is quite distinct from the one that his younger brother and other siblings are living.

S1: He wanted to be a pilot, right.

S3: He did become a pilot for a time. Yes. He was a pilot for CWA. He had a extremely serious alcohol addiction, which ultimately ended it. And he made it so he could no longer be a commercial pilot. We had to give that up. But he’s still maintain an interest in aviation and in boating, which were two things that his father regarded as pointless recreational pursuits and really aggravated. And whenever his father heard that Freddie was off boating again or was off flying somewhere, he just he got really upset by this. And again, it pointed out, you know, what a ne’er do well or a I guess, you know, a low for he thought that his son was as opposed to his younger son, Donald, who seemed to be only interested in running the family business. So Mary Trump, not only as a part of the family, but she’s sort of this eyewitness to the tension that exists both between her father and his father as well as her father and her uncle, Donald Trump. And it’s that triangular set of relationships that she sees as having, you know, really influenced all of them and ultimately being the most profound influence on Donald Trump, the president.

S1: I mean, she describes a family very much controlled by Fred Trump, senior Donald Trump’s father. I think he even calls him a sociopath.

S3: She does at one point call him a sociopath and says that this is you know, what the sociopath does is co-ops others towards his ends. Her argument there is that that is what Fred Trump did with Donald Trump when he realized that Freddie was, you know, in his eyes, I guess, good for nothing and was not going to be the the inheritor or the heir that he had hoped that he would be. It is a family in which the disappointment of the father is sort of what the children fear. It’s his rules only. He’s not a physically abusive man, as she describes him, but definitely emotionally so. And she paints in the picture of her father and her uncle, Donald Trump, two very different reactions to the elder Trump. Her father is someone who is much more sensitive, much more inward. And I think it’s fair to say kinds of retreats from his father, even though he’s trying to please him, but he just can’t live up to his expectations. Donald, on the other hand, embodies what his father would see as his words, the killer. He has this instinct to always win, to beat other people, that life is a zero sum game. So there’s some kind of natural instinct, I guess, for Donald, but he kind of goes out of his way. Is Mary Trump described as to always demonstrate this aptitude to his father? And what’s really fascinating is this. As Donald Trump gets older, she writes, his father begins to envy him for his ability to not just beat other people, but to flout convention, to break the rules. You know, all of the things that we now know Trump doing as president. He was doing when he was younger in the business world. And his father is sort of in all of his own son and kind of can’t believe how he’s gone beyond what it was that he hoped to create. You know, she compares it to Frankenstein’s monster.

S1: So I feel like we can’t go much further without sort of exploring Mary Trump’s motivations. I mean, you’ve mentioned she’s liberal and she says that the beginning of the book, I don’t want him re-elected. So she’s pretty straightforward about what she wants to do here. She was also cut out of the family wealth, right, because her father died. And so she wasn’t able to inherit from him his share of what he would have gotten from his father.

S2: That’s right. And and that is a real point of contention, not I think, because she is so concerned about the money as she writes that she’s more concerned about the fairness, what she sees it after her father been dead for some time than her grandfather dies and it comes time to divvy up his estate or to allocate it anyway among the surviving children.

S3: She sees her father essentially being erased. And that, you know. Enrages her and believes that it’s yet another indignity that’s been done to this man who suffered his whole life trying to make everyone happy. And she sued over this, right? Yeah, she she essentially what she did was she refused to sign off on the will when it was told, which would have let it go into probate. So she and her brother, by refusing to go along with what she says is like the one tenth of one percent of the estate that the family would have paid her, held up the works for two years. And this did become a legal matter with, you know, the lawyers going back and forth on it. She ultimately in she and her brother signed a settlement. The terms of which were not disclosed. But importantly, when she does that, she does it, believing that the estimate that her family has given her of the total value of her grandfather’s estate is probably a lowball. But, you know, is roughly around 30 million dollars. She later finds out it’s actually a billion dollars. So she now believes that she signed this settlement and accompanying nondisclosure requirements that go with it on false pretenses and that the family defrauded her, which is an argument that she’s making now for why that nondisclosure requirement should no longer hold.

S1: And so she has a bone to pick with the family. And she was also the source of that big tax story in The New York Times, which painstakingly argued how the Trump family business, he had money from the government. And just hearing you tell it, you can see how that’s deeply connected to her grievances.

S2: Yeah, totally. I mean, she this is someone who has the more she dug into her family and the case of these files that she had as part of the lawsuit literally dug into the files. The more she came to believe that they were lying to her and that they were trying to pull one over on her and just kind of delete her father from the picture. And with him, you know, herself and her brother Fritz, you know, she does come at this from a point of real grievance. And, you know, and I think, you know, frankly, admirably, she lays that all out in the book. She’s not hiding it. And then there are parts where, frankly, it is hard to separate to some degree kind of that grievance of the picture that she’s painting. But she’s also painting a portrait that’s been, you know, flushed out by journalists in some cases. We have heard stories about the Trump family and how they operated. And that portrait, you know, really does line up quite a lot with what we’ve heard elsewhere. So, you know, while she does have a bone to pick, you know, at the same time, I think that she’s rendering a pretty credible picture of what family life was like.

S1: And there are plenty of gossipy details in the book, like she alleges that Donald Trump paid someone to take his essay tease for him. And she says the president saw her in a bathing suit when she was younger and marveled that she was attacked, quote unquote. I wonder if there was a particular story that stood out to you because there are just so many of them.

S2: Yeah, there they are. You know, in a lot of them are allegations. I mean, it’s it’s hard to substantiate that. For instance, the S.A.T. claim. But there’s one that really stands out to me and kind of made me laugh out loud because it was just it was so revealing in so many ways. It’s when she’s she’s younger. I mean, I think she felt would have been, you know, in her in her room, 10 years old or so. And Trump is married recently to Ivana. And Christmas’s at the Trump house were always a big deal, but they were always very formal. You know, they sat in this living room and they only used twice a year and they open presence. And she writes that Trump and Ivana for Christmas gave her one of those gift baskets wrapped in cellophane that has like cheese and crackers and a sausage in it, which appeared to be something that looked like a re gift to begin with. But also, it’s like you’re giving this, you know, child basically, you know, like a Pepperidge Farm basket. It’s a little strange. And she’s unwrapping the cellophane and she sees that there’s this like depression in the packing material where they’re clearly used to be something that has been removed from the basket and then wrapped back up again.

S3: And she did Deuce’s with a member of her family that it was probably a tin of caviar. So the implication is that her uncle and her new on re gift her a food basket. But first, take the good stuff out for themselves.

S1: Yikes. Part of what makes this book so fascinating to me is that Mary Trump has a P. D in psychology. And there have been so many armchair psychologists who’ve looked from the outside at this presidency and this president and tried to analyze what’s going on in his mind. And so it’s interesting to me to see an actual psychologist with actual access try to put into words motivations for how the president is behaving.

S2: Yeah, I agree. This this book is both a family memoir and a work of psychoanalysis, if I can use that term. You know, she is careful not to say I am diagnosing him with the following. Conditions she does raise conditions that he might have, and it kind of seems to indicate that, yeah, he probably does. But what she is doing is saying the man you see before you today is a product of the following influences. And this is what I think is going on in his mind. And these are the black holes that he is constantly trying to fill. For her, it really comes down to kind of two big ideas. One is that his parents never loved him. They never nurtured him. And so he is constantly trying to fill this void that he never got from his parents. And the other is that he’s living in a constant state of fear. And it’s fear of failure. Fear of ridicule. Fear of contempt. And I think we clearly see that in the way that he is constantly exaggerating everything. Everything is the best. It’s the greatest. It’s the number one. I go back to that time when he gotten those that word salad where he talked about how he tested negative for the Corona virus, but he kept trying to say that was positive. He tested negatively in the positive direction. And it was like this weird impulse to say positive, positive, positive, not negative.

S4: Yeah, I tested positively for negative. Right. So I tested perfectly this morning, admitting meeting. I tested negative.

S1: She says Donald Trump grew up institutionalized. I thought that was such an interesting way to put it. Can you unpack that a little bit? Explain it.

S2: Yeah, it’s a really interesting use of the term. And she says and he’s still institutionalized in the White House. What she means to say by that is he’s constantly grown up in places where there were sort of people around him expecting things where there were rules that were put in place, even though he frequently broke them. So you’re thinking about, you know, the domineering household with Trump Senior to begin with. You know, then he goes off when he’s younger to the New York Military Academy. So there he is in a place where he’s in this institution that’s trying to, you know, contain him and sculpt him. He goes from there to, you know, he goes off to college and then he’s working for the family business, which has its own structure with its own expectations, its own rules, its own cultures. It sounds like it’s he’s protected. She very much says that. Yes. I mean, he is surrounded by people who are guiding and protecting him. And I think that this is another thing that’s one of the paradoxes that she draws, is that while he is defiant and breaking rules and might come across as some kind of, you know, rebellious individual who is charting his own path, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth, is what she’s saying. He’s constantly operating within these environments where people are making excuses for him. They’re protecting him. They’re covering up his mistakes. The biggest enabler of all being his father. You know, Trump senior, who, you know, continues pouring money into his failing enterprises, who, you know, famously went and bought millions of dollars of poker chips as a way of giving him a kind of under the table loan to try and fail at a casino. And there, too, is another example of that kind of that Trump family institution, if you like, covering up for and bailing out literally in some cases, the favorite son.

S1: The one thing that stood out in all of my reading about this book to me is the fact that married Trump’s brother Fritz, who you’ve mentioned before, they both sued the family over being cut out of the well. He’s come out against this book saying, I was provided for by the Trump family. And, you know, I don’t stand behind what my sister is saying. And you’d expect he might share some of her same motivations. So I wonder I wonder what you make of that.

S2: You know, it’s a really interesting question. And I guess what I think about is. We’ve seen instances in the past where, you know, children of or relatives of prominent people have come out with memoirs that are then denounced by people close to them. So I think that in memoir, there’s always going to be an element of this. And it’s important to view Mary Trump’s book as a memoir. It’s not journalism. So it doesn’t surprise me that, you know, her brother can say, look, this isn’t the portrait. I agree with I don’t like how she. Well, I don’t like her motivations or how she’s doing what she’s doing. I don’t think it invalidates her memoir. I just think it emphasizes the degree to which this is Mary Trump’s perspective.

S1: OK, let’s talk about John Bolton’s book, because I think it’s interesting to look at these two together and see how they reinforce each other a little bit. So John Bolton’s book is called The Room Where It Happens. What? What are some of the most damning allegations here? This is an adviser writing this book who only really knew President Trump for a few years. He didn’t grow up with them.

S2: Yeah, I think that was the most damning characterization, certainly is that the president is not qualified to be president. He’s just not up to the job. He’s an apt. The specific allegations that I found most stunning actually had very little to do with Ukraine, which is what everyone thought that John Bolton was going to like, you know, finally, you know, deliver the goods on. All he did was just corroborate what we already knew. Probably the biggest one was on China, where he actually alleges that the president, in a conversation with the Chinese leadership, Xing Ping, encouraged him to essentially interfere in American politics by buying soybeans from farmers in the Midwest to boost Trump’s chances of being reelected and to bolster his support with those groups. And also Trump’s acquiescence, says Bolton writes to the government of China, taking Wickers Muslim Chinese people and putting them into concentration camps and essentially saying, yeah, fine, that that’s all good. Let’s just focus on the soybeans part. So that’s that’s a pretty stunning allegation.

S3: And Bolton even says it was, in his words, impeachment, malpractice for Democrats not to go after what he sees as these, you know, more troubling and damnable acts. No, never mind. He didn’t tell the Congress about them. And then there’s also interactions that the president had repeatedly with President Erdogan of Turkey, which revolve around Erdogan’s desire to get the Justice Department to stop an investigation into a Turkish bank for fear that it will implicate Erdogan and his family. And Trump at one point essentially says, you know, yeah, don’t worry about this. I’ll take care of it when I get my people installed at the U.S. attorney’s office in New York. So it’s another one of these like, you know, red alarm kind of moments where Bolton where he says, you know, the president has repeatedly not just violating norms and customs, but I mean, he’s manipulating the powers of government and a foreign policy making for his personal and political interests.

S1: Yeah, I think Bolton says that the only guiding principle he could discern from this White House was to be re-elected. Political gain, essentially.

S2: That’s right. And, you know, in a lot of people might hear him say that and react with, well, don’t all presidents act in their political interest? I mean, isn’t the whole point to get reelected? And yes, of course they do. But the distinction that Bolton is is drawing here, and it’s important to underscore, is that in his telling, Donald Trump is incapable of acting in the national interest. He doesn’t have the ability to perceive what that would be. The idea that, you know, your political fortunes and the best interest of the country can align and the best presidents and policymakers know how to bring those two together. Donald Trump doesn’t have a concept of the national interest. It’s only the Donald Trump interest. And in a way, I think what Bolton is saying here, without kind of using the psychoanalytic language of Mary Trump, is that this is one of Donald Trump’s pathologies, is that he cannot bring these two worlds together. He only exists in the world of the self.

S1: After reading these books, I wonder what you think each of these authors wanted to accomplish with what they wrote and whether they wanted to accomplish something similar or something different.

S2: I do think that both Bolton and Mary Trump want Donald Trump not to be elected again. I think that they are trying to forcefully warn people about what they see as the danger of his presidency and of his personality. So in that sense, they have a lot in common. I think where they differ is that Bolton really wants. I think people to focus on what he sees as the damage that Trump is doing to the institution of the presidency and the way he is perverting political tradition and the United States and the risk that that causes of long term damage. What Mary Trump is doing is trying to explain the person of Donald Trump as a. Product of this cauldron in which he was brought up as someone who is the end result of a kind of family culture that prized loyalty and aggression above empathy and above sharing and above selflessness. It’s a much more of a personal portrayal. But I think that the reason they work so well together is because they both have the benefit of being published in a country where, you know, we all can see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears what the president does and says every day. So, you know, you could read either of these books and say, all right, well, we’ll just take those that, you know, get it for for further the testimony of the authors. But then go on Twitter, you know, turn on the television, read the paper and see what the president is doing and see for yourself whether that lines up with the evidence that’s being marshaled in the books and the arguments that these authors are making.

S1: Does it make a difference to you that either John Bolton or Mary Trump, that they’ve sort of waited to put these allegations out there and put them out on their own terms in a way that they could profit from them?

S2: Well, you know, as a journalist, look, I want to encourage, you know, every public official that every person close to someone empowered to whenever they’re ready to come out and talk. And I don’t see anything a principle wrong with them being compensated for the work. I guess I would say that Bolton’s decision to publish seems more problematic to me in the sense that he had an opportunity to testify before Congress. You know, putting aside that he has an argument for why he was unable to do that. You know, the cynical argument which I’m persuaded by more and more, is that he wanted to do that because he wanted to promote book sales. And he and he seems quite dismissive of the whole impeachment effort anyway. So I’m not sure he felt all that badly about having not availed himself of the opportunity to testify to Congress. Mary Trump’s is different, though. I mean, you know, she’s the you know, the timing. It’s notable, right? It’s coming out. You know, not long before an election, although they did speed up the publication date because they were, I think, part of it, partly because these legal battles they’ve been involved in. But she does write in the book about how she’s wrestled with the question of whether or not to speak out. And she’s honest about the process that she went through. And in sort of deciding to do it, she could have spoken out during the election. And she and she talks about that. And frankly, I think needs to say a bit more about why exactly she didn’t. Was it just the NDA or was it something else going on, the family? But, you know, she’s at least, I think, honest with her struggle about when to speak.

S1: And the fact that she’s doing it now, even if it’s, you know, maybe, you know, arguably a little bit late, if she thought this was important for people to know four years ago that she’s laying all our cards on the table, something I keep thinking about with both of these books is that over the last three years, there has just been explosive book after explosive book, an allegation after allegation, and none of these explosive allegations have exploded much of anything. Do you think this will be any different?

S2: No, I don’t. It’s the question of like, is this going to move the needle? I think the answer is no. Again, speaking as a journalist, that’s very frustrating because, you know, I want people’s minds to be changed just objectively. I want us to be able to change our minds based on having new information to say nothing of, you know, just the president for a moment. But in this context, where we are now with this just, you know, hyperpolarized environment in which we live and in which we have no shortage of information about Donald Trump on a daily basis, I think people have made up their minds. I don’t think that makes these books less valuable or less important. But I think that particularly with Mary Trump’s book, the way to think about it is not as whether it has news value or whether it change people’s mind. It’s more to read about it as a portrait of this extraordinarily consequential and important person, Donald Trump.

S5: Shane Harris, thank you so much for joining me. My pleasure. Always great to talk to you. Shane Harris covers intelligence and national security for The Washington Post. And that’s it. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon and Daniel Hewett. We get help each and every day from Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt. Tomorrow, you can catch Henry Goodbar. He’s filling in for Lizzie O’Leary on what next TBD. She’s off right now because she just had a baby. Congratulations, Lizzie. Henry is going to be talking about the future of cities. This is a whole series is doing. You’ll really want to tune in. All right. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll catch you back here Monday.