Last June, as dusk fell outside Tony Schwartz’s sprawling house, on a leafy back road in Riverdale, New York, he pulled out his laptop and caught up with the day’s big news: Donald J. Trump had declared his candidacy for President. As Schwartz watched a video of the speech, he began to feel personally implicated.
Trump, facing a crowd that had gathered in the lobby of Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue, laid out his qualifications, saying, “We need a leader that wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ ” If that was so, Schwartz thought, then he, not Trump, should be running. Schwartz dashed off a tweet: “Many thanks Donald Trump for suggesting I run for President, based on the fact that I wrote ‘The Art of the Deal.’ ”
Schwartz had ghostwritten Trump’s 1987 breakthrough memoir, earning a joint byline on the cover, half of the book’s five-hundred-thousand-dollar advance, and half of the royalties. The book was a phenomenal success, spending forty-eight weeks on the Times best-seller list, thirteen of them at No. 1. More than a million copies have been bought, generating several million dollars in royalties. The book expanded Trump’s renown far beyond New York City, making him an emblem of the successful tycoon. Edward Kosner, the former editor and publisher of New York, where Schwartz worked as a writer at the time, says, “Tony created Trump. He’s Dr. Frankenstein.”
Starting in late 1985, Schwartz spent eighteen months with Trump—camping out in his office, joining him on his helicopter, tagging along at meetings, and spending weekends with him at his Manhattan apartment and his Florida estate. During that period, Schwartz felt, he had got to know him better than almost anyone else outside the Trump family. Until Schwartz posted the tweet, though, he had not spoken publicly about Trump for decades. It had never been his ambition to be a ghostwriter, and he had been glad to move on. But, as he watched a replay of the new candidate holding forth for forty-five minutes, he noticed something strange: over the decades, Trump appeared to have convinced himself that he had written the book. Schwartz recalls thinking, “If he could lie about that on Day One—when it was so easily refuted—he is likely to lie about anything.”
It seemed improbable that Trump’s campaign would succeed, so Schwartz told himself that he needn’t worry much. But, as Trump denounced Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” near the end of the speech, Schwartz felt anxious. He had spent hundreds of hours observing Trump firsthand, and felt that he had an unusually deep understanding of what he regarded as Trump’s beguiling strengths and disqualifying weaknesses. Many Americans, however, saw Trump as a charmingly brash entrepreneur with an unfailing knack for business—a mythical image that Schwartz had helped create. “It pays to trust your instincts,” Trump says in the book, adding that he was set to make hundreds of millions of dollars after buying a hotel that he hadn’t even walked through.
In the subsequent months, as Trump defied predictions by establishing himself as the front-runner for the Republican nomination, Schwartz’s desire to set the record straight grew. He had long since left journalism to launch the Energy Project, a consulting firm that promises to improve employees’ productivity by helping them boost their “physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual” morale. It was a successful company, with clients such as Facebook, and Schwartz’s colleagues urged him to avoid the political fray. But the prospect of President Trump terrified him. It wasn’t because of Trump’s ideology—Schwartz doubted that he had one. The problem was Trump’s personality, which he considered pathologically impulsive and self-centered.
Schwartz thought about publishing an article describing his reservations about Trump, but he hesitated, knowing that, since he’d cashed in on the flattering “Art of the Deal,” his credibility and his motives would be seen as suspect. Yet watching the campaign was excruciating. Schwartz decided that if he kept mum and Trump was elected he’d never forgive himself. In June, he agreed to break his silence and give his first candid interview about the Trump he got to know while acting as his Boswell.
“I put lipstick on a pig,” he said. “I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is.” He went on, “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”
If he were writing “The Art of the Deal” today, Schwartz said, it would be a very different book with a very different title. Asked what he would call it, he answered, “The Sociopath.”
The idea of Trump writing an autobiography didn’t originate with either Trump or Schwartz. It began with Si Newhouse, the media magnate whose company, Advance Publications, owned Random House at the time, and continues to own Condé Nast, the parent company of this magazine. “It was very definitely, and almost uniquely, Si Newhouse’s idea,” Peter Osnos, who edited the book, recalls. GQ, which Condé Nast also owns, had published a cover story on Trump, and Newhouse noticed that newsstand sales had been unusually strong.
Newhouse called Trump about the project, then visited him to discuss it. Random House continued the pursuit with a series of meetings. At one point, Howard Kaminsky, who ran Random House then, wrapped a thick Russian novel in a dummy cover that featured a photograph of Trump looking like a conquering hero; at the top was Trump’s name, in large gold block lettering. Kaminsky recalls that Trump was pleased by the mockup, but had one suggestion: “Please make my name much bigger.” After securing the half-million-dollar advance, Trump signed a contract.
Around this time, Schwartz, who was one of the leading young magazine writers of the day, stopped by Trump’s office, in Trump Tower. Schwartz had written about Trump before. In 1985, he’d published a piece in New York called “A Different Kind of Donald Trump Story,” which portrayed him not as a brilliant mogul but as a ham-fisted thug who had unsuccessfully tried to evict rent-controlled and rent-stabilized tenants from a building that he had bought on Central Park South. Trump’s efforts—which included a plan to house homeless people in the building in order to harass the tenants—became what Schwartz described as a “fugue of failure, a farce of fumbling and bumbling.” An accompanying cover portrait depicted Trump as unshaven, unpleasant-looking, and shiny with sweat. Yet, to Schwartz’s amazement, Trump loved the article. He hung the cover on a wall of his office, and sent a fan note to Schwartz, on his gold-embossed personal stationery. “Everybody seems to have read it,” Trump enthused in the note, which Schwartz has kept.
“I was shocked,” Schwartz told me. “Trump didn’t fit any model of human being I’d ever met. He was obsessed with publicity, and he didn’t care what you wrote.” He went on, “Trump only takes two positions. Either you’re a scummy loser, liar, whatever, or you’re the greatest. I became the greatest. He wanted to be seen as a tough guy, and he loved being on the cover.” Schwartz wrote him back, saying, “Of all the people I’ve written about over the years, you are certainly the best sport.”
And so Schwartz had returned for more, this time to conduct an interview for Playboy. But to his frustration Trump kept making cryptic, monosyllabic statements. “He mysteriously wouldn’t answer my questions,” Schwartz said. After twenty minutes, he said, Trump explained that he didn’t want to reveal anything new about himself—he had just signed a lucrative book deal and needed to save his best material.
“What kind of book?” Schwartz said.
“My autobiography,” Trump replied.
“You’re only thirty-eight—you don’t have one yet!” Schwartz joked.
“Yeah, I know,” Trump said.
“If I were you,” Schwartz recalls telling him, “I’d write a book called ‘The Art of the Deal.’ That’s something people would be interested in.”
“You’re right,” Trump agreed. “Do you want to write it?”
Schwartz thought it over for several weeks. He knew that he would be making a Faustian bargain. A lifelong liberal, he was hardly an admirer of Trump’s ruthless and single-minded pursuit of profit. “It was one of a number of times in my life when I was divided between the Devil and the higher side,” he told me. He had grown up in a bourgeois, intellectual family in Manhattan, and had attended élite private schools, but he was not as wealthy as some of his classmates—and, unlike many of them, he had no trust fund. “I grew up privileged,” he said. “But my parents made it clear: ‘You’re on your own.’ ” Around the time Trump made his offer, Schwartz’s wife, Deborah Pines, became pregnant with their second daughter, and he worried that the family wouldn’t fit into their Manhattan apartment, whose mortgage was already too high. “I was overly worried about money,” Schwartz said. “I thought money would keep me safe and secure—or that was my rationalization.” At the same time, he knew that if he took Trump’s money and adopted Trump’s voice his journalism career would be badly damaged. His heroes were such literary nonfiction writers as Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, and David Halberstam. Being a ghostwriter was hackwork. In the end, though, Schwartz had his price. He told Trump that if he would give him half the advance and half the book’s royalties he’d take the job.
Such terms are unusually generous for a ghostwriter. Trump, despite having a reputation as a tough negotiator, agreed on the spot. “It was a huge windfall,” Schwartz recalls. “But I knew I was selling out. Literally, the term was invented to describe what I did.” Soon Spy was calling him “former journalist Tony Schwartz.”
Schwartz thought that “The Art of the Deal” would be an easy project. The book’s structure would be simple: he’d chronicle half a dozen or so of Trump’s biggest real-estate deals, dispense some bromides about how to succeed in business, and fill in Trump’s life story. For research, he planned to interview Trump on a series of Saturday mornings. The first session didn’t go as planned, however. After Trump gave him a tour of his marble-and-gilt apartment atop Trump Tower—which, to Schwartz, looked unlived-in, like the lobby of a hotel—they began to talk. But the discussion was soon hobbled by what Schwartz regards as one of Trump’s most essential characteristics: “He has no attention span.”
In those days, Schwartz recalls, Trump was generally affable with reporters, offering short, amusingly immodest quotes on demand. Trump had been forthcoming with him during the New York interview, but it hadn’t required much time or deep reflection. For the book, though, Trump needed to provide him with sustained, thoughtful recollections. He asked Trump to describe his childhood in detail. After sitting for only a few minutes in his suit and tie, Trump became impatient and irritable. He looked fidgety, Schwartz recalls, “like a kindergartner who can’t sit still in a classroom.” Even when Schwartz pressed him, Trump seemed to remember almost nothing of his youth, and made it clear that he was bored. Far more quickly than Schwartz had expected, Trump ended the meeting.
Week after week, the pattern repeated itself. Schwartz tried to limit the sessions to smaller increments of time, but Trump’s contributions remained oddly truncated and superficial.
“Trump has been written about a thousand ways from Sunday, but this fundamental aspect of who he is doesn’t seem to be fully understood,” Schwartz told me. “It’s implicit in a lot of what people write, but it’s never explicit—or, at least, I haven’t seen it. And that is that it’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes, and even then . . . ” Schwartz trailed off, shaking his head in amazement. He regards Trump’s inability to concentrate as alarming in a Presidential candidate. “If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time,” he said.
In a recent phone interview, Trump told me that, to the contrary, he has the skill that matters most in a crisis: the ability to forge compromises. The reason he touted “The Art of the Deal” in his announcement, he explained, was that he believes that recent Presidents have lacked his toughness and finesse: “Look at the trade deficit with China. Look at the Iran deal. I’ve made a fortune by making deals. I do that. I do that well. That’s what I do.”
But Schwartz believes that Trump’s short attention span has left him with “a stunning level of superficial knowledge and plain ignorance.” He said, “That’s why he so prefers TV as his first news source—information comes in easily digestible sound bites.” He added, “I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.” During the eighteen months that he observed Trump, Schwartz said, he never saw a book on Trump’s desk, or elsewhere in his office, or in his apartment.
Other journalists have noticed Trump’s apparent lack of interest in reading. In May, Megyn Kelly, of Fox News, asked him to name his favorite book, other than the Bible or “The Art of the Deal.” Trump picked the 1929 novel “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Evidently suspecting that many years had elapsed since he’d read it, Kelly asked Trump to talk about the most recent book he’d read. “I read passages, I read areas, I’ll read chapters—I don’t have the time,” Trump said. As The New Republic noted recently, this attitude is not shared by most U.S. Presidents, including Barack Obama, a habitual consumer of current books, and George W. Bush, who reportedly engaged in a fiercely competitive book-reading contest with his political adviser Karl Rove.