President Donald Trump on Friday signed a deal for far less money than he wanted to start to put up a tiny fraction of some slat-fence variety of the long-promised border wall he says he’s been building but hasn’t. It was clearly a loss. He still called it a win.
“Nobody’s done the job that we’ve done on the border,” Trump said in the midst of his meandering Rose Garden remarks. No matter the money, we’re getting it done. “Whether it’s $8 billion or $2 billion or 1½ billion, it’s going to build a lot of wall. We’re getting it done.”
Trump declaring a national emergency: a first. Trump painting over inconvenient facts: not at all a first. His whole life, from courtrooms and boardrooms in New York to the suites and the jangling halls of his casinos in New Jersey to his unlikely political ascent and now his two-plus haywire years in the White House, Trump unceasingly has suffered setbacks but nonetheless dubbed them successes. There are people, of course, who see him as little more than a scattershot incompetent, but to settle for that characterization is to miss this vital part of his M.O. It’s one of his most uncommon and undeniable talents—a stubborn and often effective refusal to allow others to define his victories and defeats.
The current situation, though, could be his most challenging rebranding effort yet. The wall, after all, was the evocative underpinning of his candidacy, chant-ready chum, an unsubtle cross between a policy position and a race-laced call to arms. As a piece of pure imagery, it’s been surpassed perhaps only by the red MAGA hat. But his “great, great,” “big, beautiful wall” remains Trump’s political lifeblood. It either will or won’t exist, and that could determine his political future.
“I think he’s in big trouble if he can’t build it,” former campaign aide Sam Nunberg, who says he’s the one who had the idea of the wall as a winning issue for Trump, told me. “If he’s not getting anything done, I think it’s terrible for his re-elect.”
And with the 2020 presidential campaign ramping up with a growing register of Democrats vying for the right to attempt to take down Trump, all while special counsel Robert Mueller and emboldened foes in Congress intensity their investigations into him, his family, his associates, his businesses and his administration, he’s staring at an unprecedented challenge. Even with his Twitter-torqued bully pulpit, Trump has never had less capacity to single-handedly control a storyline. There simply are too many people with too much power of their own who stand ready and eager to hold him to account for any perceived failure. Polls and pundits—most painfully fellow Republicans—provide feedback openly complicating his self-serving narrative.
This swirling battlefront underscores the chasm between a deal cut in the business world, in which Trump could steamroll the post-handshake fanfare, and a compromise struck at the highest-profile, highest-stakes, uppermost echelon of politics. Whether Trump in this case, too, can convince a consequential percentage of the electorate he’s the one who won here remains to be seen. But people who know him well are certain he will try.
“He’ll take it and say that he engineered it and that he saved the country,” former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res said.
“He’s going to find a way to save face,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell said. “He’s not going to quit on this one, I don’t think, because the embarrassment is just too great for him right now.”
“I have no doubt that he will find ways of casting this as a partial victory to be completed,” said Steve Robinson, an architect who was one of the many residents of Manhattan’s Upper West Side who worked for years in the 1980s and ‘90s to prevent Trump from building the gargantuan, skyline-altering Trump City project that was to be the developer’s career-defining accomplishment. Robinson has written a forthcoming book about it titled Turf War.
The tale of Trump City actually might be the chapter in Trump’s past that’s most useful to mull while watching the unfolding wall fight. Because his antagonists were materially successful, limiting him to smaller, shorter buildings, no phallic centerpiece and a park on the bank of the Hudson River. So, too, though, in the end, in his own inimitable fashion, was Trump, who ultimately emerged hundreds of millions of dollars richer than he would have been without the transaction as a whole. “He’s very skilled,” Robinson granted, “at taking a loss, taking a hit, and using his public relations and branding skill to call it a win. And I think that is pervasive in terms of his behavior.”
The track record reaches back almost half a century.
In the ‘70s, after settling a federal lawsuit that alleged racist rental practices in the outer-borough apartments he and his father owned and ran, the Department of Justice described the agreement as “one of the most far-reaching ever negotiated.” The headline in the New York Amsterdam News, the city’s black newspaper: “Minorities win housing suit.” Trump said it was a win, too—for him. “This,” he told the Daily News, “is a landmark settlement, in that it upholds the right of real estate owners who abide by the provisions of the Fair Housing Act from being harassed for alleged discrimination without supporting facts or documentation.” With aid and encouragement from Roy Cohn, he then dawdled on compliance with such temerity and for so many years he was able to sidestep the more punitive effects of the decree. “It just kind of petered out,” a DOJ attorney who worked on the case told me.
In the ‘80s, as the owner of the New Jersey Generals of the second-rate United States Football League, he spearheaded a brazen antitrust effort against the National Football League. It failed. It was immediately clear the defeat in court was a kill shot for the entire league—and a colossal loss for Trump. “We won a great moral victory,” he insisted. “We expect to win a total victory.” A judge in an appeals court not only upheld the ruling but mostly blamed Trump. “Suicide,” he said. Trump blamed the league. “That wasn’t a Trump thing,” he would say decades later.
The list goes on. His Trump Shuttle lasted for less than three years and ended up almost a quarter of a billion dollars in debt. “I ran it really well,” he said. His first marriage exploded because of his adultery, and he simultaneously teetered on the precipice of financial ruin, and yet he turned the tawdry tabloid headlines of early 1990 into oxygen to stoke his celebrity. He marveled and reveled. “Some story,” he said. A litany of his ventures (Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, Trump Mortgage, Trump University …) have been failures in every respect but the spreading of his name. His casinos filed for bankruptcy five times. “I don’t think it’s a failure,” he said. “It’s a success.”
And on the Upper West Side, on 76 acres of old rail yards, the most important, illustrative plot of land in his life this side of 725 Fifth and 1600 Pennsylvania avenues, Trump unveiled a series of dramatic models, drawings and renderings of his objectives—staggering banks of towers, all flanking the cynosure of the world’s tallest building. Robinson and legions of others said no. Trump stood pat. He’d wait them out, he assured. Ultimately, though, weakened by his adversaries’ organized, well-funded resistance as well as his own outbursts, missteps and economic distress, Trump dropped his long-held stance of intransigence, essentially rolled over in negotiations and then enlisted significant help from investors in Hong Kong to build finally a shrunken version of what he initially had envisioned. But what was there was enough for him to point at and crow. A “triumph,” he called it in his 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback.
“He’s been able to create his own reality,” late Trump biographer Wayne Barrett told me three years ago.
“He knows of no other way, and that is to spin until he’s woven some gossamer fabric out of garbage,” gossip columnist George Rush told me two years ago.
A onetime congregant and lifetime devotee of the seminal self-help pastor Norman Vincent Peale, Trump has spent decades, according to biographer Gwenda Blair, working to “weaponize” Peale’s “power of positive thinking.”
“I win, I win, I always win,” he said in 2005.
And when he doesn’t? “I do whine, because I want to win,” he said on CNN in August 2015, “and I’m not happy about not winning, and I am a whiner, and I keep whining and whining until I win.”
As a candidate, he promised “so much winning” the country would “get bored with winning.” As president, no matter what, he repeatedly has given himself A-plus grades. Last fall, when he called his administration historically effective in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, the world’s most powerful people laughed. Ever unshamed and undaunted, at rally after rally after rally heading into the midterms, he declared success and guaranteed more. “We’re winning,” he said in Indiana. “We’re winning so much,” he said in Montana. “We are going to win, win, win,” he said in Missouri. These confident proclamations, of course, were followed by considerable losses. The results of the elections on November 6 changed plenty about how Washington worked. They changed little about how Trump talked.
This week, as another shutdown loomed, Trump vented to reporters about the developing deal. “I’m adding things to it, and when you add the things I have to add,” he said, “it’s all going to happen where we’ll build a beautiful, big, strong wall that’s not going to let criminals and traffickers and drug dealers and drugs into our country. It’s very simple. It’s very simple.” It hasn’t been. He stewed on Twitter: “will be hooked up with lots of money from other sources,” “almost $23 BILLION for Border Security,” “the Wall is being built.”
In his speech in El Paso, Texas, on Monday, he emphasized a change in his signature pledge, a telling tweak he’d been floating for months. Old: “Build that wall.” New: “Finish that wall.” It’s a forward-looking slogan in which nebulous progress can be cast as a promise kept. “The wall is very, very on its way,” he said Wednesday.
A complete wall is not a requisite for success, in Nunberg’s estimation. “If he moves around, he gets this money, he makes the effort, and they start actually building … he’s going to have a real visual,” he said.
For now, though, there’s no visual—only the president’s version of reality.
“He’ll just continue this theme through 2020,” O’Donnell said, “and if he gets reelected, he’ll keep pounding this for the next six years.”
“Lots of things he says are manifestly untrue,” Res said. “Why can’t he just keep going on saying he’s building the wall with other money?”
Robinson from the Upper West Side has seen it all before.
“He will undoubtedly continue to lie about it and claim some sort of victory,” he said. “He can build 200 yards of wall and say he built the wall. And the press, which has been so diligent in fact-checking, will say, ‘No, no, no, wait a second, Mr. President. You didn’t build the wall that you said you were going to build. You only built 200 yards of it.’ And it won’t matter.”
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