On a recent Monday morning, Dan Isaacs, the newly installed chairman of the Manhattan Republican Party, was on his way to work when he received a surprise call on his cell phone from Donald Trump. The day before, Isaacs had vented to the New York Post about how the quasi-candidate—who is currently promoting himself as a far-right Republican contender after years as a registered independent and Democrat—had ignored his requests to speak at a fundraising dinner for the hometown political club.
“He was very gracious and wanted to know who I had spoken to in their office,” Isaacs recounted to The Observer last week. (Trump is the father-in-law of The New York Observer’s owner.) Isaacs said that he had been in touch a little bit with Michael Cohen, Trump’s aide-de-camp. The message, apparently, had not made it to Trump. (The Celebrity Apprentice star said he had spoken to Ed Cox, the state GOP chairman; Isaacs reminded him that there was a difference between the New York State GOP and the New York County GOP.)
“He said, ‘I am going to do your dinner,”’ Isaacs recalled, and Trump then referred him to Rhona Graff, a longtime personal assistant who fields all press inquiries for her boss and helped finalize the arrangement for June 14.
Such are the inner workings of Trump’s early, quixotic effort to position himself as a legitimate Republican presidential candidate. The formal requests for interviews and appearances, which have been too numerous to count, are handled by Trump’s confidants in the Trump Organization, a group of political neophytes, led by Cohen and his draft-Trump website. At the same time, a loose network of unpaid political consultants—orbiting around the brass-tacks consultant Roger Stone—tries to organize a political network that could somehow translate his name recognition into a viable candidacy.
Not that Trump requires much convincing of his own popularity.
“It’s a little like a Broadway play,” Trump said of the poll numbers that show him leading an unrecognizable, and uninspiring, Republican field. “It’s either a hit or it’s not, and this is not so much different. … A Broadway play opens and people say, ‘We have a smash.’ That’s what happened with me.” (Shortly after the interview, an aide to Trump forwarded an April 14 poll from the Public Policy Polling, with Trump’s trademark Sharpie scrawl pointing at an early lead.)
According to those who have been in contact with Trump, decisions about which interviews to accept, which GOP influencers to reach out to and which Tea Party rallies to attend are Trump’s alone, though they’re often filtered—as Isaacs’ was—by Cohen, who some describe as “the Donald Trump of the Trump Organization.” According to people who have been in meetings with him, Cohen is something of a one-man band, a whirlwind of phone calls and e-mails to people looking to get in on the Trump bandwagon. “I have something like 867 unopened e-mails and I can’t even get to them,” Cohen told The Observer last week, in denying a request for a sit-down interview and simultaneously fielding calls on another phone.
Cohen is not entirely new to the political process. Back in 2002, while working for the Trump Organization, Cohen had wanted to run for an Assembly seat on Manhattan’s East Side, but stepped aside when the GOP settled on another candidate. The following year he ran hard for the City Council against a popular incumbent, Eva Moskowitz, including taking out a “milk carton ad” in local papers that accused his opponent of being “missing” for her absence during important votes on the City Council. Moskowitz had just given birth to a son. She went on to win nearly two to one.
Already, Cohen has made some head-scratching decisions that perhaps indicate his unfamiliarity with the nuances of a national campaign. In March, he flew to Iowa on Trump’s jet, in clear violation of Federal Election Commission rules. And he told one reporter that he personally believed that President Obama was born in the United States, undercutting a central plank of his boss’ early campaign.
In addition to his politicking and television appearances, Cohen also founded the website ShouldTrumpRun.com, with his fellow “Friend of Donald” Stewart Rahr, a flamboyant billionaire who calls himself “Stewie Rah-Rah” and who lives in Trump’s building. As of press time, the site is closing in on its 1 millionth sign-up. Despite his close proximity to Trump—the site is run out of his Trump office—Cohen said that his boss is not behind the effort.
“The truth is, if you ask him anything about the site, he couldn’t tell you,” Cohen said. “He couldn’t tell you how many pages, he couldn’t even tell you how many people have come—I mean, he knows it’s a lot, because he asks every now and then—but he couldn’t tell you what’s on it.”
The fact that a Draft Trump website was conceived by an employee of his led to some snickering in political circles and some exasperation among those engaged in a separate, state-by-state effort, spearheaded by Stone, who calls the office to alert them of various sites in the right-wing blogosphere that they should be aware of.
Stone, a no-holds-barred political operative with a tattoo of Richard Nixon’s face on his back, attended both of Trump’s most recent weddings, he said, and despite a brief rupture in their relationship (according to one source, stemming from Stone’s harassment of Eliot Spitzer’s father, a colleague in New York City real estate), he has been a formal and an informal adviser for close to three decades. In the words of one consultant who has been in touch with Trump, Stone “has the number for the bat phone,” and some press calls still get routed through him, but in February, after Politico published an article that included Stone’s trashing the rest of the Republican field, Trump announced that “Roger does not represent me and is not an adviser to my potential campaign.”
That hasn’t stopped Stone from recruiting some old friends into the fold. And, while each name is gobbled up by the media as one more indication that Trump might actually be serious this time around, calls to some of the operatives reflect an organization that’s still rather slapdash.
J. Kenneth Klinge, a 72-year-old lobbyist in Virginia and a former director of the state’s Republican Party, signed on after a friend of his was contacted by Stone about becoming part of a national Draft Trump movement. Klinge was active in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, and after agreeing to help organize his home state, he was surprised to find out that he had been announced by the group as the Southern regional director and was also tasked with helping to organize in Iowa.
“Shit. Every time I talk to a reporter, I’m moving up,” Klinge told The Observer. “Right now, I’m just trying to figure out how big my job is. Just because someone puts out a press release saying I’m the Southern coordinator doesn’t mean crap to me.” Klinge said that if he can get enough people to sign on, then Trump is bound to jump into the race. “There are only three types of people susceptible to flattery—men, women and children. And he is at least one of these,” Klinge said.
The national effort is led by Lynn Krogh, a young New York operative and executive director of the Young Republican National Federation, who last worked on Rick Lazio’s unsuccessful run against Carl Paladino. Krogh, who is currently unpaid, is recruiting volunteers in the key states—mostly by e-mail—who are then given a long leash, in the hopes they can build some kind of local apparatus, with only the occasional check-in from Krogh or Cohen, and with the added hope that should a bona fide campaign develop, it might yield a lucrative job for the next couple of years.
Stone’s pitch goes something like this: A multi-candidate field would split some of the social conservative vote in the Iowa caucuses and give Trump at least a halfway decent finish; then, with any luck, he would do well in libertarian and Tea Party-leaning New Hampshire, followed by Florida and Nevada, which Stone sees as natural fits for Trump. (South Carolina, the other early primary state and a hotbed of Christian conservatism, is seen as a tougher climb.)
But it’s a particularly tough sell, what with Trump’s history as a candidate who pops up every 12 years, just long enough to promote himself and whatever Trump-branded product might be for sale at that moment. Marjory Jaeger, an administrator at the University of Buffalo and former volunteer for the Carl Paladino for Governor campaign, said she has sent dozens of e-mails to friends and colleagues trying to get them to sign on to the effort. It has been slow going. “Folks are tentative to hop aboard the train,” Jaeger said.
On April 25, Tony Fabrizio—the presumed pollster for Trump’s campaign and a longtime associate of Stone’s—sent a letter saying that after much reflection, he had decided to remove his name from consideration.
Stone compares the Draft Trump movement to similar efforts to lure into the Republican race Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Wendell Wilkie in 1940 (never mind that though those candidates were successfully lured into the race, each suffered a crushing defeat in the general election) and hopes that should Trump decide to run, the draft effort provides him with a ready-to-go infrastructure in the states.
“It’s waiting for him to turn the key and say we have the start of a campaign,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who has been in talks about signing on for the campaign. Trump and Cohen have met with a handful of pollsters and political operatives, including Conway; John McLaughlin, a pollster for the presidential campaigns of Fred Thompson and Steve Forbes; and Larry Weitzner, a direct-mail specialist who has worked with George Pataki and Al D’Amato.
But for now, it’s mostly just Trump. When he traveled to Florida earlier this month to speak at a Tea Party rally, the organizer of the event, Everett Wilkinson, said he was stunned to find that aside from security, Trump traveled alone, and gave him a one-on-one meeting prior to the speech, explaining his recent conversion to conservative principles.
“Everybody says he has this ego, but I didn’t really see it. I’ve met Mitt Romney, [Michelle] Bachmann, but with Donald, you could tell that his responses weren’t politically canned or anything like that,” he said. “I found him very easy to work with. I don’t think he has very many political operatives. I think it’s Donald Trump himself.”
Asked who he is relying on for advice, Trump said, “Myself. Myself and my instincts.” But he acknowledged that at some point, that would need to change. He added, however, that he was determined to not be over-handled. “When I did The Apprentice, I got a call from Regis Philbin that I’ve never forgotten. He said, ‘Donald, I see you are going to be doing a big show on television. Be yourself.’ He said, ‘Don’t listen to anybody, just be yourself.’ And two days ago, I got a call from one of the biggest people in politics. He said, ‘Donald, don’t listen to too many people. Just be yourself.’ It was almost the same thing. You know, Regis is the ultimate pro in terms of television and that kind of thing, and this guy is the Regis of politics and he said almost the exact same words.”
What exactly it means for Trump to be himself, besides fiercely promoting his own brand, remains very much undetermined. His latest persona as a red-meat right-wing ideologue is just the latest from someone who first came to the public’s attention as a money-hungry real estate tycoon, morphed into a tabloid celebrity with the tawdry affairs, and has most recently become an unapologetic promoter of the advantages of making lots and lots of money. His latest obsession with Obama’s birth certificate has surprised even those who know him well, and who first learned that it was an interest of Trump’s when he brought it up to the ladies of The View.
“I’ve known him forever,” said James Finkelstein, a publishing executive and personal friend of Trump’s. As for the birther issue, “I probably heard him say it first on television.”
Even his closest friends and advisers doubt whether Trump is up for the rigors of a real campaign, stumping in the snows of Iowa or posing alongside the butter cow at the state fair. “He has the moxie and the willingness to campaign in Iowa,” Conway said. “But does he have the wardrobe?”
“I already have my snow boots ready!” said Trump, who can publicly stoke the Draft Trump movement for at least another few months before he would have to actually declare an official candidacy and disclose his finances (including a net worth that’s been very much in dispute over the years).
“There is a vacuum. Donald knows how to fill a vacuum,” said Alan Marcus, Trump’s public-relations guru in the 1990s. “Donald loves the media, loves hearing the sounds of his voice and knows exactly what people will gravitate to. He sees a niche and bang! He’s there.” And the sounds of Trump’s own voice are increasingly widespread, in part because of his willingness to distribute them indiscriminately. “Trump has enormous balls,” Stone says. “He will say anything, anywhere, if he believes it.”