Donald Trump’s opponents in the primaries were right to call him a con artist, a narcissist and a pathological liar. Just ask “John Miller.”
That’s one of the names Trump used with journalists to burnish his status as a bold-faced Manhattan celebrity; he also called himself “John Barron.” Both personae were supposedly publicists who just wanted to explain what a wonderful guy Mr. Trump was and how beautiful women seemed unable to resist his charms.
Last week, The Washington Post ran a story about the “Miller” and “Barron” ruses, which took place years ago, and posted a 1991 recording of “Miller” explaining why Trump was dumping Marla Maples. “He’s coming out of a marriage, and he’s starting to do tremendously well financially,” the imaginary publicist says to a reporter from People magazine. “Actresses just call to see if they can go out with him and things.” Madonna is ostentatiously name-dropped as someone who “wanted to go out with him.”
The voice is Trump’s. He denies it, for some reason – “I don’t think it was me,” he said Friday, “it doesn’t sound like me” – but the timbre, cadence and word choice on the recording are pure Trump. It could only be him or his evil twin (as if he needed one).
The Post reported that “some reporters found the calls from Miller or Barron disturbing or even creepy; others thought they were just examples of Trump being playful.” Put me firmly in the “creepy” camp.
I don’t go so far as to think Trump could have believed these imaginary friends were real. But I do believe that Republican presidential contenders Marco Rubio (who called Trump a con artist), Bobby Jindal (who called him a narcissist) and Ted Cruz (who called him a pathological liar) should feel vindicated. And I believe the nation should be deeply worried about what sort of person the GOP is about to nominate for president.
Does it really matter if Trump had a bit of fun at the expense of some reporters two or three decades ago? It wouldn’t if he were merely asking for another season of “The Apprentice.” He wants us to make him the most powerful man in the world, and the “Miller” and “Barron” episodes – along with the transparently untrue denials that they ever took place – betray a level of ambition and insecurity that voters should find deeply alarming.
In my experience, most successful people could be described as needy in some sense. Trump, however, takes neediness to a bizarre and frightening extreme.
He’s the son of a wealthy developer who expanded his father’s empire. In his younger days, he was a rich and well-connected man about town. It is no surprise that he enjoyed the company of beautiful women. But that, apparently, wasn’t nearly enough for Trump. He had to be widely seen with such women on his arm, and he had to be both envied and admired.
When he decided to trade a woman in for a newer model – I know that sounds crude, but this was his modus operandi – he used fake names to call reporters with his side of the story. Was he too cheap to hire a real publicist? Did he believe he was so much more clever than the journalists that they wouldn’t know it was really him? (They knew.) Was he obsessed with being portrayed in the gossip columns as “a good guy,” which is what “John Miller” calls him in the recording?
And why deny it now, given the clear evidence of the tape? Why not just laugh it off as a youthful or perhaps middle-aged indiscretion? Why not just say he was having a little fun at the media’s expense? “It wasn’t me” is only an effective defense absent proof beyond a reasonable doubt that, you know, it was.
I’m taking this seriously because Trump is asking to be taken seriously – which means he wishes to be taken at his word. Someone should explain to him how this works.
He has built a remarkable career on bluster, branding and relentless self-promotion. Self-regard bordering on self-worship and a willingness to bend the truth may have been assets that helped his rise. Insecurity and a need to be loved could have given him motivation. For a vainglorious mogul who lives to plaster his name across the New York skyline – and whose most consequential decision is whether to use travertine marble or Carrara – these are useful traits.
For a president of the United States, they could be catastrophic.
Contact Eugene Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.