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The First Time Donald Trump Ran for President … 20 Years Ago

New York developer and potential Reform Party presidential candidate Donald Trump (L) and Minnesota Govenor Jesse Ventura (R) take questions at a news conference after Trump gave a speech at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon 07 January 2000 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, the city where Ventura was once mayor.
SourceCRAIG LASSIG/AFP via Gettyv

The First Time Donald Trump Ran for President … 20 Years Ago

By Eugene S. Robinson


Because life is a long and twisting, and sometimes twisted, journey.

By Eugene S. Robinson

New York was, is and will always be a strange beast of a place. Equal parts brash, boorish and frank to a fault, it’s tonally unlike any other major American city. And the likelihood that anyone from there would, or could, seduce the remainder of the country in seeking national office might seem unthinkable.

Right up until the Southern variant in the Texas-born-and-bred Ross Perot pulled in 18.9 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 U.S. presidential election. A feisty fireplug, Perot was an “only from Texas” candidate whose straight talk mixed with folksy homilies was more TV-friendly than anything coming out of New York at the time, but it had a similar vibe: brash, and in no small measure, not politics as usual. And Perot had done something surprising and set a precedent: He had gotten 19,741,065 Americans to vote for him.

That came out to exactly zero Electoral College votes, but what had only been a possibility before — a third-party candidacy in American politics — now seemed more of a probability.

I guess he’s an anti-Semite.… He doesn’t like the Blacks, he doesn’t like the gays. It’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this guy.

Donald Trump on Pat Buchanan in 1999

Which is where Donald Trump, former registered Democrat, enters the picture.

A New York gadabout and F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque figure of significant cash note, Trump had started to toy with the idea of dabbling in politics as early as 1987. Whether out of boredom, a desire to best an overbearing father figure, pre-publicity for one of his outside projects or a very real desire to fulfill a lifelong dream of public service, Trump started moving toward more than just toying with the idea.

An uninformed guess as to why might be his 1987 meeting with President Ronald Reagan and a very New York bit of haterade that would make sense to anyone born there: “What’s he got that I haven’t got?” Determined to find out, Trump switched his party affiliation to Republican, spent close to $100,000 on full-page media buys and inserted himself into a foreign policy discussion under a call to arms that stated “There’s nothing wrong with America’s foreign defense policy that a little backbone can’t cure.”

Cue a media scrum that, on the occasion of his ghostwritten New York Times best-seller The Art of the Deal, saw him appear on The Phil Donahue Show and The Oprah Winfrey Show and, with a note from the Nixons suggesting he’d be a shoo-in if he chose to run, at the 1988 Republican Convention.

NBC’s Chris Wallace tried to tease out any interest in running, which Trump shut down. “I doubt I’ll ever be involved in politics beyond what I do right now,” he said, and with a doff of the cap to presumptive Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush, Low-Energy Jeb’s father, Trump headed off into a gold-plated night.

But Perot wouldn’t be stopped, and despite it being largely felt he had missed his moment, in 1995 he started a contender third party, the Reform Party of the United States, which put Perot up for the highest office in the land in 1996. He pulled in 8.4 percent of the popular vote, which came out to a grand total of zero Electoral College votes.

Something weird happened, though, and with the benefit of hindsight we can see it very clearly. When former professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura, the most successful Reform Party candidate, won the governorship of Minnesota in 1999, he reached out to former Connecticut Gov. Lowell P. Weicker to run for president on the party’s ticket in 2000. This, however, was the same Weicker who had not only blocked a Trump casino project in Connecticut but also dismissed Trump as a “dirtbag.”

In New York terms, it was on. Trump fired back in a New York Times interview, calling Weicker “a fat slob who couldn’t get elected dogcatcher.”

In September 1999, he penned a Wall Street Journal editorial titled “America Needs a President Like Me.” By Oct. 7, 1999, on Larry King Live, Trump was in. The running mate he was considering? Please sit down, if you haven’t already: Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah declined, but the battle was set. Turning his nose up at the Republican Party because of Pat Buchanan — Trump famously dismissed him with “I guess he’s an anti-Semite.… He doesn’t like the Blacks, he doesn’t like the gays. It’s just incredible that anybody could embrace this guy” — he was running.

January 2000 saw the publication of Trump’s The America We Deserve.

By Valentine’s Day, Trump was out.

He was bored with what the Reform Party had devolved into: infighting, name-calling and, in some cases, shoving matches. In other words: total chaos. In his resignation statement, Trump disparaged Reform Party members Buchanan, former KKK leader David Duke and far-left activist Lenora Fulani. But one player he praised might surprise those familiar with Trump’s attitudes today: “I have been treated very fairly by the media and would like to thank the working press for that.”

Still, it wasn’t a total wash. Trump had qualified for the Michigan and California Reform Party presidential primaries — and he won both of them. George W. Bush eventually won the presidency, despite losing the popular vote, and Trump would start doing TV, where many assumed any return to public service would be limited to opening more casinos and publicly firing people.

They were, surprisingly, totally wrong about that.

“Trump has always loved the heat and light on his face from wide public regard,” said former New York Post reporter Ed Newton. “Does that constitute policy? Does it matter?”

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