On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign by descending an escalator in the atrium of Trump Tower, cheered on by his family, staff, and tourists plucked off the street and handed first-printing MAGA shirts. The event was profoundly weird, even before Trump started speaking.
This Sunday marked the four-year anniversary of Trump’s campaign launch, and with his reelection bid slated to kick off Tuesday in Florida, both Politico and the Washington Post recently published behind-the-scenes accounts of that momentous day in midtown. The accounts from Trump campaign staffers, journalists, and members of rival campaigns suggest the weird day was ever weirder than previously known. Here’s what we’ve learned.
Everyone on Trump’s staff thought riding the escalator was a bad idea.
They thought “it would look amateurish and not remotely presidential,” according to the Post. And they were right. George Gigicos, an early campaign hand, suggested Trump take the escalator up after the speech, but the future president insisted on riding it down.
“No, I’m going down the escalator,” he said — an early example of him flouting the norms and conventions of politics at nearly every juncture, and often prevailing.
Michael Cohen had some bad ideas that would have made the launch even crazier.
Back in 2015, Michael Cohen was still Trump’s right-hand man. Why Trump didn’t end their relationship after these suggestions is a mystery though:
Some in Trump’s orbit — including Michael Cohen, Trump’s then-fixer and personal lawyer, who is serving a three-year prison term for tax evasion and campaign finance violations, among other misdeeds — pushed for a circuslike spectacle, complete with elephants and women in bikinis.
Trump had a last-minute wardrobe change.
Initially dressed in black, Trump switched out one ill-fitting suit for another at the last minute, for reasons that former adviser Sam Nunberg explained to Politico:
Sam Nunberg, Trump political adviser: He came down [to his office on the 26th floor] in the black “Apprentice” suit. So he says, “What do you think?” And I say, “It’s great … You’re the businessman, you’re the business candidate.” Right? Because he had told me about black or blue [in a conversation about which suit to wear]. And I said, “I think you should wear black, myself.” OK? I just said, “Go with black. You know, you’re the celebrity, you’re the icon.” It’d be like Reagan — Reagan always wore the same black suit on his announcements. So then he goes to me, “So you like the black suit?” And I go, “Yeah.” He goes, “No, you’re a fucking idiot. Get out.” And he closes the door. And he switches into blue.
The absurdity of Trump’s launch led other candidates to underestimate him.
In the summer of 2015, there were a lot of reasons to not take Trump’s presidential campaign seriously. He’d flirted with the idea of running before, but always as a publicity stunt. Few expected anything different four years ago, especially after a launch event that looked like sideshow. As two members of Jeb Bush’s team told Politico, the whole thing seemed like a joke.
Michael Steel, senior adviser, Jeb Bush campaign: I was sitting with the policy team at Jeb’s headquarters, kind of an aging office building on the outskirts of Miami, and the policy shop had a TV, like a projection TV or something. Anyway, I remember the screen was really big but not very clear, and we all watched it as he was coming down the escalator … It seemed like a joke at the time.
Tim Miller, communications director, Jeb Bush campaign: A complete joke. Not serious. Not actually running for president.
The crowd of Trump “supporters” wasn’t full of Trump supporters.
Reporters on the scene spoke to some of the assembled supporters and found that Trump’s base wasn’t quite as strong four years ago as it is today.
William Turton: I stood outside interviewing folks with signs … Basically, none of them spoke English. There was this one Italian family, I remember, who had these Trump signs, and I just asked them, “Why do you like Trump?” And they could barely string together a sentence in English.
Joel Rose, correspondent, NPR: You would ask people why they were there, and they would give you these weird, vague answers.
Juliet Papa, reporter, 1010 WINS Radio: Somebody said they were, like, a part-time actor. So I just started assuming that they were sort of rented for the occasion.
Even those closest to Trump couldn’t imagine he was serious about running for president.
To those around Trump in 2015, the word “campaign” had nothing to do with politics.
Hope Hicks — who at the time handled publicity for the Trump Organization and would eventually become the White House communications director — wasn’t sure what Trump was talking about when he called her into his office to tell her he was headed to Iowa and wanted her to be the press secretary for his campaign.
“Which one? The Doral marketing campaign?” Hicks asked, referring to one of Trump’s golf properties, according to an account by Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, in his book, “Let Trump Be Trump.”
To which Trump replied: “No. My presidential campaign! I’m running for president.”