The Trump political era has been defined in large part by its everyday surreality. As we approach January 20, we’re looking back on some strange but perhaps lesser-remembered moments from the last few weird years.
On the night of November 7, 2020, as I watched President-elect Joe Biden carry his infant grandchild around a stage in Wilmington, Delaware, while celebrating his election win, I came across a tweet asking, “Has anyone ever seen Trump hold a baby?”
No, I thought. I can’t recall ever seeing Donald Trump cradle a baby in his arms. But I have seen him tell 24,000 Boy Scouts a meandering story about a real-estate developer hosting wild parties on his yacht.
President Trump’s remarks at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree will be etched in my memory for all eternity a) because I spent hours transcribing them for this publication and b) because they were weird as hell. Now this seems a bit quaint, but at the time few suspected that a presidential address to the roughly 40,000 people gathered in West Virginia to spend “10 days hiking, biking, camping and giving back to local communities” might go awry. After all, eight former presidents had addressed the event without incident. Thus, when President Trump regaled the youngsters with a 35-minute tirade about the “dishonest people” who doubted he could win in 2016, his tax repatriation plan, and why our nation’s capital is a “cesspool,” I found myself furiously typing throughout the night, rewinding the CSPAN footage again and again, so I could capture the most inappropriate moments.
President Trump is notoriously not great with children. (There is, in fact, a photo of him holding his infant grandson, and he looks like someone who finds showing off golfing trophies more comfortable than embracing human babies). It seems Trump’s prepared remarks were about letting “your scouting oath guide your path,” but since he is only guided by his own narcissistic interests, the address quickly devolved into tales of his own greatness, peppered with attacks on enemies and underlings. He took shots at Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and even threatened to fire Tom Price, a former Boy Scout, who joined him on stage.
“Today Dr. Price still lives the Scout Oath, helping to keep millions of Americans strong and healthy as our Secretary of Health and Human Services,” Trump said. “And he’s doing a great job. And hopefully, he’s going to get the votes tomorrow to start our path toward killing this horrible thing known as Obamacare that’s really hurting us, folks.”
“He better get them,” Trump ad libbed. “He better get them. Oh, he better — otherwise, I’ll say ‘Tom, you’re fired!’”
In Trump’s defense, the crowd appeared to be eating up his antics. Sensing that this was a particularly sophisticated group of 12 to 18-year-old boys, the president went on to share a meandering story about the late real-estate developer William Levitt, who sold his company, then “went out and bought a big yacht, and had a very interesting life,” as the president explained.
“I won’t go on any more than that because you’re Boy Scouts so I’m not going to tell you what he did,” Trump said, drawing boos from the audience. “Should I tell you? Should I tell you?” the president teased. “Oh, you’re Boy Scouts, but you know life. You know life. So — look at you. Who would think this is the Boy Scouts, right?”
So the president rambled on. He never went beyond innuendo in his allusions to nautical sex parties, but did share some details that probably went over the lads’ heads when describing his run-in with Levitt at a cocktail party in the early ’90s:
He went personally bankrupt, and he was now much older. And I saw him at a cocktail party. And it was very sad because the hottest people in New York were at this party. It was the party of Steve Ross — Steve Ross, who was one of the great people. He came up and discovered, really founded Time Warner, and he was a great guy. He had a lot of successful people at the party.
And I was doing well, so I got invited to the party. I was very young. And I go in, but I’m in the real estate business, and I see a hundred people, some of whom I recognize, and they’re big in the entertainment business.
And I see sitting in the corner was a little old man who was all by himself. Nobody was talking to him. I immediately recognized that that man was the once great William Levitt, of Levittown, and I immediately went over. I wanted to talk to him more than the Hollywood, show business, communications people.
So I went over and talked to him, and I said, “Mr. Levitt, I’m Donald Trump.” He said, “I know.” I said, “Mr. Levitt, how are you doing?” He goes, “Not well, not well at all.” And I knew that. But he said, “Not well at all.” And he explained what was happening and how bad it’s been and how hard it’s been. And I said, “What exactly happened? Why did this happen to you? You’re one of the greats ever in our industry. Why did this happen to you?” And he said, “Donald, I lost my momentum. I lost my momentum.”
It’s unclear if the boys appreciated this message, but it definitely did not go over well with the Helen Lovejoys of the world (including former President Barack Obama, who reportedly “stewed” over the incident). Following complaints from parents and former members, the head of the Boy Scouts apologized to everyone who was “offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree.” The minor scandal got even weirder when Trump claimed he “got a call from the head of the Boy Scouts saying it was the greatest speech that was ever made to them, and they were very thankful.” The Boy Scouts issued a statement saying that never happened.
It seems that’s not the only thing Trump fabricated. According to Slate, Trump has told the Levitt anecdote several times over the years and it’s the subject of an entire (page-and-a-half-long) chapter in his 2004 book Trump: How to Get Rich. The details change in each version, and they vary a bit from the historical record. Per Slate:
In the Jamboree speech, Trump is a “very young” man who brashly introduces himself to the older developer. In the book, he is 47 years old and already an acquaintance of Levitt’s. In the book, Trump writes that the party took place two weeks before Levitt’s death. But Levitt’s 1994 obituary in the New York Times reported that he had been at a Long Island hospital for the last 18 months of his life. He entered the hospital after suffering a ruptured intestine and died of a progressive kidney disease, which makes his appearance at a swank Manhattan cocktail party mere weeks before his death seem somewhat unlikely.
The president’s appearance at the Boy Scout Jamboree is one of the least consequential scandals of the past four years, but it’s also one of the most quintessentially Trump: offensive to adults, theoretically traumatizing for children, humiliating for his cronies, and possibly centered around a self-aggrandizing lie.