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Did Their Father Really Know Best?

To sit in a chair opposite The Donald is to feel as if you’re taking a meeting with the king of Manhattan. He sits behind a huge desk piled with work, and has a commanding view of . . . everything, really. The room is a monument to his ego and success: There’s an Apprentice poster, blowups of his book covers, miniatures of some of his buildings, and framed magazine covers spanning more than twenty years. I try to keep in mind what Don Jr. told me about his father: “Other than his balance sheet, there’s not many ways in which he’s that different from the average American guy. He wants to eat his hamburger with his ketchup and his Coke, and that’s it.”

When I sit down, Donald Sr. asks me several questions, often cutting me off in mid-answer to ask another. He gets bored easily, even with himself, often interrupting his own conversation by changing the subject without warning. Sometimes he asks and answers his own questions, or ignores something I’ve said and talks right on through to whatever topic has popped into his head. This sounds like it would be infuriating, but it is, instead, a fascinating display of unfettered id.

When he’s had enough of our small talk, he claps his hands together and says, “Tell me about my children.” Before I get far, he jumps in, “Let me tell you one thing: Ivanka is a great, great beauty. Every guy in the country wants to go out with my daughter. But she’s got a boyfriend,” 24-year-old socialite Bingo Gubelmann. He goes on for a bit about how proud he is of Ivanka’s various accomplishments. (When I asked Don if there was any favorite-playing, he said, “Come on! Daddy’s little girl!”) Suddenly, Donald Sr. remembers something: “You know I have another daughter, with Marla, named Tiffany? She’s just a beautiful great kid also. But it’s very separate. When you have separate wives, it’s sort of . . . separate. Marla was a good person, as was Ivana. But I’m married to my business. It’s been a marriage of love. So, for a woman, frankly, it’s not that easy in terms of relationships. But there are a lot of assets.”

When I call Marla, who lives with Tiffany just north of Los Angeles, she agrees with Donald’s assessment of his true love. “There were times when all of us wished we had more of Donald’s ear and his focus, especially when we’d have family dinners on Friday.” She laughs. “ ‘Can you turn off the financial news for a moment, please?’ But those kids always knew that he was unique in a way, that he’s got to run that company. I’ve watched that also with Tiffany. A lot of the fathers are here for all her basketball games, but she knows her dad loves her.”

As far as being the other woman partly responsible for such a spectacular end to a famous marriage, she says, “It was a time of just an absolute broken heart every day. I just wanted to reach out and embrace the kids, but unfortunately, because there was no dialogue with Ivana, it made it very difficult. Goodness gracious, we all wished it could have been different. But then you see how everyone comes out in such a beautiful way.”

Back in Donald’s office, he says, “I’ll tell you what I’ve learned: Children are tough. Much tougher than people think.” Still, it’s easy to feel the crosscurrents of guilt and defensiveness. “I think this,” he continues. “I’m a really good father, but not a really good husband. You’ve probably figured out my children really like me—love me—a lot. It’s hard when somebody walks into the living room of Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach and this is supposed to be, like, a normal life. But they’re very grounded and very solid. The hardest thing for me about raising kids has been finding the time. I know friends who leave their business so they can spend more time with their children, and I say, ‘Gimme a break!’ My children could not love me more if I spent fifteen times more time with them.”

He’d like to be optimistic about the prospect of having the three siblings take over the business one day. “Well, their mother wants them to come work for me,” he says. “I would like that, actually. It would be a great help for me. There’s something really nice about family when it works. But there’s something terrible about family when it doesn’t work in business. And I’ve seen both. Richard LeFrak is a good friend of mine. He’s got two sons, and it just works very nicely. But for every good example, I can give you twenty horrible examples.”

Despite the fact that Donald and Ivana are coordinating a parenting handoff of sorts, they don’t often speak. “I can understand there’s a lot of animosity,” says Donald. “I didn’t leave for another woman, by the way. I didn’t leave her for Marla. I didn’t leave for anybody. I just wanted to leave. I left. Do we get along?” Here, his voice goes up an octave, “Yeeeaah, we get along, but it’s not exactly the greatest friendship. With Marla, I have a very good relationship. It’s always better to have the good relationship because of the children.”

It comes as a relief to realize that Donald Trump does have a modicum of understanding that his choices in life affect his children. Still, when I tell him what Ivanka said about the divorce bringing her and her brothers closer to him, he is caught off guard. “Brought them closer to me?” he asks. Yes, I say. “Oh,” he says. Donald Trump pauses to reflect for the first time in our conversation. “That’s interesting.” He gets a faraway look in his eye, and for a second I think he’s going to say something sentimental—touching, even. Fat chance. “I think they also got closer to me because I’m very business-oriented,” he concludes, “and as they got older, they got more interested in the business.”

Though the success of The Apprentice has made their father busier than ever, the Trump kids agree that the show has been good for the whole family. For one thing, their dad needs them around to help mind the store. But more than that, the show has humanized their father—or “Mr. T,” as he’s known around the office. The appeal of The Apprentice—indeed, the show’s very premise—is Donald Trump as a kind of national father figure. Perhaps it’s the way he seems to care for the contestants, even as he is firing them. Judging by the show’s success, people love his brand of tough love.

In reality—not “reality”—it is Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric who are the Apprentices, and Don Jr. is the furthest along in his training. “The Apprentice has been excellent for my dad,” he says. “Before, there was always that kind of corporate, Napoleonic evilness to Donald Trump. Now people see him interacting with normal—barely normal—individuals, and it’s like, ‘Wait a second. He’s a regular guy!’ People realize that he’s not this Ken Lay, Mike Milken type who spends his days screwing people over. So, it’s been great for him.” Then he adds, “Beyond all of that, it has been great for the brand, and ultimately, that is something that’s very important to all of us.”

With this last comment, it’s clear that Donald Jr. is truly his father’s son. A few weeks ago, I woke up and was shocked to find the younger Trump’s mug in the place where both his parents have reigned for so long: the tabloids. He was taking a beating for being “tacky,” a “cheapskate,” and “taste-deprived” after he proposed to his girlfriend, Vanessa Haydon, described as a “sometime model and aspiring actress” (which, of course, sounds an awful lot like the type of girl for whom his father has gone weak in the knees). It wasn’t the proposal that raised eyebrows; it was the fact that he popped the question in the presence of reporters and photographers at Bailey Banks & Biddle in the Short Hills Mall in New Jersey. Classy, no? The assumption was that he got the $100,000, four-carat ring on trade for turning what many would consider to be the most private of moments into a publicity stunt. The Donald couldn’t have orchestrated it better himself.

In the end, it seems, none of us can avoid turning into our parents. But if Don Jr. is becoming just like his father, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Let’s face it: The Trumps may not be monsters after all. Indeed, there is something surprisingly lovable about them. Perhaps the children have not just survived their strange parents, but thrived because of them.

For more photos of Donald Trump and his children, see the December 13, 2004 issue of New York Magazine.