American biographer and Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Michael D’Antonio spent significant time with US President Donald Trump while writing two books about him. His most recent work, “High Crimes: The Corruption, Impunity, and Impeachment of Donald Trump,” a chronicle of the president’s impeachment, came out in October 2020. D’Antonio spoke with DW about what he expects for Trump once his presidency is over on January 20, 2021.
DW: What’s in store for Donald Trump once he leaves the White House?
Michael D’Antonio: It seems pretty clear that from a young age, and this goes back to the early 1960s, Donald Trump was more interested in being a showman than anything else.
So, yes, he’s constructed some towers and owns golf courses. But the bulk of his income since the year 2000 has been from television entertainment. When you see him on the campaign trail and how animated he becomes and how energized he is by performance, it’s pretty obvious what he wants to do.
I would expect him to be on television constantly. He’ll likely be part owner or full owner of a broadcast network of some sort. I think a good way to imagine how this would work is to consider that he had 70 million people vote for him. Even if that represents 30 million households, if each one subscribes for a dollar a month, you get a good idea of how much revenue you could generate by creating one of these outlets.
And it would employ all of his children. It could conceivably employ half the people in his cabinet. I told someone that I thought that Don Jr. would have a show called “Talking About My Dad.” (laughs) But I really think that we’re going to see this. Ivanka [Trump’s daughter] could have a show called “Lovely Like Me.” The possibilities are endless. The best way to imagine it is to think about the most ridiculous concept, and then you may still not be far out enough to predict what would be the product of this effort.
I would be completely shocked if he isn’t engaged in this kind of media company on January 21st.
What about the existing Trump brand? His hotels, golf courses etc.?
What’s interesting to think about is that real estate and hotels may recede for the Trump family. Those are very difficult businesses. The brand has been damaged on the luxury end and they don’t have any properties on the lower end of the market. So I could imagine them selling whatever they still hold.
Could Trump accept the failure of his hotel brand?
I think he could find a way to explain it. “Those terrible people ruined me and everything I tried to do for these communities. I helped to bring back New York City. I helped revitalize Washington, D.C.” He’ll take credit for everything except the sun rising and then say, “I was treated terribly.”
It’s a fantasy, but it’s emotionally resonant with his supporters, who feel the same way. I don’t think he’ll be much concerned with a presidential library.
Note: US Presidential Libraries archive documents and artifacts of presidents and their administrations for the purpose of public study and discussion.
What would go in a Trump presidential library?
That’s a really interesting question, because these museums tend to become research centers and the boards that run them eventually seek to have them be centers of honest inquiry. So I could see it evolving into a research center devoted to failed presidencies. And to America’s flirtation with authoritarianism.
Maybe not immediately, but after he’s long gone. The Nixon Library became embroiled in controversy and then they brought in some real historians who got it on the right track so that Nixon’s presidency was presented in a realistic way and researchers could delve into papers that reflected well on Nixon and those that reflected badly on him.
I just don’t know what you’d put in a museum or library devoted to Donald Trump.
How much of a risk do lawsuits and criminal investigations pose to Trump?
He has been a legal Houdini his whole life. He’s been able to wiggle out of lawsuits and pay as little as possible to settle when the government has caught him.
And his finances are so mysterious that it’s hard to determine what matters to him and what doesn’t. He fights for surprisingly small amounts of money, when you think about how he claims to be worth $10 billion. But I know of him doing everything he can do to squeeze $50,000 out of a $100 million deal. Most people at that level wouldn’t be focused on “How do I get an extra $50,000 out of the seller so that I can feel even better about the deal I made?”. But it’s possible he actually needed the money; that his claims to great wealth were so untrue that he was scraping for every penny.
So I think that it is possible that, especially the tax problems, the federal tax problems and the New York state issues, could do great damage to his real estate holdings and his existing companies.
But I don’t think he’s very interested in that anymore. I think that this whole family sees a future in political entertainment and that that’s what they’re going to do. So they’ll be like [US conservative news outlet] Fox News. But they’ll dispense with the news part, and it’ll just be personalities. It’ll just be Trumps and Trump-like people.
Will Trump want a rematch against President-elect Joe Biden in the 2024 presidential election?
I think he may decide that he has more power outside Washington than by returning there. His ego could lead him to consider it, but I don’t think that he’ll go for it.
He may be happier in a studio and doing public appearances and building up this network that can survive him and give positions of great influence and presence to his kids.
His original campaign was not intended to lead him to the Oval Office. The campaign in the beginning was to create the TV network. And so he’ll finally get what he wanted, actually, on January 21st.
Trump has built much of his persona around being a “winner.” What happens now that he’s lost?
I don’t think that it diminishes him at all with his base. I actually think that it affirms for those folks that evil in the world is great, and that the powers that be will cheat and steal, even the presidency of the United States.
I almost feel like the whole conspiracy theory dynamic depends on people being in pain. Because if you’re happy, you don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain your circumstance. And if he’s unhappy because he’s been cheated, it only means that the conspiracy theory really is true and that the fight against it has to be continued.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
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