Trump the phone guy is back

The way reporter Brian Spegele tells it, he and his Wall Street Journal colleague, Craig Karmin, had been working on their story about the Trump Organization’s ties to a major real-estate investment firm for several weeks when he got a call on Monday from an unknown number. “It was Donald Trump,” Spegele tweeted, “and he had a few things to say about our reporting.”

Never mind that the ex-president was calling on the eve of his second impeachment trial; he apparently had other things on his mind.

“Vornado has been an excellent partner so far and we expect that to continue,” Trump said of the firm that Spegele and Karmin were looking into, which is reportedly exploring the option to buy out the Trump Organization’s stake in two properties the companies co-own, perhaps in part to distance themselves from the radioactive leader. Though the interview was “brief,” the former president also managed to squeeze in a boast about how the properties in question are “two of the best buildings in this country.”

All of it was vintage Trump, a true return to form for the real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-president-turned-Florida-man-turned-cold-caller. For much of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, relevant beat reporters half expected to pick up a ringing phone and find Trump — or one of his various fake personas — on the other end of the line, ready to offer his unsolicited opinion on everything from Madonna’s combat boots to his preferred brand of laundry detergent. Post-presidency, though, Trump’s regression into being a phone guy gives off a different impression. Instead of a C-lister’s amusing bid for relevancy, the behavior smacks of a man lost on the periphery — even during his own impeachment trial.

For at least three decades, Trump was a familiar voice on the other end of phone lines in newsrooms around New York — though he didn’t always attach his name to it. The would-be president frequently used pseudonyms while talking himself up to the unsuspecting reporters that picked up his calls. “Everybody in the news business knows this goes on with Donald, he’s been doing it for 30 years,” Linda Stasi of the New York Daily News told CBS News in 2016. “It’s like, you’ll be in a newsroom and say, ‘Oh it’s fake Donald Trump again!'”

Most famously, Sue Carswell, a reporter at People magazine, received a call from “John Miller” in 1991, while she was covering Trump’s divorce from Ivana and his relationships with Marla Maples and model Carla Bruni. “Actresses just call to see if they can go out with him and things,” the spokesperson dubiously claimed, adding that Trump had “three other girlfriends” in addition to Maples and that even Madonna “wanted to go out with him.” Once Carswell got off the phone, she thought “it’s so weird that Donald hired someone who sounds just like him” before putting the pieces together. (Trump has denied the voice on the call is his, and hung up on the Washington Post reporter who asked if he’d ever employed a John Miller; in a 1990 lawsuit, though, Trump admitted to “on occasion” using the pseudonym “John Barron.”) In addition to phone calls, Trump would also sometimes dash off letters to reporters, too — like his barrage of mailings to journalist Graydon Carter over the years, disputing the size of his hands.

Even once he was elected president, Trump couldn’t always resist picking up the phone. In 2017, he surprised reporters from The Washington Post and The New York Times by calling them out of the blue to talk about the health-care bill. Former Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) described him as “amazingly accessible,” and willing to answer the phone even when he didn’t know who was calling. Trump once even called back an unknown number that belonged to an Associated Press reporter, who had not left a message, Voice of America recounts. And in 2019, Washington Post reporter Dan Balz recalled a stranger handing him a phone in a crowded restaurant after asking, “Would you like to speak to the president?” Trump indeed was on the other end, though the president was apparently unaware that he was speaking to a reporter until Balz, also confused, clarified.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that both of Trump’s impeachments link back to scandals prominently featuring his phone calls. In the fall of 2019, the House impeached Trump for allegedly pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the 2016 presidential election and the activities of Hunter Biden in exchange for military aid from the U.S. (Trump described their call as “perfect,” “beautiful,” and “very, very nice”). This week, Congress is specifically charging Trump with “incitement of insurrection,” framing the January 6 attack on the Capitol as the culmination of a weeks-long campaign to overthrow the results of the election, including Trump’s infamous phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, when the then-president pressured him to “find 11,780 votes.”

Fallout from the latter events has been swift: Twitter muzzled Trump and, now out of office, he has no tools left to defend himself other than to start making his own calls again (even his defense team abandoned him). Perhaps the biggest indicator that he is regressing into being a phone guy again came from his recent letter to the Screen Actors Guild, filled with his blusterous bravado: “I write to you today regarding the so-called Disciplinary Committee hearing aimed at revoking my union membership. Who cares!” the former president wrote. It could have been a voicemail.

Meanwhile, Trump’s second impeachment trial rolls forward, absent of the man himself. Instead, from the depths of his Spanish-style fortress in Florida, Trump works the phones to discuss his “best buildings” with an investigative team that hadn’t been expecting his call.

In the final piece, the former president’s comments occupied just two short, obligatory paragraphs before the writers moved on.


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