Before I discuss the time I mistakenly thought Donald Trump had sent a guy named Vito over to break my legs, just a quick public service announcement:
America, it’s mortifying that this is the man at the center of our self-destruction. This man, Donald J. Trump — joyless windbag, counterfeit Christian, and weaver of easily debunked conspiracies — of all people, him? To those out there believing his dark deceptions, to those heavily armed militias locking and loading, to those rending their garments and white-knuckling their rosary beads in the service of this man: Truly, he’s not worth it.
Thanks for listening!
With that out of the way, roll the tape back to Friday, Sept. 14, 2001. Yes, that September 2001. I was running a rambunctious little New York newspaper at the time. On that particular morning, as I was flipping through our latest issue — filled with burning skyline, smoke-smudged faces and stories of heartbreak, heroism, confusion and death — my phone rang. It was Vito.
In his tough-guy-New-Yorker accent, Vito wanted it known he was angry. “Mr. Carroll, you blew us off. You never even called to cancel. That’s disrespectful. Mr. Trump is a busy man, and you left him waiting. Very disrespectful,” Vito told me.
So, yeah, fun fact: A mere 48 hours after terrorists flew commercial airplanes into the World Trade Center, the future 45th president of the United States was in Trump Tower waiting for ... um ... me. And who was I? An undernourished newspaperman with a small fanbase consisting mostly of devotees of way-too-long articles about wetland buffers and side-yard setbacks, all written as if civilization itself depended upon it.
I was scheduled to meet with Trump to discuss his plans for “the greatest golf course in the history of the world” (not my words) on Seven Springs, a historic opulent Westchester estate.
The locals were not pleased with the scale of the plans, which called for the removal of more than 8,000 trees and 68,600 cubic yards of rock (mostly through blasting), on land 350 feet from the village public water supply. While the various permitting agencies did due diligence, Trump grew irritated with the process. So I asked for a meeting, which brings us back to Vito.
“Vito,” I said, “not to dwell on the obvious, but we scheduled that meeting before terrorists attacked our country. And in light of that attack, with all due respect, not a single person on this planet gives a [bleep] right now about Donald Trump’s proposed golf course in Westchester. No one.”
Either Vito hung up on me or I hung up on Vito. Skipping ahead about 18 months, Trump’s Seven Springs plans had encountered opposition on several fronts, and the man was started to lose it. I again asked for a meeting, it was arranged and I showed up this time.
Our photographer Scott Mullin and I took the elevator to the 26th floor of Trump Tower where we were led back to the boss. He got out of his chair and welcomed us. Then, he gave us a moment to take it all in — the view of Central Park, the wall-to-wall photos mostly of himself, and of course him, live, in person, his famous hairdo whipped into a gravity defying meringue.
Then we got down to business. We spoke for an hour. I kept my questions to Seven Springs, and he talked like a crazy person. He made bombastic claims. He crafted unrealistic consequences to ungrateful neighbors and local permitting authorities if he didn’t get his way.
Mind you, in 2003 Trump was still merely a nutty New York narcissist, a liar, a cheat, a showman in a city filled with them. This was several years before he went fully politically sinister — before Fox News, just for starters, gave him the bullhorn to spread his lie that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. This was several years before provable objective reality no longer mattered to a perilous proportion of the nation.
Following the interview, I went back to my office and wrote a fairly standard-issue article, quoting Trump, quoting his plans’ detractors and summarizing where the project stood. We put it on the front page that week with a photo of Trump.
Then something weird happened. That Friday, upon publication, readers and friends contacted me to congratulate me on taking Trump down. “Huh?” I thought. I knew I had written a balanced story.
Then, Monday, I arrived back in the office to a bunch of messages congratulating me for putting the screws to Trump. I reread the story and couldn’t understand what people were going on about. It was just a boring land-use story that happened to feature a famous crazy person whom I quoted verbatim.
Then, mid-morning, our office secretary came to my door to inform me that Trump was on the phone for me. While Monday mornings typically involved readers yelling at me on the phone, I wasn’t in the mood to be yelled at by Donald Trump. Surely, Vito was on his way over with a baseball bat.
I reluctantly picked up the phone, and this is what Trump said to me: “Felix, it’s Donald Trump. I just had to call and tell you: Wonderful job on the story! Absolutely terrific! Probably the greatest story anyone has ever written about me. Just incredible, absolutely incredible …”
He then told me he was good friends with so-and-so at The Daily News, and if I wanted a job he could make a call. And then he gave me the direct phone number to his assistant, Rhona. “If you need anything, call,” he said.
I hung up the phone seriously confused about who in the universe pulls all the silly strings.
And so that’s it, folks. That’s my story about Donald Trump. Make of it what you will. The end. (The golf course never got built, by the way. Seven Springs is now at the center of tax fraud claims against Trump.)
The reason I share this now has to do with my mother’s death on Oct. 29. In the aftermath, we siblings undertook the task of sorting through her things. For each of us, she had saved treasured mementos that defined our lives from a mother’s perspective.
In my pile, amidst the sacred moments — photos from my first Holy Communion, my wedding, my son’s birth — I discovered a clipping she kept of my Trump article. It was jarring to come across it. Trump — who has since built a cultish, anti-democratic political constituency of muscle-bro know-nothings, crybabies and snowflakes — doesn’t belong in my life’s pile of blessed moments.
But you know what does? My mom also kept a clipping of an article I wrote from the time Willie Nelson invited my wife and me onto his tour bus. We sat with Willie at his dinette in a Hyannis parking lot and spoke about beautiful things — about the pretty little town of Abbott, Texas; about Apollo 11; about adding Hank Williams to Mt. Rushmore.
I put the Willie Nelson story in my cardboard box to take home with me. I left the Trump story for the throwaway pile. The man needs to go.