Whether he is dealing with the loss of a family member or the deaths of nearly 150,000 Americans in a surging pandemic, President Trump almost never displays empathy in public. He learned it from his father.
WASHINGTON — The Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan was packed with developers, politicians and New York celebrities, more than 600 in all, for the funeral of Fred C. Trump, the builder whose no-frills brick rental towers transformed Brooklyn and Queens.
Three of his four living children, who had grown up listening to the sermons of the church’s most famous minister, Norman Vincent Peale, offered loving eulogies to their father. Then it was Donald Trump’s turn.
He began by talking about himself.
He had learned of his father’s death, he told the crowd that day in June 1999, just moments after reading a front-page New York Times article about his biggest development to date, Trump Place.
“Donald started his eulogy by saying, ‘I was having the greatest year of my business career, and I was sitting having breakfast thinking of how well things were going for me,’” when he learned of his father’s death, said Alan Marcus, a former public relations consultant for the Trump Organization. “Donald’s eulogy was all about Donald, and everybody in Vincent Peale’s church knew it.”
Gwenda Blair, a Trump family biographer, also attended the funeral. She, too, could not help but take note of the eulogy, which she described in her book “The Trumps.”
“Was it surprising?” Ms. Blair said in an interview. “No. Was it stunning? Yes.”
Whether he is dealing with the loss of a family member, the deaths of nearly 150,000 Americans in a surging pandemic, more than 30 million people out of work or the racial unrest brought on by the killings of African-Americans by white police officers, President Trump almost never shows empathy in public. A book published this summer by his niece, Mary L. Trump, has focused renewed attention on this trait.
Mr. Trump has held no national day of mourning for victims of the virus. He has surrounded himself at Rose Garden events with business executives pushing to reopen the economy rather than families who have lost jobs or loved ones. In grim speeches over the Fourth of July weekend, he angrily denounced what he branded as the “new far-left fascism” and never once mentioned George Floyd, the Black man whose death in police custody has set off worldwide protests over racial injustice.
There are many reasons — denial and disorganization among them — that Mr. Trump’s handling of the virus has led to catastrophic and overlapping crises in the United States. But even Republicans say one primary cause is the president’s failure to put himself in the shoes of others and harness their pain. His unwillingness, or inability, to comfort an anxious nation has appalled critics, stunned allies and aggravated White House staff members, who remain perplexed why this most basic part of presidential leadership eludes him.
“His style as a leader is having to be a tough guy,” Representative Peter T. King of New York, one of the president’s allies, said in an interview. “You can’t show any type of weakness. He doesn’t want to show that this is getting the best of him.”
Mr. Trump has exhibited this behavior all his life, friends and family members say. He learned it, they say, at home, particularly from his father, a disciplinarian who spent hundreds of millions of dollars financing his son’s career and taught him to either dominate or submit. In Fred Trump’s world, showing sadness or hurt was a sign of weakness.
“The only thing that Trump ever cared about was he had this thing: ‘I’ve got to win. Teach me how to win,’” George White, a former classmate of Mr. Trump’s at the New York Military Academy who spent years around both father and son, said in an interview.
Recalling Fred’s hard-driving influence, Mr. White said that Mr. Trump’s former school mentor, a World War II combat veteran named Theodore Dobias, once told him that “he had never seen a cadet whose father was harder on him than his father was on Donald Trump.” Fred Trump would visit nearly every weekend to keep watch over his son, Mr. White said.
Mr. Trump’s father is still part of his life, said Andrew Stein, a former Manhattan borough president who has known the president for decades and has met regularly with him at the White House. Mr. Trump, he said, has often pointed up to the ceiling and referred to his father when they have been alone in the Oval Office. “He’ll look up to heaven, and say, ‘Fred, can you believe this?’” Mr. Stein said.
This article is based on interviews with more than 20 of Mr. Trump’s friends, political allies, administration members, family members, and current and former employees.
Fred Trump’s domineering relationship with his children, and how that shaped his second son, is now the central animating force of the best-selling “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man,” by Ms. Trump, a clinical psychologist and Mr. Trump’s only niece.
“Acknowledging the victims of Covid-19 would be to associate himself with their weakness, a trait his father taught him to despise,” Ms. Trump wrote.
Robert Trump, the president’s younger brother — who along with Mr. Trump tried to stop publication of the book — disputed that characterization. In a statement for this article, he said he knew “how selfless my father was and Donald is, much more so than anyone would ever realize.”
Dominate or submit
Born in 1946 into the optimism and energy of postwar America, Mr. Trump grew up in a red-brick, white-columned McMansion built by his father in what was then a gated, nearly all-white community in Queens. He was, by his own admission in his autobiography “The Art of the Deal,” a difficult, tempestuous child. A favorite activity was testing other people, from children in his neighborhood to figures of authority. Neighbors once caught him throwing rocks over a fence at a young child in a playpen.
“Even in elementary school, I was a very assertive, aggressive kid,” Mr. Trump wrote.
The household was strict. Fred Trump was “stiff and formal,” said a neighbor, Annamaria Forcier, and was focused on work and money. (His father, Frederick Trump, had made a fortune in the Gold Rush before dying of the Spanish flu in 1918.)
The president’s mother, Mary Anne MacLeod Trump, was a fisherman’s daughter from a Scottish village in the Outer Hebrides who arrived in New York in 1930 at the age of 18. Mary Anne found a job as a maid at the home of Andrew Carnegie’s widow, according to census records that the journalist Nina Burleigh unearthed for her book “Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women.” The home is now the Cooper Hewitt Museum in Manhattan.
Mrs. Trump’s brush with society engendered the outsider’s love of ceremony and pomp shared by her son. In her book, Ms. Burleigh wrote that “Mary’s airs were the antithesis” of her husband’s Germanic tendencies. Her sense of humor could often be turned back on Donald Trump, one of the president’s children said.
But Fred Trump ran the show, and the children learned to be stoic in the face of loss, even when their mother fell seriously ill with peritonitis, an inflammation of the stomach lining, and faced a lengthy hospitalization and lingering illness after the birth of her fifth and last child.
“My father came home and told me she wasn’t expected to live, but I should go to school and he’d call me if anything changed,” Maryanne Trump Barry, one of his daughters, said in an interview with Ms. Blair. “That’s right, go to school as usual.”
In Mary Trump’s view, Donald Trump — who was two and a half years old at the time — suffered harm the year his mother was sick. “Donald’s needs, which had been met inconsistently before his mother’s illness, were barely met at all by his father,” Ms. Trump wrote. “That Fred would, by default, become the primary source of Donald’s solace when he was much more likely to be a source of fear or rejection put Donald into an intolerable position: total dependence on a caregiver who was also likely to be a source of his terror.”
As a result, she wrote, he “suffered deprivations that would scar him for life.”
Fred Trump Jr., the second born and the first son, was pushed hard by his father as the presumed heir to the family business. But Fred Jr. never took to real estate and died alone in the hospital in 1981 after a long struggle with alcoholism. He was 42. According to Ms. Trump, his daughter, Donald Trump went to the movies that night and Fred Trump Sr. did not visit him.
The family rarely talked about Fred Jr.’s death, but in a 1990 interview in Playboy, Donald Trump spent a few moments reflecting on it. “I saw people really taking advantage of Fred and the lesson I learned was always to keep up my guard 100 percent, whereas he didn’t,” Mr. Trump said. “He didn’t feel that there was really reason for that, which is a fatal mistake in life. People are too trusting. I’m a very untrusting guy.”
‘He doesn’t have time to have empathy’
Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology and human development at Northwestern who has written about Mr. Trump, said in an interview that from childhood on, Mr. Trump — with the help of his father — conditioned himself to approach life as a series of battles to be won.
“He doesn’t have time to have empathy for anybody because the world is out to get him,” Mr. McAdams said.
After his brother’s death, Mr. Trump became the heir, and over the next decades he and his father were close partners in the schemes and tax evasions that were part of the family business. They talked almost every day and spent time together on weekends.
“I was never intimidated by my father, the way most people were,” Mr. Trump wrote in his autobiography. “I stood up to him, and he respected that. We had a relationship that was almost businesslike.”
Like his father, Mr. Trump moved on in the face of loss. At the Trump Organization he was not a boss who reached out to express condolences. “One of his bankers had died and somebody in this small circle said, ‘Donald, don’t you think you should call the family?’” recalled Mr. Marcus, the former Trump Organization public relations consultant. “He said: ‘Why? He’s dead.’”
Mr. Trump’s coldness in the face of illness shocked even some of his closest associates. After Roy Cohn, Mr. Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, learned he had AIDs in the 1980s, Mr. Trump abruptly cut off contact with him — a dramatic shift from the connected relationship they had enjoyed for years, which associates recalled involved talking on the phone at least five times a day.
“He discards people who are no longer useful, and it doesn’t matter what renders the person no longer useful,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer. “If you are disgraced, or you’re dying, or deceased, you no longer exist to him.” Mr. D’Antonio recalled Mr. Trump telling him that he had given Mr. Cohn a place to stay at the end of his life. “Donald thought providing him with something of material worth was adequate,” he said.
In 1989 a helicopter flying from New York to Atlantic City crashed and killed three top executives at Mr. Trump’s Atlantic City casinos. Mr. Trump infamously used the tragedy to his own advantage, planting stories in local newspapers that he had been scheduled to board the aircraft until the last minute and had narrowly escaped death himself. In a later book he admitted he had never been scheduled to fly on the helicopter at all.
Jack O’Donnell, who was the president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino at the time and wrote a scathing book about Mr. Trump, said Mr. Trump processed the deaths mostly as a meteoric hit to his business.
But the night of the crash, Mr. O’Donnell recalled, Mr. Trump did something unusual for him.
“I didn’t think he was capable of it,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “But he flew down to Atlantic City and he personally went to the homes of the widows and spent time with them.” Months later, however, “he blamed those same guys for issues he created,” Mr. O’Donnell said. “It was why I finally left him, in a huge argument.”
A little more than a decade later, when Mr. Trump’s mother was seriously ill, he had to be reminded by his siblings to peel away from work and visit her at the hospital, Mr. Marcus recalled. She died at the age of 88 in 2000, only a year after her husband.
‘A great day for everybody’
In response to this article, Hogan Gidley, a former White House spokesman who has since transitioned over to the campaign, said the president did show empathy. He sent three news clippings as evidence, which all generated positive coverage for Mr. Trump.
One from 1988 recounted how Mr. Trump donated the use of his private jet to fly a sick child to New York for treatment for a rare medical problem. Another detailed an effort by Mr. Trump in 1986 to help a widow raise money to cover her mortgage payments. The third covered Mr. Trump’s $10,000 donation in 2013 to a bus driver who saved a woman from jumping off a bridge.
Last month in the Rose Garden as Mr. Trump highlighted a dip in the unemployment rate, he invoked Mr. Floyd.
“Hopefully, George is looking down right now and saying this is a great thing that’s happening for our country,” he said. “A great day for him, a great day for everybody.”
For Mr. Marcus, the former publicist who had attended Fred Trump Sr.’s funeral 21 years earlier, the president’s words brought on a sense of déjà vu. “It had some parallels with the eulogy he delivered for his father,” Mr. Marcus said. Once again, “it was all about him.”