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Shell Shocked: The Donald Trump I knew

By Staff | Aug 5, 2015

I introduced Donald Trump to the world. Now how would you like that hanging over your head all your life? I guess I get both the credit as well as the blame.

It’s true, folks. When I was in my late 20s I started a public relations firm in New York. One of my very first clients was an as yet undiscovered, unheard of young man named Donald Trump. Donald (never to be called “Don”, by the way) was the son of Fred Trump, a very successful real estate developer who had built his own reputation in that highly competitive New York world.

Donald and I were around the same age when I first met him. He was an extremely bright guy who had recently graduated from the Wharton School of Business. But, even then he was quite full of himself. He was ambitious, self-centered and driven. He wanted to show his dad that he could do it on his own. But, his dad’s connections and assets were certainly not a deterrent to young Donald.

Donald had the look of the young James Dean and Elvis Presley. He was very good looking with natural blonde hair and that pouty look. He got your attention when he walked into a room. All the young women at my budding PR agency certainly felt that way. Even at that age Donald had a car and driver. Most of my meetings with him took place in that limousine. He would pick me up in front of my office building and drive around Manhattan talking business.

And what was business? Donald wanted to be on the front page of every newspaper and magazine. And how was all this to take place? What would be the rationale for the fame he quickly desired? That was the basis for our meetings. He selected me to be his very first public relations representative because he had heard that I, too, was driven and ambitious. And he correctly determined that with a client like him we could go places together. And so our business discussions focused on what he could say and do to get better known as quickly as possible.

It was during those meetings with Donald that I realized he would pretty much say anything within reason to get attention. One day he said to me “Why don’t I sue the federal government for $10 million? That would get me attention.”

I said “If you’re going to sue the federal government, sue them for $500 million, not $10 million. That’ll get you more attention.”

“Now you’re talking,” he said. “What can we sue them for?”

I said “Why don’t you sue them for something like reverse discrimination? Claim that Housing Authority policies are preventing your dad’s real estate developments from allowing more ethnic minorities to reside in them.”

And so I ran Donald Trump’s very first press conference and helped train him to address the media, a challenge he readily accepted. From that day on Donald never had a problem addressing the media. His lawsuit brought him the attention he desired, including a front page article in the Wall Street Journal. Donald began to even better understand the power of publicity as a result of that initial experience.

He and I would go on meeting in his limousine and concoct news together. One day he would announce that he planned to build a new baseball stadium on New York’s west side. Another day he announced plans for a new exhibition center. He wasn’t serious about any of those announcements. They were intended to get him better known. And they did. The New York media sucked it up.

And then he began to be noticed by money people banks, insurance companies, investment trusts. They decided to back him in some of the deals he concocted. So when the day came that he announced that he would be tearing down the venerable Commodore Hotel and building the Grand Hyatt Hotel that news, for once, was based on fact and not pie in the sky. And his deal making was on its way.

Trump got more than his 15-minutes of fame. He got a lifetime. He also got the financial support and backing for his real estate ideas that he needed to succeed. He and I continued to work together for another few years, but finally parted ways. He’d gotten what he wanted and so did I. He became the real McCoy and my public relations firm was up and running. I chose the conservative route and began to represent such corporate giants as American Express, General Foods, Pfizer, Chrysler and Principal Financial Group.

If you would ask Donald Trump today who the first public relations professional he ever worked with was I’m sure he would say me. And if you asked me today if I played a role in getting Donald Trump “discovered” at an early age and helped get him a reputation as a serious deal maker I’d say yes.

Good luck on your presidential run, Donald, old friend. And if you want to bounce any ideas off me as in the old days, just have your limousine pick me up as it once did and we’ll get creative again in the back seat.

-Art Stevens is a long-time columnist for The Islander. His tongue-in-cheek humor is always offered with a smile.