Will Trump run the country like he runs his businesses?
"Most people are surprised by the way I work," Donald Trump said in a 1987 feature story for New York Magazine. The statement from nearly three decades ago is even more true today as many people try to decipher how Trump's past experience as a business executive will translate into the highest executive office in the country.
According to those who have worked with him over the years, there is much about Trump's management style that has stood the test of time. Trump is still eager to make decisions, he trusts his gut instinct, he is intensely engaged in managing project details, and he tends to have a short attention span.
"He is going to be very entrepreneurial, I can assure you of that," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said on Tuesday. Corker, who is in the running to be Trump's Secretary of State and has met the president-elect on multiple occasions. His conclusion on Trump's style as politician: "He is going to be approaching things in a very different way."
Looking at the structure of the Trump Organization already demonstrates the enormous gap between the traditional management of government, through layers upon layers of bureaucracy, and the lean "entrepreneurial" approach Trump may take to government as president.
Trump critic and one-time biographer, Timothy O'Brien interviewed a former Trump executive, Blanche Sprague, who described the New York office of the Trump Organization as "about eight or 10 close 'executives,'" supported by secretaries and accountants. In that environment, "everybody did everything." That tight structure extended to his presidential campaign. As the campaign was entering its final months, Trump's team consisted of around 100 staffers, a very tight ship compared to Hillary Clinton's campaign, which was running an army of more than 650 staffers.
Gwenda Blair is a Trump biographer and author of The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a President. Blair observed a kind of "creative competition" in the way Trump approached managing personnel in his companies. Similar to his reality TV show, The Apprentice, Trump would choose multiple people to perform one job and let them fight it out to see who came out on top.
"I think Trump's way of looking at it is, you push people as hard as possible and you get the most out of them, and if there is a very competitive environment, all the better, they'll do their best," Blair said. She highlighted the highly competitive environment surrounding Trump's picks for Secretary of State seems as an example of this tactic.
Jan Jones, worked with Trump in writing her book on business leadership, The CEO’s Secret Weapon, and got insight into the way Trump scouted talent. In an interview with Jones, Trump described his process for selecting his long-time assistant, Norma Foerderer.
"I like people who can work independently," Trump said. "Granted, they need to know what you want or need, but I’m not a micromanager by any means."
The statement from the man himself directly contradicts recent reports from former Trump employees who accused Trump of delving into the smallest of details. Reuters recently reported on Trump's "obsessive attention to detail," as evidenced by his intensely hands-on approach to his latest project, a new luxury hotel on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.
According to Trump's own statements, he is "very much involved in the details," from the design of the building to the marble in the bathrooms. The tendency to become too involved in details, may prove to be a stumbling block for Trump. Already, Trump has promised to simultaneously overhaul health care, embark on a massive infrastructure building program, renegotiate trade deals, and manage the day to day national security enterprise of the United States.
Jones does not see Trump's engagement in terms of "micromanagement," but a style of leadership that many executives practice as a kind of "floor walker," checking in at the ground level to ensure the operation is running smoothly from top to bottom.
Altogether, Donald Trump is "a walking contradiction on so many levels," according to Blair. At times he exhibits a kind of unpredictable, almost erratic showmanship. On Twitter, Trump has been accused of delving into abject banality, attacking a former Miss Universe, or re-tweeting a 16-year-old supporter. But there is a reason he gained a reputation as a tough, well-prepared deal maker in the real estate world, Blair insisted.
"I think we are going to see, he is more shrewd than he looks," Blair commented.
Jones explained that as a CEO, Trump not only demonstrated an ability to command details and think on his feet, but those qualities she observed make him "absolutely" capable of mastering the various subject matters that will come across his desk in the Oval Office, from domestic to foreign affairs.
Trump himself acknowledged in his 1990 book, that his "attention span is short," an observation that was made by others. In 1987, he described a typical day scheduling around 100 phone calls and at least a dozen meetings, "few of them last longer than fifteen minutes."
Tony Schwartz, the ghost-writer of Trump's famous 'The Art of the Deal,' has described Trump's short attention span as a huge liability in the White House. Sitting down with Trump to discuss the substance of the book, Schwartz recalled Trump was bored and appeared "like a kindergartner who can’t sit still in a classroom.”
In an interview with The New Yorker, Schwartz accused Trump of having “a stunning level of superficial knowledge and plain ignorance...That’s why he so prefers TV as his first news source—information comes in easily digestible sound bites.”
The accusations have been repeated by others who have worked with Trump. "He doesn't have the patience to sit in meetings," according to Barbara Res, who oversaw the construction of the Trump Tower in the 1980's.
Jack O'Donnell, who served as president of the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, said that Trump "reacts to what he sees and hears in the moment; he is a poor listener."
Trump has already reportedly skipped out on many of his daily intelligence briefings, which are available to the president-elect to prepare him for the national security challenges he will face the first day he takes office.
Trump acts on instinct, and listed among his life lessons: "Listen to your gut." That instinct has led Trump to gamble on people who were unconventional picks for a job, and on business ventures, like investing in New York's waning real estate market when others were pulling out.
Of course, much of Trump's personal liability for these gambles has been stripped, argues Timothy O'Brien, because the businessman rarely exposed himself personally to excessive loss.
“It's called OPM. I do it all the time in business. It's called other people's money. There's nothing like doing things with other people's money because it takes the risk -- you get a good chunk out of it and it takes the risk," Trump said on the campaign trail in September.
Trump began his foray into the real estate business supported with a $1 million provided by his father, Fred Trump. In later years,Trump amassed as much as $3.4 billion in debt from top Wall Street lenders, and raised additional millions from bondholders and stockholders, according to O'Brien. He plunged much of his fortune into his casinos, including the Taj Mahal, Marina, and Trump Plaza casinos in Atlantic City and Trump Entertainment Resorts, casinos that famously went bust and were behind three of Trump's four bankruptcies.
The fallout from the casino bankruptcies also produced a devastating impact on the thousands of workers once employed by Trump.
O'Brien concludes that "it will be worth remembering that he hasn't proven to be a very reliable steward of OPM over the years. That's something to consider if you're a taxpayer thinking of becoming the next person to open your wallet to Trump."
The opinions over whether or not Trump was a successful businessman are as polarized as those opinions on whether he will successfully lead the country. It is entirely possible that Trump will use his skills as an aggressive, competitive deal-maker to further benefit himself. It is also possible that he will push boundaries, take risks on new talent, and not shy away from pressing his competition in a way that benefits the country as whole.
"The gamble he has offered the American public," Blair said, "is whether he is going to do that in the national interest."