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Knee to Knee with President Trump

In 2009 I had the rare distinction of sitting knee to knee for an interview with the man who is now our president and perhaps one of the most controversial leaders of modern history. Ironically, for a man with such a bellicose presidential demeanor, we talked about the power of positive emotion, heart, the importance of having a big dream, and not letting defeat get you down. I was interviewing, then Mr. Trump, for a personal transformation program I had developed with former world heavy weight champion and beloved grill pitchman, George Foreman. George had been through a personal transformation after his defeat to, Mohammad Ali, that changed him from the menacing man of his youth into one of the kindest, happiest people I had ever known. As a die-hard marketer, I reasoned that if we could figure out how to bottle what George had, we would have a winning personal transformation program.

Mr. Trump agreed. He had known George during his invincible days before his loss to Ali, and witnessed his transformation in the years following. He was providing an endorsement of the program. He was doing it as a solid for George and did not charge a fee in favor of backend points. At the time I had no concept that the man I was interviewing in a tiny conference room in Trump Tower would one day become the most powerful man in the free world. But there were cues that had a foreboding about them as I reflect on those 23 minutes. The first cue began as he approached the conference room where we had set up our camera gear.

Exactly at the appointed arrival time, an excited current went through the office floor we were on as The Donald himself approached. Had it been a Shakespearean play there would have been the kind of stage direction you would find in Julius Caesar. “Flourish. Enter Caesar.” Flourish refers to the accompaniment of trumpets when a king or person of great importance enters a space. There were no trumpets, but there might as well have been. I could hear multiple people whispering. “He’s coming. He’s coming.” I was surprised by the extent of it. These were his employees after all, weren’t they used to seeing him? And while he was a very famous businessman and reality show star, he wasn’t the Pope or the president…yet. The excitement around his entrance seemed out-sized to me.

I had prepared for the interview. I read every book written by and about Trump. My questions had been dutifully scribed by hand onto index cards with bullets for follow-ups for each question depending on his answers. And like most well laid plans, they all went out the window when he entered and sat down in front of me, literally knee to knee. That’s how small the room was.

He shook my hand, though I had read extensively about how he disliked the germ-ridden ritual. He did not give me the now famous Comey handshake that draws its prey into the irresistible tractor beam of the Trumpian charm. Ours was a short handshake that was all business. His first question was, “How long is this going to take?” Before I could respond he answered his own question. “I’ve kind of done this before. It will be quick. Lets go.” He was also so close to me that I couldn’t look at my cards. It would have been awkward and my questions needed to be rapid fire if he was already asking about time. Thankfully, I had done my prep and the questions came to me without the need for reference to the cards.

My second mistake of the interview was that I did not “kiss the ring” on introduction. I had respect for his accomplishments, but he wasn’t on my short list of people I admired most. In retrospect, I probably should have gone more out of my way on that one. Midway through the interview, after a series of quite remarkable answers that weaved the program seamlessly into prose about his own life and the life of George Foreman, he stopped and said, “Come on. I am giving you great answers.” He then turned to The Apprentice camera crew that was filming my interview as ‘b-roll’ for the show and said about me, “He didn’t know about Trump. You guys know about Trump, but he didn’t know about Trump.”

There was a lot being communicated in those few words. Trump, the shameless self-promoter, was speaking the truth. His answers were amazing. He has a genius for giving an audience what it wants. My interview was no exception. His “atta boy” to himself was wholly unnecessary. His excellence was plain to see. And then he followed up by referring to himself in the third person. “He didn’t know about Trump.” As if the actor was breaking the fourth wall for a moment to comment on his character while using the opportunity to take a gentle swipe at the interviewer as a means of elevating himself. In a funny way, it was all part of his charm machine. His breach of the fourth wall was said with a confident wink, but belied a deep, insatiable insecurity. He was kind of joking. But more, he was feeding a desperate need to be acknowledged. I remember distinctly how surprised I was by this impression. It is the same insecurity suffered by some of the most beautiful people on the planet. You can’t believe that they are actually insecure about their looks. No matter how many people compliment them on their beauty, they can never hear it enough. Trump’s appetite for validation is similarly bottomless.

We talked much about the importance of having a “big dream”. It was part of the program and he nailed it. The concept of needing a big dream as a north star clearly resonated with him. That big dream ultimately landed him in the White House, against all odds. We also talked about overcoming adversity. He was very open about being $9.2 billion in debt at one point in his life. He said it never got him down. “I showed up to work and kept at it. I didn’t quit and that was the key.” I guess time will tell if he got a little bail-out money from the Russians. His purpose in that answer was to inspire people by showing that, if he can pull out of a $9.2 billion dollar death spiral, it is possible for anyone. In that regard, he delivered in spades. It was also heartening to hear him talk about his failings with a degree of humility. You don’t hear him doing that anymore. In the end, his biggest piece of advice was to do what you love. “You have to love what you do. If you love what you do, you can endure anything.” Like the boxer’s heart that lifts a man to his feet after being pummeled, if you are powered by heart, you can conquer anything.

We may need to bear this in mind as we endure these very troubling times. The planet and all of its inhabitants are worth fighting for. Even if it means getting up off the mat time and time again. The George Foreman Power of Joy program never saw the light of day due to forces beyond anything having to do with George and Trump. It’s one of those projects, and we all have a version, where you look back and wonder what might have been had it gotten off the ground. But I do not lament. I got to interview the man who would be president. And I got to know a man who is on my short list of people I admire most, the truly remarkable and inspiring man that is George Foreman.