Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, author-journalist Garry Wills suggested that one way to evaluate political candidates, not to mention everyone else, is by “the human test of the company they keep.” In Donald Trump’s case, Wills argued in the New York Review of Books, “The circle of his trusted intimates is severely constricted — to those he can use or want to use him.”
“Where are the historians, philosophers, or poets he admires or who admire him?” Wills asked rhetorically, as if he didn’t already know the answer.
To hear Trump tell it, he cherishes hundreds — thousands? — of friendships that transcend racial, religious, and national boundaries. (See this hilarious video collage.) Yet last year, Billy Procida, a Trump vice president for some 15 years, told the New York Times, "He doesn’t really have a lot of friends. Pretty much all he does is work and play golf.”
Wills’s thesis might explain why Trump appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a governmental neophyte, to “a leadership role in my administration” — helping implement Trump’s policy agenda, negotiating peace between Israelis and Palestinians, heading the White House Office of American Innovation, and serving as (in Trump’s words) “the primary point of contact for presidents, ministers, and ambassadors from more than two dozen countries." There just isn’t anyone else Trump really trusts.
By contrast, Wills contended, Hillary Clinton seems to have kept every friend she ever had, “from school days on,” and her friendships include “people of real achievement in various fields,” like writers Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison and civil rights historian Taylor Branch.
Developers and money managers
Since the Garry Wills essay appeared last fall, I’ve kept my eyes peeled for people described as — or claiming to be — Trump’s friends. The results of my admittedly unscientific survey follow. If you’re pressed for time, I’ll save you the suspense: This group is devoid of poets and philosophers.
Begin with the following eight, listed in April by Town & Country magazine as “Trump’s closest friends”:
- Thomas Barrack, manages $60 billion in assets with Colony Capital fund.
- Steve Feinberg, head of Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity fund.
- Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor.
- Richard Lefrak, New York real estate developer.
- Howard Lorber, New York real estate developer and cigarette magnate.
- Linda McMahon, pro wrestling promoter.
- Christopher Ruddy, head of Newsmax Media and a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, “longtime friend” (Washington Post, February 13, 2017).
- Keith Schiller, Trump’s bodyguard for the past 16 years.
Other references I've found, in alphabetical order:
- John Boehner, former House speaker; said he’s been friends with Trump for 15 years (Associated Press, May 27, 2017).
- David Decker, publisher of the National Enquirer; described as “the president’s close friend” (New York Times, July 1, 2017).
- Jim Justice, coal baron and West Virginia governor, fond of invoking his ties with Trump, e.g., “We’re good friends” (New York Times, May 3, 2017).
- Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s “friend and personal lawyer” (New York Times, May 26, 2017).
- Ronald Lauder, cosmetics heir, “one of Mr. Trump’s closest Jewish friends” (New York Times, May 6, 2017).
- Jorge Pérez, Miami condo developer; Trump’s partner in ventures “for several decades” (New York Times, February 18, 2017).
- Professional golfers. “All these players are his friends,” Trump’s son Eric told the New York Times prior to the Senior Professional Golf Association Championship (May 27, 2017).
- Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, described as Trump’s “old friend” (New Yorker, July 31, 2017).
The recap: This group consists of two money managers, three real estate developers, three politicians, three media barons, one coal baron, one wrestling promoter, one cosmetics heir, and two Trump employees. Oh yes, and several dozen professional golfers.
Of these, two might be described as “legacy friends”: Richard Lefrak, whose father did real estate deals with Trump’s late father, and Ronald Lauder, whose mother, the late cosmetics queen Estée Lauder, is said to have been among the first of Manhattan’s social elite to accept Trump when he arrived on the scene as a young developer from Queens.
How deep are these friendships? In March 2016, when the New York Times asked Trump to name his best friends, he cited the aforementioned Lefrak (who has known Trump for more than 40 years) and Lorber. But when the Times sought out Lefrak for a comment, the response wasn’t exactly effusive.
“Donald has some friends like me,” Lefrak replied, “but he’s much more of a homebody than you’d think. He’s very gregarious and has lots of acquaintances. But people that he’s close to? Not so many… He’s the kind of guy who likes throwing hand grenades in the room. There’s a lot of intensity and energy, a lot of publicity and other stuff. Being friends with Trump is like being friends with a hurricane.” As Barbra Streisand put it: people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.