Mary Trump has been emailing a mutual friend to ask about the right decorum for our Lunch. “I’m not sure what kind of food to have — finger sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, kippers?” she wrote. “It’s very stressful.”
When we meet I try to reassure the president’s niece that she should stop being self-conscious: as a Brit, that’s my prerogative. Yet here she is frantically shifting baskets of clothes out of my field of vision. She has had to retreat to her bedroom because PBS has sent her two cameras to facilitate interviews from her living room. “I’m really sorry about the mess,” she says.
Dressed in a mild pink semi-buttoned-up shirt, Trump, who is 55 and gay — the first in her family to come out — looks quite at home in her apparent chaos. Since she published her memoir last month of what it was like to grow up in the Trump family, her life has been turned inside out.
The book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, is the non-fiction publishing hit of the year. She depicts the household in which America’s 45th president was raised as a kind of modern-day Bleak House: few families could be as grasping and avaricious as she describes the Trumps. Naturally, her uncle has dismissed the book as fake news, which almost certainly helped sales. It shifted nearly a million copies on its first day.
Not bad for your debut, I say, after she has finished beautifying her room. “There are a couple of weird things about it,” Trump replies. “The first is that nothing’s changed. I’m still trapped in my house [in Long Island, New York]. I can’t celebrate or meet people. Much more gratifying than the sales is the way it’s landing. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six.”
Having consumed her memoir in one sitting — it is a vivid read and horrifically compelling — I am left with an overriding question. How did she emerge from her family the way she did? As a bibliophilic clinical psychologist, she seems to have no overlapping traits with her uncle.
“I check off no boxes that would put me in the family, which is excellent,” she declares. Do you like golf, I ask, with the US president’s favourite pastime in mind. “I hate golf, it’s not a sport — and think of what we could do with all of that land,” she says. What about wine, I suggest, with her uncle’s teetotalism in mind. “I appreciate the finer things in life in moderation and in a way that none of them ever could,” she says.
It was love of books that set her apart when she was growing up. As the daughter of Fred Trump Jr, the president’s older brother, who was frozen out of the family by its paterfamilias, Fred Trump Sr, Mary Trump was raised in Queens, New York, on the other side of the tracks from the rest of the family. Fred Jr briefly shone as an airline pilot, landing what was then considered to be a glamorous job at TWA.
That feat failed to impress his father, who likened it to being a “bus driver in the sky”. Shunned and mocked by his family, Fred Jr lost his self-confidence and returned, tail between legs, to the family real estate business. He increasingly took to the bottle. After a failed attempt to set up a fishing business in Florida, he spent the rest of his days working on Trump Organization maintenance crews.
The night he died, no member of the family visited him in hospital. His brother Donald, who was always treated as the heir apparent, though he was almost eight years younger, was at a movie. America’s president always cites his brother as the reason he shuns alcohol.
Mary Trump grew up in what she describes as a “shitty Trump apartment” in the gritty housing projects of Jamaica, Queens, quite different to the rarefied air of the nearby Jamaica Estates where the rest of the family lived. That gave her a grounding in reality. She took the subway to school. And she devoured literature. In her memoir, she recounts that her grandfather’s house did not display a single book until her uncle published his ghostwritten The Art of the Deal in the late 1980s.
“I started reading when I was three and a half,” Trump says. “My horizons were already broader than anyone else in the family simply by virtue of that.”
I am by now working my way through a branzino and mozzarella salad from a local Italian restaurant in Washington DC. Trump has not touched the avocado and cucumber sushi she ordered, nor the miso soup. It turns out that she is also a vegetarian, which is possibly her most unTrumpian quality of all.
What does she remember of her father, I ask. Though Trump began our conversation haltingly (another unfamilial characteristic), she is beginning to speak with mounting fluency. She has been waiting a long time to tell this story.
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“By the time I was born, the man my father had been — the guy who has this incredible circle of friends, who would rent a seaplane to go tuna fishing or hammerhead shark fishing, who was so smart — he didn’t exist by the time I was born,” she replies. “Even worse, because I grew up watching how they treated him over time — and he wasn’t the greatest dad because he was an alcoholic who lived in such a depleted way, while Donald walked around like he was running the world, as though he were self-made — I bought into the family line. I didn’t respect my father either.”
I say that the most heart-stopping line of her book takes place in late 1999, when she telephoned her grandmother Mary Anne Trump — her father’s and Donald Trump’s Scottish-born mother — to discuss her disinheritance from Fred Sr’s estate. Because they were the children of Fred Jr, who had died many years before, a semi-recluse, aged 42, Mary and her brother were almost completely cut out. Mary thought that her grandmother — to whom she believed she was close — would sympathise. “You know what your father was worth?” Mary Anne asked her granddaughter. “A whole lot of nothing.” Then she hung up. That was the last time they spoke.
That must have hurt, I say. “More than anything else it put things in perspective,” Trump says. “I wasn’t just disinherited monetarily, it meant they didn’t love me, or acknowledge me, or respect me, and all of those things also applied to my dad. I have no family. I just projected stuff on to my grandmother because it was too grim to think she was like my grandfather.”
Much of her book is an account of how America’s president became the man he is today after having witnessed the crushing humiliation to which his softer-hearted, slightly dreamy older brother was subjected. Fred Sr simply “obliterated” Fred Jr’s character, Trump says. The lesson Donald Trump drew from his brother’s treatment was to be ruthless, unkind and purge all trace of empathy, she says. Winners must amputate their hearts. That was the only way Donald Trump could earn his father’s attention.
What would she have thought if somebody had told her that one day he would be president of the US? She laughs.
“Oh, man. I would have thought I had accidentally taken acid — a bad trip.” It was not until she was in her twenties, when she briefly agreed to ghostwrite a Trump book, that she took the full measure of her uncle’s character.
“I didn’t understand that he didn’t do anything,” she says. “Basically, we all knew he was an asshole, but he was our asshole. Because I was his niece, I didn’t know until then how horrible he was with women. It was really easy not to know some of the horrific things he was getting away with. Even then, it was clear he was not a competent person. Just his superficiality and total lack of intellectual curiosity, and his immaturity — the way he would write these notes in blue flare markers [on pieces about him] and call journalists dogs and mail it to them . . . ”
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Was her family the reason she chose to become a clinical psychologist? Trump’s first degree was from Tufts, in English literature — mostly Victorian but also earlier. One of her favourite novels is Clarissa, the lengthy mid-18th-century English tragedy about a young lady whose romantic notions of life are gradually crushed by her avaricious family. She eventually dies of anorexia. “I’m embarrassed to tell you how many times I’ve read Clarissa,” Trump admits.
After graduating, she and her brother were disinherited, which prompted her to seek a more financially rewarding pursuit than literature. “It’s not a great story, and it has nothing to do with wanting to understand my family,” Trump says. “I’d been in therapy for a long time and it grew out of my experience as a patient.”
She worked in a “state psych hospital” for many years but eventually quit to become a life coach because the work had become so stressful. “A couple of my patients were suicidal,” she says. Her stint as a life coach — “which sounds ridiculous, I know” — did not last very long. Then she turned to internet marketing. Now she plans to be a full-time writer. She has already written most of her next book. “This one is what I always wanted to write,” she says. “It is about my father.”
Her training in clinical psychology nevertheless features strongly in her memoir, I point out. What does she think of the “Goldwater rule”? This is a convention, named after Barry Goldwater, the losing 1964 Republican presidential candidate, adopted by the American Psychiatric Association. Many psychiatrists surveyed by Fact magazine had diagnosed Goldwater as mentally unstable for, among other things, talking so glibly about using nuclear weapons against the Soviets. The article caused such controversy that the APA pronounced it unethical for practitioners to diagnose public figures on whom they had not conducted an examination.
Trump lights up at my question. “The Goldwater rule is absurd,” she says. “So we can talk about a candidate’s physical health but not their mental health? What’s more important? I mean, FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] had polio and was in a wheelchair but he was perfectly capable of being president and getting us through World War II. It starts with the absurdity of separating mental and physical health when they’re the same thing. Isn’t there a duty to warn?”
I remind Trump that on the very morning of our Lunch, her uncle has mused on Twitter about postponing the November election. He has repeatedly declared that it will be the most fraudulent election in American history. Is there anything Donald Trump would not do to keep in power, in her view? “No,” she replies. “The only thing that matters to him is saving his own skin. He is the kind of man who, if he feels he is going down, he’s going to take all of us down with him.”
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She embarks on a disquisition about how America’s real culprits are those who enable her uncle to do what he does — people such as William Barr, the US attorney-general, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader. “It’s not that they like him, or care if he goes to jail,” she says. “They are getting so much power out of this and they don’t want it to stop.”
Do you think that your uncle likes himself, I ask. There were passages in her book where I felt sorry for the younger version of her uncle. What does he see when he looks in the mirror? “I have always had this idea in my head that what Donald sees when he stares in the mirror is somebody who looks like Adonis,” she says. “But behind that reflection, he sees himself as a little boy standing next to my grandfather.” She adds that Fred Jr is lying on the ground before them.
And what about her cousins, Donald Jr, Ivanka, Eric and Tiffany? She mentions infamous pictures of Donald Jr and Eric standing triumphantly next to various dead game in Africa, including a leopard, an elephant, a buffalo and a waterbuck. “I mean, an elephant?” she says. “That is even worse than a leopard or a rhino because what does an elephant ever do? It’s grotesque. It’s like a weird bid to prove how tough they are, and I mean, how tough is it to kill an elephant? I don’t think it’s very difficult when you have a bazooka.”
I ask Trump if she will ever see her uncle again. The family tried to have her book banned, claiming it breached a non-disclosure agreement that she signed to settle a lawsuit after her disinheritance. The last time Mary Trump saw her uncle was at a family gathering at the White House shortly after he took office. When her book was published, Donald Trump tweeted that his “seldom seen niece” was a “mess” who “knows little about me, says untruthful things about my wonderful parents (who couldn’t stand her!) and me, and violated her NDA”.
Will they ever meet again? “No,” she replies. Then, after a pause: “Honestly, if I were prepared to do some TV thing with him for the ratings, I think he would do it. But I think it’s fair that none of the rest of them would want to see me again.”
It feels a lugubrious note on which to wrap up. Trump has still not touched a morsel. It strikes me that Trump’s whole life is now likely to be defined by this election-eve literary missile aimed at her uncle. I point out that not many people can say they survived the Trumps. She laughs.
“Someone once compared the Trumps to the Borgias [the corrupt Spanish-Aragonese family that captured the Vatican],” she says. “But at least the Borgias supported the arts.”
Edward Luce is the FT’s US national editor
This article has been amended since original publication to reflect the origins of the Borgias
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