Wednesday morning, September 2, 1987. It started out with news item on a Philadelphia area morning drive-time show featuring Atlantic City casino owner Donald Trump spending almost $100,000 ($207,000 in today’s dollars) of his own money to take out full-page newspaper ads attacking Japan and Saudi Arabia—and indirectly, President Reagan—for allowing the United States military to defend the interests of those nations for free. These ads with the banner headline read “There’s nothing wrong with America’s Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can’t cure,” and it ran in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Boston Globe.
Expecting some interest because of Trump’s nonstop media exposure in the New York and Philadelphia media markets, the New York Times also ran this brief story on page A12, titled “Trump Gives A Vague Hint of Candidacy.” From the story:
…While some campaign consultants scoffed at the notion of a landlord and casino owner as candidate, Mr. Trump, whose total holdings are estimated at $3 billion, stoked the speculation with a statement from a spokesman that said: ”There is absolutely no plan to run for mayor, governor or United States senator. He will not comment about the Presidency.”
Mr. Trump was not available to comment on whether he means to be taken seriously as someone pondering running for President, or was just stirring up a little smoke to draw attention to himself or his views. . . .
. . . His trip to New Hampshire is in response to an invitation from Mike Dunbar, a Republican who is running a ”draft Donald Trump” movement.
Mr. Dunbar, who is well known in New Hampshire Republican circles as both conservative and off-beat, said he has arranged for Mr. Trump to speak at a Rotary Club luncheon on Oct. 22 in Portsmouth. ”There’s not a Republican running who can win the general election,” Mr. Dunbar said. ”I decided we better find someone who is capable of being elected.”
There was one other fascinating tidbit in this brief article:
Mr. Trump, who is 41 years old, has no particular background in foreign policy. His real-estate holdings are largely in New York, Atlantic City and West Palm Beach, Fla.
He did, however, travel to Moscow in July, where he met with the Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The ostensible subject of their meeting was the possible development of luxury hotels in the Soviet Union by Mr. Trump.
Although the Times’ online archives for that era do not contain ads, your author’s public library does indeed have the microfilm archives, which contains this ad on page A16; and in an American Greatness exclusive, we present it online now for the first time.
Reaction to the ad was swift, strong, and nationwide, far exceeding anything either Trump or the Times expected. At the time, Larry King owned the 9 p.m. time slot on television, and his producers scrambled to book Trump. This led to a fascinating 19-minute extended conversation with the host, where Trump railed on about our trade deficit costing us $200 billion per year, while the Japanese and Saudis laugh to themselves.
He also criticized Japan’s unfair trade practices. And three decades later, Trump correctly replaced “Japan” with “China” on the campaign trail.
Significantly, he discussed the sorry state of the Republican establishment, and why he did not want to run in 1988—presciently, he predicted the next president would be a one-termer.
In a preview of his July 21, 2016 campaign rally speech where he “shockingly” claimed the United States might not defend other NATO members if they did not uphold their treaty obligations to “pay their fair share” by spending 2.0 percent of GDP on defense, he accused other NATO members, namely West Germany, of inadequate spending.
The following Monday, the Times plaintively bawled in an editorial that we needed to maintain the status quo because if West Germany armed up, the big scary Russian bear would react. But the editors grudgingly admitted Trump’s facts and figures were correct.
Thirty years ago, Newsweek’s Bill Powell and Peter McKillop wrote the September 28, 1987 cover story about Trump’s rise to fame and fortune in a story titled “Citizen Trump.” The article paints a colorful (but sanitized) picture of the “brash billionaire,” annoyed—but also unswayed—by the opinions of others and cocky about his chances should he decide to run for the office of the presidency.
Trump’s dip into the 1988 presidential election came to an end on October 22, 1987, when he gave a heavily attended Rotary Club speech in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, put on by local GOP activist Mike Dunbar, who was starting a “draft Trump” campaign. You can read more about it at this link. Trump read the moment and correctly concluded that it wasn’t right. But no one should be surprised that he was ready when the moment followed suit.