PALM BEACH, Fla.—Mar-a-Lago was eerily quiet. Hurricane shutters still covered many of the windows, and stacks of sod sat waiting to be planted along the main driveway, in preparation for the club’s official Nov. 1 opening. A receptionist ushered me into the official lobby: an expansive room with a soaring ceiling and a majestic view of the club’s western lawn. It was grand, gilded, and gaudy—a fitting expression of Donald Trump’s ubiquitous brand.
After a short wait, one of Trump’s press aides escorted me into a small room with a fireplace, a wooden bar, and a single round table with four chairs. Moments later, the 45th U.S. president entered, shook my hand, and took a seat. A waiter appeared seemingly out of nowhere to present Trump with— what else?—a can of Diet Coke and a glass of ice.
And with that, we were off and running on a free-form 90-minute conversation on topics ranging from China, the war in Afghanistan, and COVID-19 to General Mark Milley, George W. Bush, and Bob Woodward’s latest book.
On the Border and the Hispanic Vote
“We had the border so perfect,” Donald Trump laments. We’re just a few minutes into our interview at Mar-a-Lago, and he’s already steered the discussion to one of his favorite topics.
“You look at the border, countries are emptying out their prisons, we are like a dumping ground,” Trump says. “This country has changed so much in eight months, more than it has ever changed in its history, in my opinion.”
Trump calls Joe Biden’s handling of the border issue “the most incompetent thing I’ve ever seen” before adding, “until I saw the Afghan withdrawal.”
If Trump’s rhetoric sounds familiar, that’s because it is. When he famously descended on the escalator in Trump Tower on June 16, 2015, to announce his bid for the presidency, he wasted no time in attacking the establishment leaders of both political parties for failing to protect American interests on trade and immigration.
“We are a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” Trump said before continuing with his now infamous line about Mexico not sending its “best” people across the border:
“They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people.”
Trump’s harsh language on illegal immigrants shocked not just liberals and journalists, but also the Republican establishment, which just two years earlier had conducted an “autopsy” on the 2012 election seeking, in part, to explain Mitt Romney’s dismal performance with minority voters, particularly Hispanics. Exit polls showed Romney receiving just 27 percent support from Hispanic voters, the worst showing for a GOP presidential candidate since Bob Dole in 1996.
The party’s establishment’s proposed solution was a more inclusive way of discussing illegal immigration and throwing its collective weight behind Washington’s “comprehensive immigration reform.” After Trump chose the opposite approach, the conventional wisdom in 2016 was that his tough stance and coarse rhetoric would doom him in the general election. It didn’t.
Instead, Trump won a higher percentage of the Hispanic vote than Romney, while shrinking Democrats’ overall advantage with this demographic by eight percentage points. Four years later, Trump increased his share of the Hispanic vote to 32 percent, according to exit polls, but even that understated his strength. According to the Pew Research Center’s validated voter survey of the 2020 election, Trump won 38 percent of the Hispanic vote, up 10 points from 2016.
Why, I ask Trump, did you do so much better with Hispanics in 2020?
“I think they know that I love them. I have great respect for them. They are very entrepreneurial people. Very smart and energetic people, and they see I’m doing the right thing,” he says. “They also know I’m tough on the border, and tough on immigration. And they knew better than anybody else that the border was important. A lot of people thought I was going to hurt myself with the Hispanics with my tough stance on the border. No, they don’t want people coming in taking their jobs, taking their house.”
Trump’s significant gains in majority Hispanic counties along the Texas border were nothing short of eye-popping. He increased his vote share by an average of 26.8 percent in 17 counties in southern Texas with an average Hispanic population of 88.8 percent. Trump recalled getting the news about his performance in border counties in a phone call from Governor Greg Abbott: “He said, ‘We can’t believe it; the numbers you got are the highest anybody’s gotten since Reconstruction. Best numbers we’ve seen since the Civil War.’”
Hispanic voters, Trump says, “understood better than anyone that I was doing the right thing in terms of their lives, the crime, their jobs.” He also reaped massive gains with Hispanic voters in Florida, particularly in the traditional Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County.
“The Democrats can’t believe the Hispanic numbers; they never thought they see that,” Trump says. “If you look at the results in Miami: Cubans, Venezuelans, you look at the numbers in Miami — they are through the roof. The Republicans get decimated in Miami, and I almost won Miami and then the rest of the state was mine.”
He’s right. Trump won 45 percent of Hispanics in Florida, including 58 percent of those of Cuban heritage. In 2016 he lost Miami-Dade to Hillary Clinton by 30 percentage points. Four years later, he lost the county to Joe Biden by just seven points en route to a three-point victory statewide.
Given his success with Hispanic voters, I ask Trump what the Republican Party should do to hold on to the gains he made as the GOP looks to next year’s midterms and beyond. He responds with the most concise answer of our entire 90-minute interview: “They have to hold on to Donald Trump.”
On Milley, Afghanistan, and George W. Bush
U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified Tuesday and Wednesday before the Senate and House armed services committees. These were Milley’s first public appearances since the publication of excerpts from a new book by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, which made several explosive revelations, including the following:
- Milley insinuated himself into domestic politics by conducting backchannel conversations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in which they called President Trump “crazy.”
- He also inserted himself into the chain of command by telling senior U.S. military commanders that they could not launch nuclear weapons without his permission.
- The JCS chairman also made secret phone calls to his military counterpart in the People’s Republic of China, promising to forewarn him of any impending U.S. attack.
While testifying this week, Milley defended his phone calls as fully coordinated and above board, and he denied any suggestion he had attempted to usurp the president’s authority.
Milley’s name came up repeatedly in my interview with Donald Trump last week. After initially disparaging him as “not the brightest bulb,” Trump said that he had liked the general while he was in the White House, but that Milley had changed.
“Don’t forget, he wasn’t this way,” Trump said. “He became this way because he was a politician. He tried curry favor with Biden. I saw that he choked under pressure, and what made him choke was the television camera. He was really bad.”
Trump said keeping Milley on as chairman of the Joint Chiefs is a “bad idea,” but when asked about other senior leadership in the military, he refused to single anyone else out by name as having done a poor job.
“They are good people,” Trump said, referring to other generals he had worked with, “but they make really bad decisions.”
As to Afghanistan, Trump was adamant that his decision to wind down the war was the correct one but ripped President Biden for bungling the exit. “It’s the single most embarrassing moment in the history of our country,” Trump said, adding that had he been in office, his administration would have handled it much better.
“For us to flee,” Trump said, “surrender with ‘hands up,’ and give them the best military equipment in the world, without a shot being fired. I had them at bay. We were going to get out too, but we would’ve got out with dignity and actual victory.”
I asked Trump how much resistance he faced in Washington in ending the war in Afghanistan, despite the policy’s broad popularity with the public.
“I had a lot of resistance from the military, and I had a lot of resistance from Congress,” he said. “A lot of people in Congress didn’t want to leave. . . . They would’ve stayed in forever. We were there for 21 years, and I said 21 years is enough.”
Trump was also unsparing in his criticism of former President George W. Bush, who was back in the news recently on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. At the Pennsylvania memorial to passengers who fought for control of doomed United Airlines Flight 93, Bush paid homage to the “heroism and decency” Americans showed in the face of evil. He also took a thinly veiled shot at Donald Trump and many of his supporters, saying domestic extremists are “children of the same foul spirit” as the violent jihadi terrorists who attacked America in 2001.
For his part, Trump didn’t appreciate the swipe.
“George Bush doesn’t have the right to lecture people, because he blew it,” Trump said dismissively. “Bush made the single greatest mistake in the history of our country, which was going into the Middle East. We spent trillions of dollars and millions of lives (counting both sides) and we are further away from utopia that they were looking for than we were 21 years ago when he did this. It was a terrible decision going into the Middle East, so when I hear him lecturing people, I just don’t think he has the right to do it. He was a failed president.”
Looking To 2024
When I sat down with Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago last week, my plan was to wait until the very end to ask him about running for president again. But before he’d even taken his seat, Trump was touting his 2024 poll numbers.
In nearly every interview he’s done since he left office on Jan. 20, Trump has been asked whether he’ll run again. Each time he has hinted and hedged, teased, and toyed with his answer, saying only that his supporters would be “very happy” with his decision. I decided to ask the question a different way.
“Given your dominance in Republican primary polls, and given that President Biden’s approval ratings have fallen to 45 percent nationally and 31 percent in Iowa and 39 percent in Michigan,” I asked, “why wouldn’t you run?”
Trump parried with a noncommittal answer. “I love the country, and I hate what happened,” he said, adding that since he left office things have “gone to hell. It’s been a terrible time.”
With that, the former president was off and running, lamenting what had taken place in Afghanistan, which led to a lengthy detour. A bit later, however, I gave it another try. “So,” I said, “I know you might do it, but give me one reason you might not do it.”
This time, Trump was somewhat more direct, and a tad fatalistic. “Well, one reason could be your health. You get a call from your doctor and that’s the end of that,” he said. “That stuff happens; you hope it doesn’t. I just had a medical, just had a great result. You never know, there are many things that can happen; politics is a crazy world. It is a big commitment of you, your children, your wife, and your family.”
Trump couldn’t resist delivering his standard line that “people will be very happy with my decision,” adding that his new slogan is “Make America Great Again, Again.”
If Trump still has some doubts about 2024, during the 90-minute interview he expressed no doubts whatsoever about 2020.
“I feel very strongly that the election was rigged,” he said. “I don’t feel like I could’ve lost Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and I just needed a couple of them.”
The issue of the fairness of the election has become the third rail of American politics. Among Trump and a good chunk of his supporters, there is a sincere belief that Democrats took advantage of pandemic-induced rule changes like universal mail-in ballots, ballot harvesting, drop boxes, etc., to corrupt the system enough to allow Biden to eke out victories in key battleground states. To Democrats and most of the media, it strains credulity that Trump could really believe such a thing. They dismiss these claims as “The Big Lie,” citing a host of lawsuits and recounts that have produced no evidence of fraud on anything approaching the scale necessary to have changed the outcome of the 2020 election.
Yet Trump still cannot get past a singular idea: that he could have done so much better in 2020 than in 2016, winning nearly 12 million more votes nationwide than he tallied four years earlier, and still lose the election.
“You win South Carolina big, Alabama by record numbers, then you lose Georgia?” he told me. “Doesn’t happen.”
Trump also mentioned his victories in traditional bellwether states like Ohio and especially Florida where he garnered over a million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016, nearly tripling his margin of victory from 1.2 percent to 3.3 percent. “So many of those metrics that, when you add them all up, it gives very little chance to the other side,” Trump said.
Trump related that, before the election, Republican pollster John McLaughlin told him if he was able to win 64 million votes in 2020, improving on his 2016 total by just 1 million votes, he would win.
“I got 75 million votes and lost,” Trump said, before catching himself and adding, “Supposedly lost. I didn’t lose. You know, I’ve never conceded. It’s OK for Stacey Abrams to not concede, but if I don’t concede . . . ”
Adding to Trump’s skepticism about the accuracy of the election returns was what he experienced on the campaign trail, where he perceived a massive enthusiasm gap in his favor.
“Don’t forget when Biden went out, he couldn’t fill his eight circles. They had to use the press to fill the circles because nobody was there,” Trump said. “And I go out and I’ll get 40,000 or 50,000 people, and then I hear I lost the state? It’s just not possible.”
Trump’s continuing claim that the 2020 election was rigged now presents him, and his party, with a quandary. According to a recent NPR/Marist survey, only one-fourth of Trump’s 2020 voters express a “great deal” or a “good amount” of trust that elections are fair. On the other hand, 72 percent of Trump voters have “not much” trust or “none at all” in the fairness of elections.
Republicans have embarked on a series of legislative measures in state capitals that they insist will restore Americans’ faith in the electoral system and which Democrats and sympathetic journalists have attacked as everything from “Jim Crow 2.0” to “the greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War.” No one needs to guess where Trump comes down: He takes credit for leading the GOP push on voting procedures. “Georgia has a bill, Texas has a bill. Some are stronger than others,” he said. “That’s one of the good things that I have done by being vocal about this.”
Some in his party disagree and wish Trump would stop trying to relitigate the outcome of the 2020 election. Instead, they want him to look ahead and help Republicans win back majorities in the House and Senate in 2022. Trump thinks this is backwards.
“The 2020 election fraud is the biggest and its most energizing issue within the Republican Party,” Trump said, “and a large percentage of elected Republican leaders, including Congress, don’t understand that.”
So far, Trump has a better track record of understanding what rank-and-file Republican voters want than the pundits and politicians in Washington, D.C. Whether he decides to run in 2024 or not, rest assured he will not stop talking about 2020 and the importance of election integrity.
“I used to say you can’t have a country without borders,” Trump said. But these days he adds a qualifier. “You also cannot have a country with a corrupt election process. And we have a very corrupt election process.”
Editor’s note: This series appeared originally at RealClearPolitics.