Few political figures in modern American history have been as divisive as Donald Trump.
The GOP front-runner’s controversial rhetoric has drawn crowds as large as 25,000 to his rallies – while simultaneously inspiring a slew of protests. His supporters hail him as the antidote to establishment politics, a straight-talking leader who’s got what it takes to “make America great again” – while rivals and critics call him “dangerous,” “xenophobic” and “sexist.”
But behind the Trump phenomenon is a complicated man who seems to have the respect – and fear – of friends and foes alike. Here’s what some of them have to say about the real Donald Trump.
Several friends of the real estate mogul tell PEOPLE that his bellow and bluster is an act, put on by a salesman and reality-TV star for ratings.
• Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio says there’s a calculated “brilliance” to Trump’s head-snapping utterances to the media. “He’s told me that he is aware the media is extreme, and how you must be extreme to get attention,” D’Antonio says.
• “Donald is a showbiz guy, and his talk is his shtick,” says Trump’s friend Christopher Ruddy. The offstage Trump, he adds, is “caring and kind.”
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• Another friend, Omarosa Manigault, who starred on Trump’s TV competition series The Apprentice, says he hasn’t “made the total shift from entertainer.”
And “when it comes to diversity, he puts his money where his mouth is,” adds Manigault, who credits Trump with financing her idea of a minority version of The Bachelorette and letting her take it to an all-black network.
• “He’s a showman. He loves a big stage, and the world revolves around Donald Trump,” says British journalist and Apprentice alum Piers Morgan. But the real Trump, Morgan adds, is “far more thoughtful and measured.”
“If you’re in Donald’s camp and you’re good to him, he’s unbelievably good,” the journalist says.
• “But you never want to cross him,” cautions Marvin Rothman, a retired casino-gaming analyst who lost his job rather than rescind his comments and apologize to Trump for bad-mouthing in print Atlantic City’s embattled Trump Taj Mahal casino in 1990. “He has a lot of people out there who think he’s god-like. But it could get vicious.”
For much more of our special report on Donald Trump, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
• A Jewish member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in South Florida credits him with “really opening Palm Beach to the Jewish population.”
• Another club member and longtime friend, Robin Bernstein, says Trump is a “workaholic deep thinker He asks many people around him the same questions because he wants to hear all sides of an issue.” Berstein adds that he’s truly supportive of women.
• Other longtime observers of Trump see him in a less flattering light. “We used to have a back-and-forth,” says Barbara Res, an engineer and attorney whose work with Trump on his construction projects from 1978 to 1996 is chronicled in her memoir, All Alone on the 68th Floor. “And I saw a change. He didn’t want to hear what others had to say. He just wanted to say what it was and that was it.”
• Alan Pomerantz, who oversaw Trump’s sale of prized assets to avoid bankruptcy, says of the billionaire businessman, “I think he believes everything he says at the moment he says it. I truly think that he believes he can get Mexico to build a wall.”
• Reporting by SANDRA SOBIERAJ WESTFALL, DIANE HERBST and AILI NAHAS