Sitting down for an interview with PEOPLE on a rare day off from campaigning March 18 (and again backstage at his rally in Tucson, Arizona the next day), Donald Trump is his usual, gregarious self.
“Look at that picture of me on Time,” he says, gesturing to a huge stack of magazines bearing his image (along with the words “bully”, “showman”, “party crasher” and “demagogue.”) “It’s a movement! Isn’t that an amazing picture? It’s been a lot of fun.”
It’s been six months since PEOPLE last sat down with Trump, and in that gap, a lot has changed. The Republican presidential hopeful has won 20 of the 32 nominating contests. He’s also become a target: the morning of the interview, it was revealed that Anonymous had hacked his phones, releasing his social security number and private telephone numbers. The day prior, his son Eric received a threatening letter filled with white powder. And there has been increasing tension at his rallies, as Trump supporters and protestors clash.
Throughout the interview, half a dozen Secret Service agents stand watch at the 26th floor Trump Tower office of the man they’ve code-named “Mogul.”
But Trump, 69, sees only what he wants to see – starting with the 7.9 million primary and caucus votes that put him on top of what remains (that would be Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich) of the once-crowded Republican field.
“It is,” Trump tells PEOPLE, “the biggest story in politics.”
His fans view him as a straight-talking savior, while GOP officials barely conceal their hopes of denying him the nomination in July. And the top word his detractors associate him with is “narcissist.” But who can know the real Trump when he deflects serious questions with non-sequiturs? When PEOPLE asks about the comparisons that have been made between him and Adolf Hitler, Trump peels off a quick “Well, that’s ridiculous,” then says it’s all because “the last person Hillary [Clinton] wants running against her is me.”
Complicating attempts to understand him is his insistence that his public persona isn’t the same as his private one. “I think I’m somewhat different. I’m a much nicer person than people would think, to see me from the outside,” Trump says.
“On the one hand you might see that as bad. But on the other hand you don’t want people to know you that well.”
What His Friends and Critics Say
Friends vouch for the alter-ego premise, saying that Trump’s bellow and bluster (critics call it bigotry and buffoonery) is an act, put on by a salesman and reality TV star for ratings.
“Donald is a showbiz guy, and his talk is his shtick,” says one friend, Christopher Ruddy. Another, Omarosa Manigault, who starred on Trump’s TV competition series The Apprentice, says he hasn’t yet “made the total shift from entertainer.”
Both, like a dozen others who know Trump personally, tell PEOPLE that this offstage Trump – “caring and kind,” says Ruddy; “far more thoughtful and measured,” as British journalist and Apprentice alum Piers Morgan put it – is the real Trump.
Whether or not the public persona is schtick, it concerns some who’ve seen the presidency from the inside.
“The depth and gravity of the responsibility of the office seem to elude Trump so far,” says Mark Pfeifle, former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush. “No one knows if reading the [CIA’s daily terror-threat briefing] would sober him.”
WATCH: Donald Trump Calls for ‘Peace and Happiness’ Amid Violence at Rallies
As for his often random-seeming personal attacks, friends explain that he expects loyalty. “If you’re in Donald’s camp and you’re good to him, he’s unbelievably good,” Morgan 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 Atlantic City’s embattled Trump Taj Mahal casino in print in 1990. “He has a lot of people out there who think he’s godlike. But it could get vicious.”
For much more of our two-part interview with Donald Trump, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Trump’s opponents have seen that first hand – most recently, when he took to Twitter slamming Ted Cruz’s wife Heidi in retaliation for a nude meme of his wife Melania tweeted by an anti-Trump Super PAC.
Biographer Michael D’Antonio says his frequent insults are part of an attention-seeking strategy. “He’s told me that he is aware of how extreme the media is, and how you must be extreme to get attention,” D’Antonio says.
That’s a point that Trump himself concedes.
“From the speaking standpoint, I would tone it down somewhat [as president] – don’t forget I started out competing against 17 people,” he says.
And while he adds that his wife, Melania, 45, and daughter Ivanka, 34, “beg” him to be more presidential on the campaign trail, the unvarnished routine is working.
“Sometimes when you have to be very tough with somebody who’s being tough with you, you can’t be so presidential,” he says. “I think it works to my advantage most of the time.”