It all started with an escalator ride — and escalated from there.
The strains of “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young filled the air as the business mogul made his grand escalator entrance before taking the stage after an introduction by his daughter Ivanka Trump.
It was Day 1 of an unorthodox presidential bid that would go on to upend the GOP and roil the nation.
And there I was at the bottom of the escalator.
It was my first time covering a presidential election, but neither I nor anyone else could have predicted what Trump had in store for 2016.
Much of what the eventual GOP nominee said that first day has stuck with him throughout his campaign, including his slogan, “Make America Great Again” — emblazoned on T-shirts that staffers handed out to audience members outside Trump’s Gucci store on Fifth Avenue — his reliance on daughter Ivanka as a campaign surrogate, and his promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to keep out undocumented immigrants.
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That day, in varying degrees of vagueness, Trump described the many things he believed were holding America back from greatness, while also reminding Americans that he’s “really rich”:
“We don’t have victories anymore,” he declared.
“The American dream is dead,” he said.
“[Politicians] will never make America great again.”
He also uttered this infamous line, which later sent shock waves across the world:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Later, he debuted his plan to build a border wall: “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
The trademark Trump belligerence and barbs were all there, but in retrospect they fell a little flat without the fiercely loyal followers who would soon flock to him to cheer him on — and without the critics who would soon cry foul.
Given the immediate and widespread backlash Trump faced for his wall proposal and comments about Mexican immigrants, his remarks drew no audible gasps or boos from the crowd that day. Raised eyebrows, maybe, but not outrage.
Perhaps that’s because, at the time, not many took the business mogul seriously. After all, he had teased a potential run multiple times over the course of nearly three decades, with 2015 marking the first time he declared that he was officially in the race.
I showed up to his “special announcement” at Trump Tower more than a year ago half expecting it to be a publicity stunt.
It was crowded that day — allegedly with paid extras from a local casting agency — and I remember working my way through the crowd to a press pen where fellow reporters were watching Trump speak on a flatscreen TV.
Fifteen minutes after taking the stage, Trump finally declared: “Ladies and gentleman, I am officially running for president of the United States and we are going to make our country great again.”
The audience erupted into cheers, and “Rockin’ in the Free World” kicked in again on the loudspeakers — but not for long. After a few seconds of nodding along to the music, Trump looked up and signaled brusquely for the music to be cut off.
I couldn’t help but laugh. It was so classic Trump as we knew him then — the gesture of a wealthy, larger-than-life reality TV boss accustomed to dismissing people with a point of his finger or flick of his wrist.
I looked over to see ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, former advisor to Bill Clinton, chuckling as well.
If only we had known what we were getting into.