Donald Trump Is 'Still the King': Journalists on Interviewing the Former President at Mar-a-Lago

Four writers tell PEOPLE what it's like to interview former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago and Trump Tower

Former President Donald Trump. Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/getty

In mid-March, just two months after former President Donald Trump was impeached for a second time for "incitement of insurrection," he issued an unexpected invitation to biographer Michael Wolff.

Wolff—whose past two books were derided viciously by their main player, Trump — was floored. He hadn't requested an interview with the former president for his third book, Landslide, one of the many anticipated tomes about the now 75-year-old Trump's shocking last year in office. Instead, Trump sought him out.

Trump was ensconced in his Palm Beach club turned post-White House court Mar-a-Lago. He wanted to chat with Wolff after learning about the book because, "That guy gets ratings. Let's see him," Trump said, according to an insider who spoke to Wolff.

"My reaction was like, 'What the … ?' I could not believe this," Wolff tells PEOPLE about receiving the invitation for an interview with the former president and dinner with the Trumps afterwards. "I went to my wife and I said, 'Okay, what is the wildest thing you could possibly dream?' And, in fact, this was too wild for anyone to dream about. But obviously I said, 'You bet. Just tell me when and I'm there.' "

Landslide by Michael Wolff

Wolff is one of twenty-some authors who have sat down with Trump after he departed the White House. PEOPLE interviewed four such writers, who interviewed the former president in the weeks and months after the riot on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — a historic act of violence that Trump had encouraged with his longstanding and false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

The authors — The Washington Post's Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, Wolff and New York Post's Miranda Devine — paint a vivid and similar portrait of the ousted president. Trump is a king at court, demanding attention and adulation. The throne he sits upon is bolstered by his false belief that the presidency was taken from him. He considers himself the ruler of the Republican party—with the deference of the political right only enflaming his belief more.

"It's his Brigadoon. It is his exile, but he's still the king at Mar-a-Lago," says Leonnig.

"I don't blame you, I blame my people."

Seated in the "Living Room", as the club lobby is known, Wolff remembers Trump kicking off their interview this past spring by addressing Wolff's previous damning portraits of him. (Fire and Fury was published in 2018, followed by Siege a year later. Both resulted in innumerable, equally incriminating headlines, e.g., that aides doubted Trump's mental fitness for office and additional insight into Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.)

"I sit down and he kind of leans into me in a very seductive way, and he said, 'You know, those books that you wrote about me, they were very mean and very wrong, but I don't blame you,' " Wolff says of his conversation with the former president. "'I blame my people.' "

What followed was more than two hours "of Trump monologizing," as Wolff describes Trump's long-winded, contradictory blocks of speech that are transcribed in the epilogue of Landslide.

"You really have to listen to it and see it to understand that there is really no conversation, it is just him talking almost non-stop," says Wolff of Trump's "unique" style of talking. "I believe that if you gave him the opportunity, he could literally talk forever."

Between the barrage of words going Wolff's way, Trump also spoke with the politicians and club guests who came to pay their respects. The Trump charm was firing at full force.

"You think, 'Okay, well, clearly everything he said to me is crazy. It's what a crazy man would say,' " Wolff says of his time interviewing Trump. "And then he kind of steps out of that and there's something kind of compelling, kind of attractive about the guy."

Businessman Donald Trump and wife Melania at the Trump Invitational Grand Prix at Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach, Florida, January 4, 2015
From left: Donald Trump and Melania at the Trump Invitational Grand Prix at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on Jan. 4, 2015. Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis via Getty

Dinner with the former president and first lady was just as revealing. While eating a carnivorous meal ("It was club food," says Wolff. "Here were your choices: meat, meat, meat and meat.") the author watched while the Trumps attended to those who wanted to chat with them.

"At his table, it's not really a conversation, it's not really dinner. It's more the wedding party," says Wolff of the Trumps sitting down in the filled dining room. The Trump table was distinguished by the velvet rope that separated it from the rest.

"They spend the whole time greeting people. People keep coming up to him," Wolff continues. "[Trump] continues his monologue, and again, it doesn't matter who he's talking to, it just goes on."

Wolff, one of the few journalists who has interacted with Mrs. Trump since she left the White House, says the former first lady was "very gracious."

"She's looking at you in a way that says ... It's not the way other politicians and other politician's wives look at you," he remembers. "It is, 'Oh my gosh, she's focused on me.' "

Donald and Melania Trump
Donald and Melania Trump. Davidoff Studios/Getty

(In July, sources explained why Mrs. Trump is so rarely seen. "While Palm Beach is their main residence, the Trumps go back and forth from New York to New Jersey during the summer season," a political source close to former President Trump told PEOPLE. "Melania and her own family do many things together and not necessarily with Donald.")

At one point, Wolff became the "object of interest" at the dinner table, he says. The former president introduced him as "Michael Wolff, the best writer in America," Wolff recalls. He was then introduced to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former White House press secretary who had publicly derided Fire and Fury on the president's behalf.

"[Trump] suddenly calls her over and says, 'Sarah, Sarah, you know Michael Wolff, don't you?' " says Wolff. "And I have never seen a double take like this. She was just flabbergasted, as well she should have been. I was flabbergasted."

The craziness of the Trump administration — and the man himself — is Wolff's reason for writing.

"At the end of the day, I'm not saying this is good or bad or that I have an axe to grind or a political position in this," explains Wolff, who reports in Landslide that Trump is rumored to want to run for office as a representative in Florida in order to begin impeachment proceedings against President Joe Biden.

He adds, "I just want to be able to communicate the intensity of this experience, the ridiculousness of this experience, the inexplicability of this experience, and sometimes, actually kind of often, the comedy of this experience."

A charming host—and election lies

Rucker and Leonnig — whose second book about the Trump administration, I Alone Can Fix It, published in late July, a week after Wolff's Landslide — also address Trump's about-face in seeing them. For their first book, A Very Stable Genius, Trump agreed and then reneged on his promise to chat with them. But this spring, he followed through for the interview for I Alone Can Fix It.

As he was with Wolff, the former president was warm with the two reporters during their meeting in late March. The chat lasted for almost three hours, despite his press secretary Margo Martin's reminder every 30 minutes about how much time had passed.

"We asked some tough questions, but he didn't really get hostile with us, which was unusual," says Rucker. "Because I've interviewed him a lot over the years through my coverage for The Washington Post ... and he had historically been rather hostile at times with me and would get into arguments sometimes. But, in this case, he seemed to enjoy the conversation and the back and forth."

Says Leonnig, "It became clear that he was craving that audience. He was craving being the story, being the center of the narrative and being able to help shape that narrative."

-I Alone Can Fix It by Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker

The reporters sat in the lobby at 5 p.m., just as club guests began milling in for cocktails and dinner. Leonnig noticed that "little trappings of his presidency" were all around them — including Trump's replica of Air Force One as he redesigned it. During their visit, Leonnig and Rucker saw that the former president's son Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, were having dinner, as was his brother Eric Trump and his wife Laura.

During the interview, Guilfoyle walked over, the reporters said. (Fox News' Laura Ingraham and Rep. Dan Crenshaw also called over at different points.)

"[Kimberly Guilfoyle] sort of obsequiously tiptoed over to our setting and pleaded with Donald Trump to come over at her table. She said her friends would love to meet him and that they were huge Trump fans," remembers Leonnig. "All the while, people are setting up dinner around and behind us. They're setting up the raw bar. They're setting up the pasta bar."

(Speaking of the food, Trump graciously offered them dinner after the interview. "The food there is delicious," says Leonnig. "It was absolutely wonderful.")

Trump's generous hospitality was matched by his stream of untruths, according to Rucker and Leonnig.

"I found him to be working kind of overtime to be charming and gracious," Leonnig says. "I was fighting to keep my jaw up off the floor at some of the things he said, including, 'Well, Carol, you know I won Arizona. Everyone knows I won Arizona,' with a completely flat expression."

The former president's commitment to the election lie is a through-line that connects the three separate Trump interviews. Says Leonnig, "I was really impressed by his commitment — his physical, internal commitment — to things that are demonstrably false."

"People still love him."

Instead of a lengthy meeting and dinner at Mar-a-Lago, Miranda Devine interviewed the former president at Trump Tower in New York City in mid-May. But Trump's tune hadn't changed: he wanted to talk about the election.

"He was in a very ebullient mood ... He seemed to be just like what you see on television, basically. Quite funny, cracking a few jokes, and very open, and pretty much just talked," says Devine, who wanted to interview Trump for background information for her upcoming book, Laptop From Hell, which she says provides alarming revelations about President Biden and his son Hunter.

"I wasn't there to talk about the election at all, so I sort of tried to steer it onto the subjects that I was interested in, but he did talk a bit about the election," she explains. "I mean, he was keen to talk about that regardless."

Devine chatted with Trump for more than an hour. She was one of a lineup of journalists he entertained that day. And while dinner guests weren't able to watch them as they do at Mar-a-Lago, Trump was still surrounded by fans, of a sort.

Laptop From Hell by Miranda Devine

"I sat across from his big desk, and he had a pile of letters, probably a foot high. They were from fans around the country," Devine remembers. "On the top of it he had a little box. He showed me, he had a Purple Heart from an Afghanistan vet who'd sent it to him as a token of esteem. So I guess that shows you, people still love him. He's still got that very hardcore group of people."

At one point, Devine says the former president talked about being banned from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. (In the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the president was kicked off multiple social media platforms because of his election lies. He has yet to be reinstated. In July, Trump announced he was suing Facebook, Twitter and Google over the bans.)

"I did ask him about the social media and whether he missed it. And he said, actually, this was better, what he was doing," she says. "He has the emails that he sends out on his letterhead to his enormous audience, which get picked up in the media anyway, so it's worth doing."

Trump told her he sends out the emails, which he dictates to an assistant, as often as he can. "He really likes communicating," says Devine. "And he feels that he's outsmarted the Big Tech."

"It's a sickness."

The former president has a formidable connection to his base — one he's ready and willing to employ. His past and present political power makes sharing the story of the last year of his administration even more urgent. Rucker, Leonnig and Wolff collectively interviewed hundreds of people and wrote their books within four months of Trump leaving office.

RELATED VIDEO: What Melania Trump's Biographers Learned: 'More in It for Her to Stay Than to Go'

"Even if you thought you knew what happened in 2020, even if you thought you knew all the Trump stories, you didn't, you don't," says Rucker. "Carol and I covered this in real time for The Washington Post, and we thought we knew it all."

After diving back into the Trump world, Leonnig and Rucker learned that country was "so much closer to chaos and to democracy crumpling" than they realized, Rucker says.

(One of the biggest revelations in I Alone Can Fix It made headlines before it hit bookstores: Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was so worried the then-president would attempt to stay in power via illegal measures that he put a plan in place in case of a coup.)

And Trump isn't done yet. He has plans to make endorsements in the midterm elections in 2022 and, most likely, in the presidential election in 2024. (In July, Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity that'd he'd made his decision about 2024 but wouldn't share it, according to The Hill.)

"It appears that he wants to remain at least a kingmaker, a person who is deciding who wins and loses in Republican primaries," says Leonnig. "He's very proud and bragged to us about the fact that if Republicans don't get the Trump endorsement, they don't win."

Wolff remains in contact with people in Trump's circle. "Almost all of them are certain that he is going to run," for re-election in 2024, Wolff says. "And that certainly comports with everything that I have learned about the man, believe about the man."

With Trump's future political aspirations comes more reporting, more books, more press — even if he doesn't like what's being written about him (the former president has denied some of the allegations in the books about him, including that he ever thought about staging a coup).

Despite his denials of the books written by reporters whom he spoke with at length, Trump acknowledged he enjoyed the conversations, saying as much during Leonnig and Rucker's trip to Florida, while the pair enjoyed their dinner at Mar-a-Lago.

"He said it was an honor to do the interview," remembers Rucker. "He said, 'I know it's a sickness, but I really enjoyed it.' "

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