A bit over four years ago, I was with Donald Trump when, perhaps for the first time, he was publicly booed in the context of the presidency. In the context of the catcalls he received last Sunday at the World Series and now at the Ultimate Fighting Championships last night, it was a a telling moment that points toward how the commander-in-chief takes in criticism – and facts.
In September 2015, while Trump had emerged as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, his campaign remained quixotic. While writing a story on his 35-year fixation on his net worth and how it shapes his self-image, I spent nearly two hours talking with him in his office, got a personal tour of his Trump Tower apartment and received an unsolicited telephone follow-up from him. On Thursday, September 24th, I stopped by Trump Tower, impromptu, to check in on a photo shoot we were doing with Trump.
Someone else happened to be popping by that day: Pope Francis. As I noted four years ago, other than in some version of a joke about people who walk into a bar, the pope and Donald Trump had probably never appeared in the same sentence, much less the same block. But providence intervened when the pontiff, on his first visit to America, decided to hold evening prayers at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral—and the papal planners decided that the formal procession down Fifth Avenue, led by the Popemobile, would commence below Trump Tower, six blocks north.
As the photo shoot progressed, the crowds got louder: Francis was en route. “Who wants to see the pope?” Trump asked gleefully and boyishly. So a bunch of us, including sons Eric and Donald Jr., scrambled to the fifth-floor corner balcony attached to his desolate campaign headquarters, the “best-located political floor in history.” Not wasting an opportunity to self-promote, Trump marveled at our good fortune: “You see what I mean about this real estate? … This is really a great piece of real estate. Boy, do we have a good location.”
The famous Popemobile idled perhaps 50 feet below. Trump wasn’t a fan: “That’s a dangerous-looking sucker,” he said, noting the open-sides. He was even less impressed by the very modest, un-Trump-like Fiat that Francis was pulling up in. “I don’t like the little car. He’s trying to be ‘of the people,’ but I don’t know. It just doesn’t look right.”
Also 50 feet below: thousands of people who had lined Fifth Avenue for a papal glimpse. Given the pool of New York City Catholics and the debut of an Argentinian pope, the crowd clearly leaned Latino. (“Fran-cis-co, Fran-cis-co,” went the cheers as the pontiff approached.) And Trump’s “they’re rapists” jab, toward Mexican immigrants at his campaign kickoff, remained fresh.
For once, Trump didn’t seem to be looking for wider attention: “I’ll look like an idiot. … This is the pope’s day.” But from below, the crowd saw him, and when he waved from his perch, an orange-haired Juan Perón, I heard and almost felt the rumble: jeers, whistles, boos, anger, all in our direction.
So how did this Manhattan prince react to the Bronx cheer? I figured the candidate, like most politicians, would laugh, take his lumps, and glibly shrug it off.
Instead, Trump turned to me. “Ninety percent positive,” he immediately said. “Ninety percent is pretty good. You’ll take that in an election right away.”
He said it so quickly, with such conviction that I doubted my own ears. My audio recorder, however, was running and it had far less doubt: through a smattering of applause, the boos overwhelmed.
Upon reflection, it was a perfect experiment, fully spontaneous and unscripted: with no way or reason to prepare for a spur-of-the-moment papal viewing party, a crowd that coincidentally would be inclined against him, or a reporter with a recorder who wasn’t scheduled to be there.
Which begs a key question of the Trump presidency: did he hear what everyone else heard — and merely lie reflexively? Or did he actually hear the cheers?
At the time, I wasn’t sure. Over the past four years, however, I’ve begun leaning towards the latter, as reinforced by his obsession with crowd sizes, polls, television ratings and anything else that questions his personal popularity.
The president that has tweeted more than 11,000 times since his inauguration, taking on anyone who criticizes him, whether dead war heroes to teenage climate activists. Yet he didn’t tweet once about the aural drubbing at the World Series. For the UFC, where the reaction was more mixed, he let others defend him, retweeting three claims that the cheers outranked the boos — including one with audio that flatly describes what to objective ears sounds hostile as a “positive reaction.”
Acknowledging that you’ve been booed would be hard to do when it’s only cheers that can register in your head.