In the late 1980s, Jack O’Donnell, one of Donald Trump’s Atlantic City casino executives, devised a special strategy for talking to the in-and-out owner. “I would know Donald was coming to town,” O’Donnell said in a recent interview from his home in Arizona. “And if you were going to pitch him something, you would say”—and here he sped up his cadence, as if he were hitting a verbal fast-forward button—“‘Oh-hey-Donald-good-to-see-you-hey-I-wanted-to-run-something-by-you.’ Boom. That was it. Because if you hit him too late in the conversation, he might say, ‘Let’s talk about it later’—and he was gone.”
In the early ‘90s, Barbara Res, a project manager on Trump Tower who was a vice president in the Trump Organization, attempted to prepare him for a deposition for a court case pitting a Trump-led group against the Los Angeles school district in a battle for a coveted piece of property. “He said, ‘No, I don’t need to be prepared,’” Res said last week from her home in New Jersey. Finally, she persuaded him to give her, an associate and an attorney two hours in his office. “In the two hours, he kept taking phone calls,” Res said. Unprepared, he did “poorly” in the deposition, she said; his group lost the case, and the deal fell apart. “He was so distracted,” she said. “He really couldn’t stay focused.”
“I think he’s definitely got attention deficit disorder,” said Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio, who interviewed Trump five times for a total of eight hours and found himself frustrated trying to get him to concentrate on answers to questions about his parents, his childhood, just about anything. “That doesn’t mean he isn’t really smart—it just means he’s not at his best when he’s asked to dwell on a topic.”
The question of Trump’s attention span recently has leapt from a longtime employee complaint to a meaningful national issue. Res, O’Donnell and others like them have long collected stories of their exasperation over Trump’s impetuous nature as a boss. But this one personal attribute has become a subject of more widespread concern as voters consider how Trump’s habits and personality might translate to the presidency—a job that demands uncommon focus, with life in the West Wing often feeling like a control panel of perpetually blinking emergency lights.
“It is hard to fathom the scope of material a president has to handle on a daily basis or the velocity at which it comes until you see it firsthand,” said David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Obama, who described a work environment in which the demands are severe and ample attention span is a must.
“You have to be patient. You have to listen. You have to ask the right questions. All of those things require great discipline,” presidential historian Mark Updegrove said.
Some people who have been close to Trump have started to sound alarms. In July, Tony Schwartz, who spent a year and a half with him as the ghostwriter for his best-selling The Art of the Deal in 1987,the fact that Trump “has no attention span” should be an “explicit” issue in the current election. O’Donnell, who put out a tell-all in 1991 but had kept quiet since then up until recently, last month in his local paper that he’s “horrified” by the possibility of a President Trump partly because Trump’s “attention span was so small it was almost impossible to have a strategic conversation with him.”
Trump himself hasn’t exactly put these fears to rest with recent remarks. Hereporters from the Washington Post he doesn’t like to read long reports (“I want it short”), and he on MSNBC he’s not overly worried about readying for the upcoming debates against assiduous policy wonk Hillary Clinton (“I’ve seen people do so much prep work when they get out there, they can’t speak”).
Election Day is two months out. If Trump loses, many observers will cite his errant, frenetic campaign—a constantly changing whistle-stop operation whose inconsistency has come as no surprise to many who have known him and worked with him over the course of his business career. And if he wins, the Oval Office will have an occupant who—at leastto Schwartz—“has the attention span of a 9-year-old with ADHD.”
How long is Trump’s attention span? Over the years, Trump has discussed this topic, actually, a surprising amount—and, not so surprisingly, inconsistently.
“Well, I mean, I have an attention span that’s as long as it has to be,” TrumpTime last year.
That’s not exactly what he’s said in the past.
“My attention span is short,” he flatly declared in 1990 in his book Surviving at the Top.
And in 2004, in Think Like a Billionaire, he wrote that “most successful people have very short attention spans.”
Parsing the decades-long public record of Trump’s own thoughts on his mental habits is a challenge. As with many of his positions, if he has said something,that he has said the opposite, too.
“One of the keys to thinking big is total focus,” he wrote (through Schwartz) in The Art of the Deal. “I think of it almost as a controlled neurosis … ”
In 2008, in Never Give Up, he augmented his thoughts on this “controlled neurosis” by preaching the value of laser focus on just one thing. “In this age of multitasking, this is a valuable technique to acquire,” he said.
The following year, though, in Think Like a Champion, he offered up somewhat different advice, saying it “helps to be thinking of two things at once.” He added, “I always try to keep two wavelengths going at once, which prevents brain cramps and reminds me that I’m destined for success.”
One of the most recurrent notes in the oeuvre of Trump is the Tao of speed. “Keep it short, fast, and direct,” he wrote in 2004 in How to Get Rich. “Sometimes people are surprised by how quickly I make big decisions, but I’ve learned to trust my instincts and not to overthink things,” he wrote the same year in Think Like a Billionaire. “The day I realized it can be smart to be shallow was, for me, a deep experience.”
He prides himself on not engaging deeply with material if he can avoid it. “Extensive meetings and interviews are often a waste of time,” he wrote in 2007 in Think Big. “Extraneous information in long-winded presentations is like junk mail. Everyone hates junk mail,” he wrote the same year in a book literally called Trump 101. “Just dive in,” he wrote the next year in Never Give Up. “Don’t give yourself time to doubt.”
He plays golf, partly to relax, he has said—but he also plays it fast, zipping around his courses in a cart and parking where he pleases. When he played with sportswriter Rick Reilly, they raced through 18 holes in barely more than three hours, “and that,” Reilly, included “stopping often to harangue the stonemason, the path paver, and the greenskeeper to redo the bricks, or retrim a tree, or repave a path that is not absolutely, immaculately Trumpalicious.”
He plays tennis fast, too, or played it fast, until his instructor urged him to play a tad more slow—to not try to hit a smash every single shot—at which point Trump quit. “I don’t have the patience for it,” he.
And he keeps three phones in his limousine, heReilly, “so I can be going fucking crazy on them.”
In the life of Trump, a major through-line is this self-evident frenzy, over which he seems to have little to no control. He’s a fitful sleeper. He’s a pell-mell. And the things he’s said about focusing, and he’s said many, many things about focusing, in his books and beyond, ultimately pile up to sound less like self-help tips for fans and devotees than reminders to himself.
“Stay focused,” heon May 19, 2014.
“Stay focused,” heon July 1, 2014.
“Stay focused,” heon August 5, 2014.
It’s hard to say how this would work in the White House.
“I remember the day in 2009 that the president made his decision on the auto intervention,” Axelrod, the Obama adviser, wrote to me in an email. The day started with an intelligence briefing on North Korea. Then there was a meeting about the auto industry bailout. Then there was a town hall meeting on the economy. Then there were meetings in the situation room about Afghanistan and Iraq. Then there was another meeting about the bailout. Then came news of devastating floods in North Dakota. “That is life in the White House,” Axelrod said, “and to be effective, a president has to have read his briefs thoroughly and given thought to each subject.”
Trump said to the aforementioned Post reporters he prefers to be briefed verbally and quickly rather than in the form of reports running hundreds of pages. “Send me, like, three pages,” he. Reading briefings, books, biographies of presidents, he said, takes time he doesn’t have. “I don’t have much time. I have so little time.”
Not every president, of course, has been a bookworm or so intellectually inclined, but Trump’s aggressive conviction that he can do what he needs to do and make the decisions he needs to make “” he already has would make him an abnormal president—in particular in comparison with the current president, a reader by disposition and a lawyer by training who stays up late plowing through “ .”
Regardless of how a president prefers to absorb information, though, the job is incredibly cognitively demanding, said David Greenberg, a presidential historian. Since the rise of the United States as a superpower, he explained, “there are on any given day a dozen major issues around the world that might need his attention.
“It requires self-confidence. It requires knowing oneself. It requires knowing when to make decisions and when to delegate. These are rare qualities to have in abundance,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons we haven’t had that many truly great presidents.”
In modern, post-World War II American history, there have been different kinds of presidents, naturally—micromanaging presidents (Jimmy Carter leads this category) and macro-managing presidents (Ronald Reagan). LBJ, said presidential historian Updegrove, was “a rampant micromanager,” but that style—unlike for, say, Carter—worked for him. “In his case,” Updegrove explained, “micromanagement was necessary in getting his very ambitious legislative agenda through Congress.” Even George W. Bush, definitely more macro than micro, Updegrove said, “still read volumes of material every night.” And while Reagan was big-picture, he had a set of capable advisers he trusted and relied on to drill down on details—both question marks for Trump in his campaign, with his schizoid tactics and reeling whirl of strategists and campaign managers.
“One of the core skills a candidate must possess is the ability to address many different types of activities … and simultaneously be prepared to go deep and thoughtful if an issue unexpectedly arises during the campaign,” said Beth Myers, one of Mitt Romney’s lead advisers during his 2012 presidential run. “The ability to perform these many diverse tasks well and also be able to think through and articulate difficult policy issues requires a very facile intelligence and an unusual talent for being able to keep many ideas at top of mind.”
The careening Trump campaign, and the prospect of a President Trump, has made Res, O’Donnell and D’Antonio think back on their interactions with the man.
“If he were elected president and he had a set of policies he wanted to pursue,” D’Antonio said, “I think he could do it—but he would have to consider them his personal priorities. And I think people around him would have to figure out a way to frame those challenges in a way that would get him to engage.”
Which would be?
“It would have to appeal to his ego,” D’Antonio continued. “If it doesn’t engage him in that way, he’s not very interested.”
D’Antonio remembered finally getting Trump to talk with a modicum of attentiveness about a detail from his time as a teenager at New York Military Academy—the first time his name appeared in the local newspaper. “Trump Wins Game for NYMA,” the headline read. “I thought it was amazing,” Trump told D’Antonio.
“It just drove home for me,” D’Antonio said, “how everything is so self-referential to him. This need for affirmation is his big motivator. It is the thing that focuses his mind.”
It’s perhaps not the only thing, said Tim O’Brien, another Trump biographer. “He loves things that give him instant gratification: food, sex, cash-heavy, front-loaded business deals,” O’Brien said. The flip side: “He doesn’t read, doesn’t strategize, has few deep relationships with people.”
Before O’Donnell worked for Trump in Atlantic City, he worked for Steve Wynn, a casino magnate who at one time was a prime Trump competitor in the gaming industry but in the end was more successful. Going from working for Wynn to working for Trump, O’Donnell said, made for a jarring contrast.
“God’s honest truth, I had eight-, nine-hour meetings with Steve Wynn, one on one, because he wanted to pick your brain,” O’Donnell said. “He wanted to talk nitty-gritty details. Marketing. Schedules. Entertainers.”
Trump, on the other hand, O’Donnell said, wanted to know how long a meeting would take. Meetings with Trump typically lasted 10, maybe 15 minutes. “He would talk for a few minutes and then change the subject,” O’Donnell said. “I don’t think he has the capacity to listen.”
In the casino business, the house always wins—at least over time. Trump’s casinos struggled for a variety of reasons—at the top of that list is how heavily leveraged they were—but the impulsivity of their owner didn’t help, according to O’Donnell.
When it comes to Trump as president? “Quite frankly,” said O’Donnell, “it’s a frightening scenario for me.”
For Res, what Trump has said about the forthcoming debates—“I believe you can prep too much for those things,” hethe New York Times last month—conjured up the long-ago experience with his deposition for the lost Los Angeles court case.
“He doesn’t want to spend any more than a small amount of time on any one thing, and then he wants to move on,” she said. “He doesn’t want to hear the long explanation. He says, ‘I got it.’”
Maybe he does. But maybe he doesn’t.
“If he gets it, he gets it,” Res said. “If he doesn’t, you’re fucked.”