Donald Trump has changed his tune on abortion, taxes, health care, gun control and Hillary Clinton during nearly three decades as a potential and actual presidential candidate.
But the celebrity billionaire has been consistent in his complaint that America is getting ripped off by foreign countries and needs a political outsider with his negotiating prowess to make things right.
A fixture on the Palm Beach scene since the 1980s, Trump has identified himself as a Democrat and a Republican and once considered a Reform Party candidacy. He’s been both a fundraiser for and tormentor of members of the Bush family. He once called Clinton a “terrific woman” doing a “good job” as secretary of state, but later branded her “the worst secretary of state in the history of the United States.”
Positions and party affiliations may change, but Trump has remained steadfast in his belief in himself and in his deal-making skills.
Perched now atop Republican polls and delegate counts, Trump, 69, is the same candidate who New Hampshire furniture craftsman Mike Dunbar envisioned back in 1987 when he started a Draft Trump effort and succeeded in getting the celebrity mogul to speak at a Rotary Club lunch in the critical primary state.
The Trump who spoke extemporaneously to the Rotarians in 1987 sounded much as he does now, Dunbar recalls. News accounts from the time say Trump complained America was getting “pushed around” by other countries and needed a “tough, smart cookie” in the White House.
Trump’s October 1987 speech in New Hampshire came shortly after he bought full-page ads in The New York Times and other newspapers lamenting that “The world is laughing at America’s politicians.”
“People are tired of seeing the United States ripped off,” he told Oprah Winfrey in 1988.
“The major parties have lost their way,” Trump wrote in a 1999 Wall Street Journal op-ed as he again flirted with a presidential run, this time with the Reform Party. He vowed to “cut better deals with our world trading partners … If President Trump does the negotiating, we’ll get a better deal for American workers and their families, and our economy will not be as vulnerable to global pressures as it is today.”
The Trump of 1999 and 2000 stood to the left of today’s front-running Republican version on many issues. He called himself “liberal” on health care and called for some type of single-payer system. He proposed a one-time 14.25 percent “wealth tax” on individuals and estates with a net worth of more than $10 million. He described himself as “very pro-choice” and in one interview said he opposed a ban on late-term abortions. He supported a “ban on assault weapons and … a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.”
Trump jettisoned those positions by 2011, when he took another serious look at the presidency. That round of Trump speculation is best remembered for Trump’s trafficking in conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama’s birth. But beyond the birtherism and the policy shifts, Trump’s main message was consistent with the past and with his 2016 campaign.
“The United States has become a whipping post for the rest of the world,” Trump said at the 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference, a required stop for anyone thinking about a Republican presidential bid. “America today is missing quality leadership and foreign countries have quickly realized this. It’s for this reason that the United States is becoming the laughingstock of the world.”
In addition to speaking at CPAC in 2011, Trump courted evangelical Christians (“I am pro-life,” he declared) and the tea party movement that year.
At a tea party rally in Boca Raton in April 2011, Trump had not yet developed his “Make America Great Again” slogan, but was getting close to it.
“If I run and win,” Trump promised, “our country will be respected again.”
The sign-language interpreter for that Boca Raton rally, Lantana resident Amy Hair, commented at the time on Trump’s speaking style — and in so doing offered some insight into the billionaire’s popularity then and now.
“He’s very easy to interpret for because he’s very straightforward,” Hair told The Palm Beach Post. “Trump is good because he’s very understandable. Most politicians speak very vaguely and he speaks matter-of-factly. He speaks in very simple terms.”
A few weeks later, Trump announced he was choosing his business empire and reality TV show over a 2012 presidential campaign. But by then he had staked out positions that showed a rightward shift from his Reform Party days and offered a preview of his 2016 campaign.
While Trump has moved to the right on many issues, he departs from Republican and conservative orthodoxy in other areas.
In 2011, for instance, much of the tea party movement and the GOP’s conservative base supported a fiscal blueprint by then-House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan that called for changing Medicare for future retirees from a defined benefit program to one in which the government subsidizes the purchase of private insurance.
Trump called the plan a “disaster” at the time and said this month that Mitt Romney’s selection of Ryan as his running mate cost him the 2012 election.
Most of the Republicans running for president this year have said raising the retirement age or other reforms are needed to preserve the long-term solvency of Social Security and Medicare. Trump favors leaving the programs untouched.
Trump holds the near-universal Republican position that Obamacare should be scrapped. But in pledging “something terrific” to replace the health care law, Trump has hinted it will include government spending that conservatives might not like.
“I want to take care of everybody … We’re going to have to work out some kind of a deal with hospitals where they (poor people) can get some help when they’re sick, when they have no money and they’re sick,” he told CNN in July. “If I lose votes over that or if I don’t get a nomination over that, that’s fine with me.”
Trump’s signature 2016 issue — a crackdown on illegal immigrants and construction of a “beautiful wall” built at Mexico’s expense along the U.S. southern border — has been cheered by immigration hard-liners. But Trump’s immigration plan might not be as tough as some think.
In the same CNN interview in which he pledged the “terrific” replacement to Obamacare, Trump defended mass deportations and said “bad dudes” and other undesirables would be kept out, but added that many of the others removed would be allowed to return.
“I would get people out and I would have an expedited way of getting them back into the country so they can be legal. Let them be legal,” Trump said.
Dunbar, the New Hampshire activist who formed the 1987 Draft Trump committee and invited Trump to the Rotary Club lunch, said Trump has turned out to be the candidate he hoped for.
Dunbar, who said he voted for Trump in New Hampshire’s Feb. 9 primary, got out of politics in the early 1990s to focus on his family and his business making Windsor chairs. He said he hasn’t seen Trump since the 1987 lunch, and his last contact was around Christmas that year when Trump sent him an autographed copy of “The Art of the Deal.”
“I really appreciate your friendship.You have created a very exciting part of my life. On to the future,” Trump wrote.
“Maybe I planted a seed,” Dunbar said in a recent interview. “He’s doing exactly what I hoped he’d do then, and that is to break all the rules.”
Personal: 69 years old, married to Melania, five children. Native of New York City, part-time resident of Palm Beach.
Education: Studied for two years at Fordham University; graduated from The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
Professional: Real estate developer, founder of Trump Entertainment Resorts, former star of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice reality TV shows, author of several books including ‘The Art of the Deal,’ investor in a variety of ventures, including casinos, beauty pageants and USFL New Jersey Generals football team.
Political: First run for office.
Florida connection: Purchased historic Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach in 1985, owner of Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach and Trump National Doral golf club and resort near Miami.
BEFORE YOU VOTE …
Know the candidates: This is one in a series of looks at the lives and issues of the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates that The Palm Beach Post is providing readers before early voting begins in Florida on Saturday, March 5.