© 2024 Western New York Public Broadcasting Association

140 Lower Terrace
Buffalo, NY 14202

Mailing Address:
Horizons Plaza P.O. Box 1263
Buffalo, NY 14240-1263

Buffalo Toronto Public Media | Phone 716-845-7000
WBFO Newsroom | Phone: 716-845-7040
Your NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Donald Trump's Been Saying The Same Thing For 30 Years

Donald Trump interviewed on <em>Larry King Live</em> on Oct, 7, 1999. Trump said he had formed an exploratory committee to help him determine whether he could win the White House as a Reform Party candidate.
Marty Lederhandler
Donald Trump interviewed on Larry King Live on Oct, 7, 1999. Trump said he had formed an exploratory committee to help him determine whether he could win the White House as a Reform Party candidate.

For decades, Donald Trump both toyed with and coyly denied any interest in pursuing the presidency — until his expectation-shattering campaign of the 2016 election.

But if you go back and watch old clips — and by old, we mean decades-old — you hear a young Donald Trump sounding very much like the current Trump. Common themes include his view that trade wasn't fair, that the world has long laughed at America and countries have taken advantage of U.S. generosity while refusing to pay their "fair share" for all the U.S. does globally.

Trump does something else in these interviews. Talking to Playboy magazine in 1990, for example, he accurately predicts where his strongest support would come from should he ever decide to run for office — the working class.

Here's journalist Glenn Plaskin, who wrote the Playboy story, recalling what Trump said when asked who would support him for the White House: "When I walk down the street, those cabbies start yelling out their window. ... The working guy would elect me; they like me."

Here are six clips of Trump from the 1980s and '90s that make the point:

1. 1987, CNN's Larry King:

A 41-year-old Donald Trump said of leadership and trade:

"I was tired, and I think a lot of other people are tired of watching other people ripping off the United States. This is a great country. They laugh at us. Behind our backs, they laugh at us because of our own stupidity. Our leaders — what we have, we have a Persian Gulf situation today. ... Billions and billions are paid getting oil for Japan, and they are paying nothing for it, essentially they're paying nothing for it."


"I believe it's very important that you have free trade, but we don't have free trade right now."

And Trump even leveled a cryptic allegation against former New York Mayor Ed Koch:

"I think, probably, over the next period of time, something's going to come out where he will not be the mayor of the city of New York hopefully much longer."

The New York Times noted in Koch's obituary in 2013 that he "was a bachelor who lived for politics. Perhaps inevitably there were rumors, some promoted by his enemies, that he was gay. But no proof was offered, and, except for two affirmations in radio interviews that he was heterosexual, he responded to the rumors with silence or a rebuke. 'Whether I am straight or gay or bisexual is nobody's business but mine,' he wrote in 'Citizen Koch,' his 1992 autobiography."

Trump told King that he accepted an invitation to appear in New Hampshire, understanding full well what that would imply to his potential desire to run for president.

2. 1988, Oprah:

Back then, Trump was critical of Japan, and this criticism echoes the way he talks today about NATO. He told Oprah Winfrey:

"I'd make our allies pay their fair share."

He took a hard line with the Middle East, saying:

"Kuwait, they live like kings. The poorest person in Kuwait, they live like kings. And yet they're not paying. We make it possible for them to sell their oil. Why aren't they paying us 25 percent of what they're making? It's a joke."

Asked if he'd run for president, Trump said:

"I just probably wouldn't do it, Oprah. I probably wouldn't, but I do get tired of seeing what's happening with this country, and if it got so bad, I would never want to rule it out totally, because I really am tired of seeing what's happening with this country, how we're really making other people live like kings, and we're not."

More about a presidential run and winning. He even uses his signature "believe me:"

"I think I'd win. I tell you what, I wouldn't go in to lose. I've never gone in to lose in my life. And if I did decide to do it, I think I would be inclined — I would say, I would have a hell of a chance of winning, because I think people — I don't know how your audience feels, but I think people are tired of seeing the United States ripped off. And I can't promise you everything, but I can tell you one thing, this country would make one hell of a lot of money from those people that for 25 years have taken advantage. It wouldn't be the way it's been, believe me."

3. 1988, Letterman:

Here he spoke to Letterman just after the presidential election. He said he thought Bush would win and thinks he'll do a good job. But he again used Japan as his punching bag in talking about trade deficits and made the U.S. ally into an economic boogeyman:

"We are living in very precarious times. If you look at what certain countries are doing to this country, such as Japan. I mean, they've totally taken advantage of the country. ... I'm talking about the [trade] deficits. They come and they talk about free trade. They dump the cars and the VCRs and everything else. We defend Japan for virtually nothing, which is hard to believe. So when I see all that I get very nervous, but I think George Bush is going to do a great job, and he's going to straighten — hopefully — he'll straighten it out."

Letterman then wondered aloud whether there was "any way a guy like you could go broke." The crowd gave a huge laugh, and Trump said he would like to think he could weather any storm. But little did he — or Letterman — know that just three years later, Trump would file his first of four bankruptcies over two decades. That was for his hotel and casino in Atlantic City, N.J., the Taj Mahal, which Trump touted on the show as a project he was building that he believed would be a "tremendous success."

Trump continued to flirt with the idea of running for president down the road, despite denying he would. Trump seems to preview a version of what would eventually become his 2016 "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan.

"I'm not sure you want to see the United States become a winner. Do you want to see the United States become a winner, David?"

Letterman shot back:

"The United States is and always has been a winner for my money, Don."

4. 1990, Playboy magazine: Take a look at this March 1990 Playboy interview. Lots of politics in here, including Trump's response to a question about how he'd handle an international crisis, perhaps involving nuclear weapons:

"And how would President Trump handle it?
"He would believe very strongly in extreme military strength. He wouldn't trust anyone. He wouldn't trust the Russians; he wouldn't trust our allies; he'd have a huge military arsenal, perfect it, understand it. Part of the problem is that we're defending some of the wealthiest countries in the world for nothing. ... We're being laughed at around the world."

In many of these clips, the "Vintage Trump" is the "Current Trump."

He's a future candidate floating a future campaign slogan — and maybe an inaugural address.

5. 1999, Larry King:

As he came to do during the 2016 campaign, Trump touted the polls. But he also echoed the dichotomy of Trump — a frustration with some in the media, but also the understanding that he needs them; he used King's show to break news.

First, the frustration:

"All that's happening now is people are coming out with polls. It was sort of interesting, the one sort of negative poll I had was on Newsweek, and they put me on the cover, so I said, how could you write a poll, how could you do a poll like this, and I'm on the cover of Newsweek? And, you know, it was just one of those things. But the polls have been unbelievable."

But then right after that...

"So I am going to form a presidential exploratory committee, I might as well announce that on your show, everyone else does. But I'll be forming that, effective, I believe, tomorrow, and we'll see. We're going to take a very good, strong look at it."

And there was the trademark bombast:

"I have a lot to lose, Larry. I'm the biggest developer in New York, by far. I'm doing more, as you know from being here, a lot. I'm doing more than any — I'm building 90-story buildings all over the place, and we're just doing a lot, and we're doing great. The city's the hottest city, and I'm the hottest developer in the hottest city in the world right now."

But also the foundation of an outsider message, critical of politicians:

"Other guys, you know, they run. Pat Buchanan, what is he --, you know, he's not giving up anything. What's he doing? And, politicians when they run, they run from one office to another; it's the same thing, they answer different calls. I'm giving up a lot if I decide to run."

Buchanan was running for the Reform Party nomination — the same one Ross Perot had in 1992 and 1996. Trump, master of the insult, showed his ability to go for the low blow against a potential opponent:

"I believe I can get the Reform Party nomination. I don't even think it would be that tough, it's going to be Buchanan. And I think he just blew himself up with the book, and his love affair with Adolf Hitler."

Trump said the priority for his exploratory committee was to take a hard look at whether he could actually win the presidency as the Reform Party candidate, not just compete. He never climbed out of single digits in head-to-heads against George W. Bush and Al Gore, and Trump eventually dropped his bid.

Trump also spelled out some of his philosophy with King. He said that, even though he's a Republican, he's pretty "liberal" on social issues, notably health care. He said he believes, in fact, in "universal health care" and agreed that it was an "entitlement from birth."

"I'm quite liberal, and getting much more liberal, on health care and other things. I really say, what's the purpose of a country if you're not going to have defense and health care. If you can't take care of your sick in the country, forget it. It's all over. I mean, it's no good. So I'm very liberal when it comes to health care. I believe in universal health care. I believe in whatever it takes to make people well and better."

Remember when Trump told the Washington Post recently that his goal was "insurance for everybody?" It's something other Republicans have been trying to walk back — and Trump remains a wild card.

Trump also had lots of criticism for both parties:

"I think that nobody's really hitting it right. The Democrats are too far left. ... The Republicans are too far right. I don't think anybody's hitting the chord. Not the chord that I want to hear and not the chord that other people want to hear."

Trump talked about Ronald Reagan as a president who had a certain "style and class," which he called a "really big part of being president." But he also hinted at when he thought the country was great — under Eisenhower in the 1950s, which happens to be when he was a child:

"Eisenhower, I don't see him too much on lists of great, great presidents, but it was a nice time in the country. The country had a prestige, and he had a certain, you know, demeanor. He was a quality, class act. There are certain people who have that."

Trump also knocked NAFTA and U.S. trade policies:

"I'm not an isolationist. What I am, though, is — I think that you have to be treated fairly by other countries. If other countries aren't going to treat you fairly, Larry, I think that those countries should be --, they should suffer the consequences."

Trump argued:

"We could reduce taxes and take care of health care, and it would be beautiful, and you'd have plenty of money left over."

He hinted at his potential constituency later on — "workers:"

"The workers are the ones that really like me. I've often said, the rich people hate me, and the workers love me. Now, the rich people that know me, like me, but the rich people that don't know me, they truly dislike me."

Trump also said he believes in one term as president:

"I do like the concept of one term, I want to run one term, and I want to do the right job — straighten out Social Security, get the trade deficits in order and lower taxes."

He has not made that pledge during this campaign.

Harking back to that 1988 Oprah Winfrey interview, Trump told King that "Oprah would be my first choice" for vice president.

Not quite Mike Pence, so ... some things change.

6. 1999, Trump on NBC's Meet the Press with Tim Russert:

Trump echoed some of the same sentiments from his appearance on Larry King, said he was serious about running. But he also addressed dating various women, that his second wife, Marla Maples, came out against him running. And Trump defended his past statements about women and his companies' bankruptcies.

He also saber-rattled on North Korea, seeming to advocate for preemptive action. Trump said the most important issue facing the country was controlling the "nuclear problem," otherwise the economy won't matter so much.

And Trump struck a familiar tone on immigration:

"Too many people are flowing into the country," he said, "and we have to take care of our own first."

But Trump has clearly changed on some issues, notably abortion. Back then, he said he was "very pro-choice."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.