- - Monday, August 3, 2015

Love him or hate him, no one has been able to figure out Donald Trump. No one, that is, except Norma Foerderer.

For 26 years, Foerderer was Mr. Trump’s top aide, becoming his vice president. During her career with him, Foerderer oversaw almost every aspect of the presidential candidate’s business, including public relations, hiring and firing, and negotiating book deals and contracts. No one knew so well both the personal and business side of Mr. Trump.

Just before she retired in 2006. Foerderer, who has since died, gave me her only in-depth interview about Donald. Foerderer said there are two Donald Trumps: the “outrageous” one that utters brash comments on television and the real one that only she and other insiders know.

“I mean Donald can be totally outrageous, but outrageous in a wonderful way that gets him coverage,” Foerderer told me for a column that appeared on Newsmax.com. “That persona sells his licensed products and his condominiums. You know Donald’s never been shy, and justifiably so, in talking about how wonderful his buildings or his golf clubs are.”

The private Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is “the dearest, most thoughtful, most loyal, most caring man,” Foerderer said. That caring side inspires loyalty and is one of his secrets to his success.

Foerderer began with Mr. Trump in February 1981 as a secretary. She had been a junior State Department political officer in Africa and then worked for a nonprofit organization. After Donald’s then-wife Ivana interviewed her, Foerderer met with Mr. Trump one Saturday morning.

“There was Donald, in the office, perched on the reception desk … with his coat slung over his shoulder in a cape fashion and wearing a tie,” Foerderer recalled. “And so there he was, swinging his leg. I arrived on the stroke of 9. He said, ‘I’m glad to see you’re on time.’ Punctuality has always been a big thing with him. And I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ “

After interviewing Foerderer for two minutes, Donald hired her. She thought Ivana, who dubbed her husband The Donald, was more interested in his having a secretary than he was. At the time, he had only seven employees. Foerderer found that Donald had no files: He retained everything in his head, and his lawyer kept his contracts.

“Donald is such a man of vision,” Foerderer said. “He allows you to do whatever you want. Soon, I was doing all the purchasing. I did all the human resources. I screened his mail, I looked for special projects, did the preliminary research on them, and then would give him the results so other staff members could investigate further. I arranged special events and press conferences, I did his PR. It was the kind of job that just grew because I was there and available.”

Foerderer found that Mr. Trump “instills in you the desire to do more and more and more, and you want to please him. And yet he rarely criticizes. I mean he would, if you did something stupid. He allows you to expand, if you come in with an idea, he’ll say, ‘Fine, run with it, and see what you do.’ This motivates and challenges you even more, and you want to please him because you admire him so much.”

Barbara Res experienced the same freedom when Mr. Trump hired her in September 1980 to be in charge of building the 68-story Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. Female executives in the construction business were almost non-existent, but Mr. Trump put his faith in her and told her he wanted her to “treat everything as if it were my project and my money and I would be his final word,” she says.

Mr. Trump taught Foerderer how to negotiate and would brag about her ability.

“Well, I learned from the master,” she said. “I got him really wonderful deals for commercials. What did I do? I would sit tight and say, ‘I want a million.’ They’d say, ‘Start lower.’ My response would be, ‘Look, you’re getting Donald Trump, and there’s only one of him. I can’t recommend a lower price for him. You’re getting a bargain.’ I’d just talk and talk and talk, and joke with them. And before you know it, bingo. I’d be just as surprised as anybody else that it happened. But I just knew that I had to persevere the way he does.”

As Trump’s right hand, the elegantly dressed Foerderer was the person celebrities like Jay Leno, Regis Philbin and Jack Nicholson had to go through to reach Donald. Foerderer may have been the gatekeeper, but Mr. Trump was his own PR person. Before agreeing to cooperate on my book “The Season: Inside Palm Beach and America’s Richest Society,” Donald chatted with me for 20 minutes on the phone to size me up. Then he was all in, taking me and my wife Pam on his Boeing 727-100 from New York to Palm Beach, where we spent the weekend with him at his Mar-a-Lago estate and club.

Mr. Trump is also his own lawyer and architect. He insists on high quality and personally oversees design, choosing, as one example, the color of rock for his golf course waterfalls.

“I’ve sat in on meetings with lawyers where he introduces ideas to them that have merit,” Foerderer said. “I’ve seen him work with architects where he does the very same thing. He’ll take that big magic marker and slash it here or there and change and create rooms. It works. Everybody stands around like dummies because they didn’t realize this could be done.”

Mr. Trump is the opposite of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who is so nasty to her Secret Service agents that being assigned to her detail is considered a form of punishment. When Mr. Trump bought Mar-a-Lago, he kept on 70-year-old gardeners who could barely pull weeds but had worked loyally for Marjorie Merriweather Post on the estate she built in 1927.

The Trump Organization has 22,450 employees, but when Donald’s Palm Beach butler Tony Senecal had heart problems, Mr. Trump visited him in the hospital and insisted that he stay at Mar-a-Lago — a paradise that spans both sides of the island — to recuperate. When Foerderer began having a problem with her eyes and had to stay at home, Mr. Trump called her every week and sent her baskets of gourmet food.

In contrast to some Palm Beach clubs that to this day do not admit blacks or Jews, Mr. Trump made it a point of admitting them, earning the ire of the town’s Old Guard. As I interviewed Mr. Trump on his plane, he imitated the constricted, nasal tones of blue bloods condemning his club because it does not discriminate.

Foerderer believed she clicked with Donald because she was completely honest with him.

“As I came to know him, I realized that Donald is a tremendous man, and I admire him enormously, but if I disagree on something, I would be the first to say to him, ‘Donald, I don’t think so,’” she said. In turn, people appreciate the multibillionaire’s candor, another key to his success, she said.

Asked what she would tell others who want to succeed, Foerderer said, “I would tell them to dream, and to have a vision and a goal. Think about what you want to do, love it, and if you love it enough, you’ll realize your dreams. That’s what Donald’s done.”

Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post reporter, is the author of “The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents” (Crown Forum, 2014).

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