Donald J. Trump. Long a flamboyant figure in American life — as a real-estate developer and reality show host — Trump, 69, entered the race in June in unorthodox fashion. At a moment when Republican leaders hoped to repair relations with Latino voters, he seized on the issue of illegal immigration, accused those crossing the border from Mexico of “bringing drugs … bringing crime. They’re rapists.” That hot-button issue with conservative voters grew hotter within weeks when an illegal immigrant was charged with the killing of a young San Franciscan named Kate Steinle.
Three months later, Trump leads all rivals for the Republican nomination nationally and in key early states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He has pledged to spend as much as $100 million of his multibillion dollar fortune on his campaign, freeing him of the need to solicit campaign donations. This week he laid out a bold — critics say budget-busting — plan to cut the top personal income tax rate to 25 percent and business tax rate to 15 percent.
But now his campaign faces stiffer challenges from two sources — the rise of fellow political outsiders Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, and more serious scrutiny from Republican primary voters as the choice of the party’s eventual nominee draws closer. Trump sat down to discuss his campaign with me in Trump Grill, the restaurant in the lower level of Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of our conversation.
HARWOOD: You started your campaign saying a bunch of things that are not real. Obama and where he was born — that’s not real. You know where he was born. You know that we’re not going to deport 11 million people. Rates of illegal immigration have been declining, not going up
TRUMP: You tell me. Go ahead, tell me: Where was he born? I don’t discuss it. Because when I discuss it, you don’t want to get on to jobs and the other things.
A lot of people are better off staying in Mexico and various other countries than coming here because we’re doing very poorly as a country. We’ll see what happens. People have to be in this country legally. I’ve taken a strong stance that we have a country where we don’t. From the Republican standpoint, I can tell you it’s an issue that’s very important.
You had the horrible situation with Kate — and many, many, many others. Thousands of others. Last week a woman was brutally murdered. A veteran, a 66-year-old veteran murdered and raped, sodomized, in California. There’s many cases like that. It’s become a tremendous crime wave.
HARWOOD: Have you seen “The Jinx”? The charges against Robert Durst? That’s not evidence that real estate developers are having a crime wave.
TRUMP: I know the family.
No, I don’t say everybody. But there is a big problem and there is a crime problem. Certainly not everybody, and certainly not most, or even a big percentage. But it is a substantial percentage and there is tremendous crime.
HARWOOD: Jeb told me the other day that Trump’s strategy is to say things over and over, loudly, and if he does, he can make people think things that are not true, are true. What do you say to that?
TRUMP: Well I haven’t heard the statement. I think he’s a very nice person, and he’s doing very poorly. He maybe will do better. He’s going to spend a lot of money that comes from friends of mine that watch your show — the hedge fund guys and the Wall Street guys — so I don’t know. I think when people see commercials, and they know where they’re coming from, they maybe look at it differently.
“Well, their leaders are incompetent. In some cases, stupid, but certainly incompetent. You just have to look at what’s happening with our country. We allow China to devalue their currency constantly. We allow Japan to devalue — they just did a big devaluation. We allow Mexico to take so many of our companies. They’re killing us economically.”
HARWOOD: You’ve made the argument that the reason average people in America are feeling economic strain is because their leaders are stupid. Isn’t that a comic-book version of the economic story? The world has changed.
TRUMP: Well, their leaders are incompetent. In some cases, stupid, but certainly incompetent. You just have to look at what’s happening with our country. We allow China to devalue their currency constantly. We allow Japan to devalue — they just did a big devaluation. We allow Mexico to take so many of our companies. They’re killing us economically. China, if you look at what happened just recently — they did increase for a little period of time, but they are devaluing big league. I can tell you, I have many friends in the manufacturing business, and it makes it almost impossible for them to compete.
The other thing people don’t know about China — they charge massive taxes which they usually call tariffs when you want to sell things in China. We don’t charge them, but they charge us. So it’s a very unfair situation. I know that the world is a different place, but countries are taking advantage of us, big league.
HARWOOD: What would you say to someone who said — given the emphasis that you’ve had on immigration, crime, the scary pictures of illegal immigrations, and the talk about China, Mexico, Japan taking jobs away — that the core idea of your campaign is appealing to fearful, anxious white Americans and encouraging the belief that their problems are because of people who look different?
TRUMP: No, I don’t think so. I don’t want it to be and I don’t think it is.
You know, my audiences are very — many, many blacks. I had a poll come out the other day where I was 25 percent approval rating from the blacks as a Republican, which is the highest they’ve ever recorded. In fact they said if the election were held and you got 25 percent of the black vote like in this poll, the election’s over — you win. So, I mean, I see it in my audiences. I have tremendous numbers of Hispanics in my audiences. These are people that are here legally and they don’t want people pouring across the border.
HARWOOD: Your answer to policy questions, how do you pay for this, how are you going to do that, is: “I’m Trump. I’m good. I’m the best. I will get it done.” Who’s your model? We don’t have Superman presidents.
TRUMP: No, but we will if you have Trump. You watch. We’re going to have a president that will not allow our country to be taken advantage of, and we’re going to have a president that’s not going to make stupid deals. I think Ronald Reagan was a very good president.
HARWOOD: Reagan was rooted in a political movement, an ideological movement, for decades. What are you rooted in?
TRUMP: I think I have the movement going on. When I go to Dallas and sell 20,000 seats, when I go to Mobile, Alabama, and we have 35,000 people, when I go to New Hampshire and we have thousands of people, when I go to Iowa we have packed houses.
I mean, there’s something going on, John. It’s a movement of common sense. It’s a movement that we don’t want to see our country being ripped off by everybody, and my theme is, “Make America Great Again.” That movement is happening.
HARWOOD: Did you see what Jeb said about your tax plan? He suggested that you copied his, and just lowered the rates a little bit. But he said you should have tried a little fiscal responsibility. Jeb acknowledged that his plan would add at least $1 trillion over 10 years to the deficit. Yours is bigger.
TRUMP: I don’t acknowledge that because I think our economy will take off like a rocket ship under my plan. My plan is much more dynamic than his plan. My plan lowers the business tax much more than Jeb’s does. I think it’s going to be much more inspiring. A lot more jobs are going to be created with my plan than Jeb’s plan.
HARWOOD: Let’s assume you get elected, and you get in and discover that all of these problems are much more difficult. What do you say to those people who vote for you who say, “Hey wait a minute, I thought you were the Wizard of Oz?”
TRUMP: You do admit I’m leading in all the polls? I’m a problem solver. I will not disappoint those people. I will not find that. I know how to solve problems. I will make even you proud to be an American again.
“Well, I’m not a masochist. Right now I’m leading every poll, and in most cases big. That’s good. If that changed, if I was like some of these people at 1 percent and 2 percent, there’s no reason to continue forward. If I fell behind badly, I would certainly get out.”
HARWOOD: If you face the prospect of losing primaries, and you’re not winning anymore, would you decide to step away at that point?
TRUMP: Well, I’m not a masochist. Right now I’m leading every poll, and in most cases big. That’s good. If that changed, if I was like some of these people at 1 percent and 2 percent, there’s no reason to continue forward. If I fell behind badly, I would certainly get out.
I’m in this for the long haul. That doesn’t mean someday I don’t wake up and I say, “Wow, I’m really tanking.” Well, if I tank, sure, I go back to the business. Why wouldn’t I?