Dinner with The Donald
(Or, Who is the real Donald Trump?)
My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making. Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark the Evangelist to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher. Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus. The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.
Within Satan’s Synagogue, I reprinted a book previously published two thousand years ago. That book, entitled Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus, suggested a litany of questions. Who wrote the book? What was its purpose? Did it succeed? How did the book frame Mark the Evangelist? And perhaps, most importantly of all, how did the book frame Jesus Christ? All important questions.
A funny thing happened once Satan’s Synagogue entered the world. I received calls for Against Mark to have its own platform. I listened. The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/AGAINST-MARK-Antiquity-called-Jesus/dp/1082157341/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?crid=31RCGI8WA8101&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1572527651&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C611&sr=8-1-fkmr0.
Another funny thing happened. As I documented in condensed form on my twitter feed, Satan’s Synagogue became hot news at the Trump White House. Apparently, Trump put out an order, mandating the “reading of Josephs.” Meaning me. This would be the first time the president mangled my name. It wouldn’t be the last. (I should also say that I have this on background. The source does not want to go public.)
I received a dinner invitation from the president and the first lady. So let me break with my previous writings on this blog. In support of Satan’s Synagogue, I’ve been writing a series of profiles. In those profiles, I’ve offered critical evaluations of famous chroniclers (Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century), a different kind of Holocaust survivor named Moshe Lazar, a different kind of presence in the world named Mordechai Shushani, and the pfefferfact vs. the pfefferfiction of Eli Pfefferkorn. All of those profiles are available further down the page. Here, as I promised on my twitter feed, I am offering a detailed report of my dinner in TrumpLand. Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture. Here are ten brushstrokes, plus a bonus eleventh:
1) Some background. As I documented on my twitter feed, the invitation arrived in my mailbox during the first week of June. On official letterhead, with the presidential seal and that imposing eagle above all else, the invitation read: “The President and Mrs. Trump request the pleasure of your company for an evening of book talk. Date to be determined.”
The invitation then pointed me to the Office of Scheduling and Advance to arrange logistics. I phoned straightaway. Setting up a time took weeks. Eventually, both sides came to an agreement. I made plans to travel. I looked into airplane ticket prices. I went to Expedia. I began the booking process.
Then I changed my mind. I decided that my “book talk” in TrumpLand would fall within a wider journey. For sometime now I’ve had it in my head to visit certain Civil War sites. I am in no way a Civil War authority. But I have, over the years, developed a fondness for some key Civil War historians. James McPherson and Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote and Eric Foner, to name just a few, the list goes on. I am something of a Lincoln scholar. Well, scholar is way too strong a word. Something of a student.
I do not admire the man. Let me just establish my orientation. I do not admire any president. I do not admire the ego it takes to seek, and fulfill, the office. I do not admire the bravado and enormous sense of self. I do not admire the personality type. The presidential personality is the polar opposite to the scholar’s personality, favoring chest-thumping to quiet confidence, favoring bluster to disciplined study, favoring the hot lights of the televised world to the darkness of waking at four a.m. to carve out research time. I’ve never wanted to break bread with a president, or visit the White House. So why did I accept an invitation to TrumpLand?
It’s simple, and complex. I wanted to establish the psycheache of Donald Trump for myself. So much has been said and written about the man. What is accurate? What is insightful? What is apocrypha?
I have the same questions regarding Lincoln. Of course, I never got the chance to meet the man. I was born one hundred and two years after his death, during the administration of Johnson. The second Johnson. I never thought I would meet Trump. Suddenly, the opportunity arose. Why would I pass it up?
I made plans. I rented a car. I booked hotel rooms. A map of my Civil War tour quickly emerged. I would start in Brooklyn, where I live, and move into Pennsylvania. Point number one would be Gettysburg. The next points would fall in Virginia: Manassas, Chancellorsville, Appomattox, the list goes on. Richmond, the Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania. Other points further afield enticed me: Shiloh, Vicksburg, Nashville. Of course, I needed to hit D.C.
As the summer progressed, I set out for a three-week journey. I left my apartment at four in the morning to beat the traffic. I took along necessary provisions: some food, a credit card, a GPS watch, my road bike, a tent and sleeping bag, an ipad. This is not the place to do a deep dive into my Civil War tour. That’s a story for another time. But let me say this about Gettysburg. There was a two-month span there that altered the entire history of the United States, and the Confederate States of America, or C.S.A. The Battle of Gettysburg occurred during the first few days of July 1863. Two months earlier, despite double the manpower, the Union lost a decisive battle at Chancellorsville. The general of the Union, “Fighting Joe” Hooker, didn’t cover his flanks. Stonewall Jackson used the fatal strategy to crush Union forces. An estimated thirty thousand soldiers died at Chancellorsville, thirteen thousand of whom fought for the C.S.A. Those dead included Stonewall Jackson.
Lincoln, it should be noted, never used the term C.S.A. He referred to the South with a one-word pejorative, “rebels.”
Flash forward two months. For the South, the victory at Chancellorsville signaled something profound: the beginning of the end for the Union. One more victory, particularly in the North, and the war would be won. Only the clean up would remain.
The scene was then set for what occurred at Gettysburg. But something unknown to President Lincoln also occurred following the loss at Chancellorsville. The Booth Action Team, as the Confederate Administration called John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts, postponed their plans. Numerous kidnapping schemes were then in the works. The South was running short of men, and the North held thousands of prisoners of war. In addition, the North had an untapped supply of soldiers, particularly with the Irish coming over and instantly joining Union forces. The thinking went that if the Confederacy kidnapped Lincoln, and returned him only in exchange for prisoners, that exchange would greatly enhance Southern ability to wage war.
The South’s victory at Chancellorsville put that plan on the backburner. The staggering loss at Gettysburg revved up kidnapping plans. Those kidnapping plans morphed into assassination plans. Again, this is not the place for a deep dive into the thinking of the Booth Action Team. But a question does emerge. How do I know such an organization existed? There are, for instance, no references to the Booth Action Team in James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.
I found a dossier. There was a spy in Lincoln’s White House. Well, that term hadn’t yet come into the world. There was a spy in Lincoln’s executive mansion. He went by a pseudonym during the war years, Joshua Frye. This is not the place for the long history but suffice it to say, he met Lincoln on a train in February 1861. Lincoln, then the president-elect, was sneaking into Washington via the backdoor route through Maryland. Frye just happened to be on the same train. Coincidence?
Late one night, while most on the train slept, the two men got to talking. Frye introduced himself as a reporter for the Richmond Daily Whig. Indeed, the man wrote a column. Lincoln introduced himself as “Honest Ape,” or the pejorative then in common usage in the South. A friendship quickly developed. As the years of the Civil War passed, that friendship became some small solace for Lincoln.
Frye, it turns out, was a member of the Booth Action Team and he reported directly to the second most powerful man in the South, Judah Benjamin. In Frye’s reportage to Benjamin, he never used the full name for the kidnappers. He used an acronym: bat. Notably, he didn’t capitalize the letters and he didn’t use periods. For a modern-day reader, the bat usage in those reports comes across as nonsensical, a bizarre and nutty non sequitur. In fact, the reference to the Booth Action Team made complete sense.
Lincoln, of course, had no intelligence on bat. His anxiety, though, as the May defeat at Chancellorsville morphed into the July victory at Gettysburg, was never higher. Word is that he suffered from insomnia and constipation. He medicated himself on two supposed elixirs, Blue Mass and Laudanum. The effects were crippling, but more on that in another writing project.
Joshua Frye happened to visit the executive mansion in between these two transformative battles. Lincoln tried for some non-war news, perhaps as a diversion. “If the war’s progress isn’t bad enough,” he said, according to Frye, “the heat has set in and the city stinks from the rot of that God-damned canal.”
Frye registered the moment as unusual, or “the only time I ever heard the President take the Lord’s name in vain.” Lincoln continued, “Something needs to be done.”
Something was done. In the autumn of 1871, under the orders of President Ulysses S. Grant, Tiber Creek was filled in. President Trump would argue that the rot remains.
I spent that night, the first on my Civil War tour, at the Willard InterContinental, or the Willard as it was known before the buyout. It was here, during the four-month interregnum between election and inauguration, that President-Elect Lincoln conducted business. Of course, assassination threats were swirling around the man and only the protection of the Pinkertons kept Lincoln alive.
It was also here that the Peace Conference convened. In February 1861, in a last-ditch effort to save the nation, delegates from over half the states gathered. Presided over by the tenth president of the United States, John Tyler, the conference came down to Virginia. If Virginia voted to secede, Maryland would follow, and there would be the war.
“And the war came,” as Lincoln documented in his second inaugural address. Some five months after the Peace Conference, and some four months after Lincoln left the Willard for the executive mansion, the first major battle was fought. The Battle of Bull Run, or Manassas, was a rout. Northerners were a cocky bunch in the days leading up to the battle. A slogan coursed through Union lands, trumpeted by the Northern press and a number of over-confident politicians, “Forward to Richmond!”
It took four years for the Union to reach Richmond. Lincoln toured the capital of the South just days after its fall, and days before his fall, but more on that in a bit.
One early morning, I left the Willard, jumped on my bicycle, crossed the Long Bridge, and cycled the twenty-five or so miles to Manassas. This route would have been, more or less, the one used by Union forces some one hundred and sixty years ago. Going by bicycle held a unique advantage. My pace decreased. The forty-minute car ride took over two hours. I was traveling at a 19th century pace, at a horse and buggy pace.
The crowds who left Washington on horse and buggy for the Manassas battleground went for the sheer spectacle. They thought this would be the one and only battle. They carried picnic lunches. I carried a few energy bars.
I returned to the Willard in the mid-afternoon. I took a shower and walked over to the White House, following the exact line Lincoln would have used back in 1861. Left on F St., right on 15th, left on Pennsylvania. Lafayette Square would have been around in Lincoln’s day. So would the statue of Andrew Jackson on his horse. Lincoln might have taken a moment to notice the War Department Building at 17th and Pennsylvania. That building, with its telegraph office, would become a regular part of Lincoln’s day. He would walk over to the telegraph room to check on war news.
There wouldn’t have been a West Wing in Lincoln’s day. The Eisenhower Executive Office Building wouldn’t have been built. At that location, Lincoln would have gazed at the Washington Jockey Club, where all things horse racing happened. There was a livery behind the club. Lincoln, on occasion, hired horses from that stable.
Andrew Jackson, by the way, was the first executive to nearly incite the House of Representatives into pursuing the articles of impeachment. His constitutional violations were rather gross. Still, Congress did not formerly take up a bill. That would come some thirty-five years later, during the presidency of the first Johnson. Of course, here in TrumpLand, we are versed in impeachment talk.
All of this was an interesting sidebar as I stared out at Trump’s White House while standing beside Andrew Jackson on his horse. At that time, Trump had already made the call to his Ukrainian counterpart. The whistleblower hadn’t yet come forward. As should be obvious, I am not the whistleblower.
Nor did I visit Trump on that particular Sunday. My invitation called for the following Sunday. I did however take this photograph of the White House.
2) Okay, okay, I didn’t take the photograph. It’s credited to Mathew Brady in the year 1860. Here’s what we should remember about Brady. He was legally blind. Of the nearly 3,500 Civil War photographs credited to Brady, very few were actually taken by the man. A corps of anonymous field photographers did most of the work. After the war, the blind and impoverished Brady sold his entire portfolio of wartime photographs to the U.S. government for twenty-five thousand dollars.
I like the photo because it represents what Lincoln saw as he looked at the executive mansion from Lafayette Square on that first day. Lincoln, by the way, was the first president to put a photographer on staff. To be sure, the world around Lincoln thought of that hire as strange and extravagant. Strange and extravagant as in Grover Cleveland hiring a personal dentist. Strange and extravagant as in Eisenhower hiring a psychiatrist. Strange and extravagant as in Reagan hiring a psychic.
The view of the executive mansion from Lafayette Square in LincolnLand contained a statue that would not have greeted Donald Trump, had he stood in the square on his first day. The bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson was removed in 1874. I suppose the president of that time, Civil War hero Ulysses Grant, didn’t much care for Jefferson. Grant had seen the brutal carnage Jefferson’s slaveocracy created.
That Monday morning, I drove north into Maryland. My day called for the drive south to Richmond. I wanted to visit the multiple sites of the American Civil War Museum. Lincoln made the trek to Richmond just ten days before his assassination, and I wanted to do some research in the archives of the Richmond Daily Whig concerning that visit. How did Richmond respond to Lincoln? How did Lincoln, in turn, respond to the Richmond mood? Those were my questions and I thought the leading newspaper of the day would have documented such thoughts.
In the archives of the Richmond Daily Whig, I found the Joshua Frye dossier.
Before driving south to Richmond, I visited the Antietam battleground in Sharpsburg. History records that battle as the bloodiest day of the war. Combining both Confederate and Union losses, nearly 27,000 soldiers died in just under twelve hours of battle. The fighting hinged upon the tenacity of General Hooker, as he made a name for himself there and during the Peninsula campaign.
Lincoln received a telegram from Hooker. He reported his immediate reaction to the staggering losses to Joshua Frye. “I wanted to close that door and hide under this desk,” he said. According to Frye, a smile crossed Lincoln’s face, the one that “gnawed on your internals.” Lincoln continued, “Not that I could fit.”
Five days later, Lincoln issued the initial Emancipation Proclamation. It should be said that support for Lincoln in the North took a nosedive. In midterm elections, some eight weeks later, the Democrats made major strides against Lincoln Republicans. Talk filled Northern newspapers, labeling Lincoln a “one-term President, as fraught for the Country as Old Buck.”
That quote, from an article written in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, didn’t need to spell out its meaning. But Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, hated the office of the presidency and his term reflected his disdain. He went home to Pennsylvania and wrote a biography. His own, the first of many presidential memoirs.
History seems clear. Had it not been for the Union victory at Gettysburg, Lincoln would have been a one-term president. The North would have elected the Democrat, General George McClellan on his pledge of suing for peace. The North, in fact, had had it with war. In the hands of McClellan, the Emancipation Proclamation would have been abandoned. Sort of like the United States withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change here in TrumpLand.
In the archives of the Richmond Daily Whig later that day, I came across a treasure trove of articles. They documented Lincoln’s few days in the Confederate’s capital. He came as a peacemaker, not a conqueror. He came essentially without guard, as only a few sailors from the USS Malvern protected him. He came as a father, as his son Tad toured the city and the still-smoldering ruins by his side. He came as a hero, as former slaves quickly surrounded him. Frye, covering the scene for the Daily Whig, recorded the “sea of Negroes on their knees, looking up at the tall man in the top hat with expressions aglow to something close to divinity. I suppose their reaction mimicked the Galileans during the feeding of the 5,000.”
That reference to the Gospels underlined a fundamental, and often overlooked, difference between the North and the South. The North was a democracy, built upon the separation of Church and State. The South was a theocracy. Jefferson Davis was as much a cleric as he was an elected official. Had the South won the war, the government of the C.S.A. today would have resembled Iran, or Israel.
According to another article in the Daily Whig, Lincoln made his way to Jefferson Davis’s mansion, which served as the Confederacy’s executive office. Davis had departed for Danville days earlier, according to the article, but Lincoln hoped to meet with General Lee. Lee didn’t show. A delegation of Southerners stood in his place. According to the Daily Whig, the highest-ranking member of that delegation was Joseph Mayo, the mayor of Richmond. During the discussion – focused on bringing the war to an end – Mayo handed his resignation to Lincoln. Richmond wouldn’t have a new mayor for three months.
The Daily Whig missed the backdoor deal. In a closed room, “away from all Southern eyes,” according to a document in Joshua Frye’s dossier, President Lincoln met with “the Jew.” The document continued, “the President and the Jew greeted one another as friendly combatants. They clearly had a past relationship.”
The “Jew” was Judah Benjamin and, in the Confederacy, he served as Jefferson Davis’s right-hand man. His titles included both Secretary of State and Secretary of War.
The intersection between Lincoln and Benjamin seems to date to the 30th Congress of the United States. Back in 1847, both men were first time representatives to the national body. The 30th Congress had a rather significant piece of legislation to consider: a peace treaty with Mexico following President Polk’s war. Lincoln, a Whig from Illinois, and Benjamin, a Whig from Louisiana, worked together on the “Spot Resolution.” Both men wanted to know the exact spot where the war began. Both men thought it was in Mexico territory, making President Polk guilty of invading a foreign country, and selling the country a faulty premise for war. President Polk, in his way, prefigured President Bush in his war with Iraq. The second Bush.
While the “Spot Resolution” fizzled, the national careers of Lincoln and Benjamin began in earnest. Benjamin would go on to become a senator, an advocate of the slaveocracy, and a secessionist. He met Jefferson Davis in 1853, during a state dinner held to inaugurate Davis as the Secretary of War under President Pierce. The two men formed a bond that would last over a decade.
During the covert meeting with President Lincoln at Jefferson Davis’s mansion in Richmond, Judah Benjamin revealed the “second spot resolution,” as Lincoln called it. According to a document in the Frye dossier, the “second spot resolution” contained a whopper. It turns out that Jefferson Davis hadn’t escaped to Danville, along with the Confederate government, as history records. Instead, Davis and Benjamin remained in the capital to “go down with the sinking ship.”
They didn’t go down. Lincoln, clearly thinking about the future, saw Davis as “a key to the new nation.” According to the Frye dossier, Lincoln told Benjamin that “the face of war becomes the face of peace. This is what history teaches.”
Lincoln then allowed the escape of both Davis and Benjamin. Davis went to Georgia, to reunite with Southern leadership. Benjamin went to Great Britain, where he lived out the rest of his life. History records that Benjamin fled with Davis to Georgia. That is false. He sailed to Great Britain, according to the Frye dossier, “on a Union ship.”
How did he gain access to a Union ship?
3) On an early Wednesday morning, I began a long slog of a drive. My day called for a 16-plus hour trip due south to Key West. Unfortunately, I hit Southern Florida in the dark, so I didn’t get to look out at the pristine beaches of Palm Beach, or the density of the Everglades, or the bridges and islands of the Keys. I arrived in Key West just in time to nap for a few hours before catching a ferry to the western most island of the Keys, known as Dry Tortuga.
I spent two days in relative quiet. Dry Tortuga is the least visited national park in the United States. It’s a small island that houses the remains of a fort. There is no electricity on the island, no running water, no food source. Visitors bring in all of their needs. I spent two days in quiet relaxation, swimming, snorkeling, walking the length and width of the island, reading Civil War history, thinking about my upcoming tour of TrumpLand.
I also discovered Dry Tortuga’s Civil War past. Back in the 1820s, the United States needed a southern outpost to suppress the piracy, then running rampant in the Caribbean. Eventually, Dry Tortuga was chosen. The building of Fort Jefferson commenced in 1846. The name seems apt, for slaves built the fort named after a founding father of the slaveocracy.
In the early days of the Civil War, the Union fortified Fort Jefferson in an effort to dissuade the Confederacy from invasion. The Union then used the fort as a prison for its own soldiers. Early in the war, the Union executed those soldiers found guilty of desertion. By executive order, President Lincoln substituted imprisonment on Dry Tortuga for execution.
That executive order, it should be noted, came right after Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. Did he dangerously overreach in executive order? Did he set a precedent for future presidents to carve out some highly harmful policy? The record suggests so.
It should also be noted that confinement on Dry Tortuga was not the wonderful quiet of the 21st century. Confinement meant hard labor under a relentless sun.
4) Early on Sunday morning, I made the 4-plus hour drive north to West Palm Beach. I arrived at my first stop. I suppose I could have rented golf clubs at the Trump International Golf Club but I had heard of a funky store and I wanted to check it out. Big Bob’s Sporting Spot on Jefferson Road, adjacent to the Norton Museum of Art, is much more than golf, and much more than sports. First of all, Big Bob himself, who works the floor everyday, looks like he’s never done anything sporting in his entire life. He is as the name suggests: a rotund fellow with an awkward, terribly unathletic gait, who habitually wears a fisherman’s hat. On the front of the hat, Big Bob has pinned a photograph of a Southern Florida icon. The great Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino throws a touchdown pass. “It hides my bald spot,” Big Bob explained to me.
“What does?” I asked. “The photo of Marino or the hat itself.”
“Both,” Big Bob replied. “My bald spot is big.” In fact, Big Bob is bald. His shop could be called Bald Big Bob’s Sporting Spot.
On the walls of the Sporting Spot, there are license plates from all around the world. It’s a collection unparalleled. According to The Guinness Book of World Records, the Sporting Spot houses the most license plates “per cubic inch” worldwide.
“I don’t recall how it started,” Big Bob explained, “but customers come in and sniff around. Days later, sometimes weeks later, they send me their plates.”
He walked over to one. The second, apparently, in the collection. “This was back in the 1980s,” Big Bob recalled. “A couple walks in, barely speaks a word of English. They’re from some place I don’t know where. I don’t know their language. They rent some fishing gear. They like my store. At that time, I think, I just had the one Florida plate up on the wall. The local. Palm Beach County. I hadn’t even ventured south to Broward or Dade. Weeks later, they send me this plate. I think to myself, why not hang it up?”
The plate, it turns out, was one of the last issued by East Germany. It has an October 3, 1990 registration. It was registered in the State of Brandenburg, with Potsdam as the place of registration.
Two things dawned on me. First of all, Big Bob did recall how the collection began. The next customer who saw the East German plate on the wall sent in his plate, voluntarily. That plate was from West Virginia, a town called Martinsburg. (More on Martinsburg soon.) An autocatalytic phenomenon occurred, or an increasing on itself. The collection expanded.
Secondly, that East German plate must be worth more than the Sporting Spot. It was registered on the very day that East Germany ceased to exist.
Big Bob was happy to rent me some clubs. “Where you gonna play?” he asked, “West Palm?”
I thought about lying. Did I really want to receive the reaction I knew would come my way? I didn’t lie. “Mar-a-Lago,” I answered.
Big Bob thought I was kidding, I think. He answered, “What, you got a golf date with DonnyTerrific? I do hear he’s in town, you know.”
“Donny Terrific?” I answered. “I love that name.”
“No, you’re saying it wrong,” Big Bob replied. “DonnyTerrific. One word.”
We both laughed.
5) I did have a golf date with DonnyTerrific, with dinner to follow. In my follow up arrangements with the White House’s Office of Scheduling and Advance, I was invited to play a round of golf at the Trump International Golf Club, a five-minute drive from Mar-a-Lago. The invitation mentioned eighteen holes with “the President and a special guest.”
I first reacted with a bit of golf etiquette. “According to my math,” I wrote to the Office of Scheduling and Advance, “that forms a party of three. Will there be a fourth?”
“The President likes threesomes,” the Office of Scheduling and Advance replied.
Really, you can’t make this stuff up. Was the Office of Scheduling and Advance aware of the sexual reference? I assume so.
I replied, “I wish to thank the President for the invitation but my golfing career ended long ago. I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. I cannot grip a golf club.”
The Office of Scheduling and Advance responded, “We are sorry to hear of your affliction, but the President will be the judge of your capability. You have a tee time at eleven a.m.”
The invitation then stated that a tour of Mar-a-Lago and dinner in the Trump residence would follow. I was also invited to spend the night in “one of the estate rooms.” I assumed, and hoped, that the president would pick up the tab.
I arrived at the golf club at ten. I wanted to get situated, suss out my surroundings, hit a few balls at the driving range. To be honest, I hadn’t tried to hit a golf club in years. Maybe I could. I did buy some very grippy golf gloves at Big Bob’s Sporting Spot. “They’ll make you feel like you’re wearing glue,” Big Bob advertised.
At a few minutes after ten, as I made my way from the pro shop to the range, I was struck by the quiet. It was Dry Tortuga-like. Where was everybody? Before I could formulate an explanation, the next sight answered my question. President Trump was already on the course, warming up at the putting green. Secret service requirements called for an empty course while the president played.
Mao Tse-tung, it might be noted, went by a similar dictate when flying. Whenever the chairman took to the skies, all other planes were grounded. That meant all across the width and length of China. Talking about a Dry Tortuga-like quiet. President Trump would have liked that kind of quiet all the time, but more on that in a bit.
The next sight on the Trump International Golf Club was something to behold. It wasn’t so much the president dressed in typical golf wear: white polo shirt, black slacks with black belt, white golf shoes, a white baseball cap with “USA” embroidered and emblazoned in big letters. The sight was something to behold given the president’s golfing partner. He was dressed like the president. Same clothing, same color scheme, same baseball cap color, though this one had a red cardinal perched on a baseball bat on the front. Both men greeted me with the same smile, teeth showing. Their incisors looked identical. Fangs.
The president shook my hand. Too strongly, I might add. But anyone suffering from arthritis would report that. “This is Big Rush,” the president said of his companion.
I shook Big Rush’s hand. He, too, shook my hand too strongly. “The president tells me that you wrote a great book,” Big Rush said. “Maybe you’d like to come on my show and talk about it. Over thirteen million Americans listen to me everyday.”
Later, I looked up his statistic. Rush Limbaugh wasn’t lying. His radio show brings in some 13.25 million listeners for at least five minutes per day.
The president looked at my hands. It was – how should I put it? – strange. He seemed to be suspecting my hands, as if I didn’t suffer from arthritis, as if I’d been lying, as if I needed an excuse not to play golf. “They don’t look too beat up to me,” he said.
Big Rush chimed in, “You could hit a Wainwright fastball with those babies.” Later, I looked up his reference. Adam Wainwright, pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, throws his fastballs in the low nineties. Healthy hands or not, I certainly couldn’t hit a Wainwright fastball.
“Let’s go hit a few balls,” the president said.
The three of us walked over to the range. In truth, I used to be a decent golfer. I could hit my woods straight and true. I wasn’t bad with my iron game. I wasn’t a long ball hitter but, from tee to green, I was adequate. My short game had some touch to it. I could putt.
I put on my grippy Big Bob bought gloves. I did indeed feel the glue effect. I pulled a seven iron out of my bag. I set up for a shot, feet shoulder length apart, knees bent. I felt good, sturdy.
I didn’t even swing the club. I couldn’t. I just simply couldn’t grip the handle.
Plus, I was afraid the club would fly out of my hands and hit Trump squarely in the USA. I was afraid the secret service would haul me off to Raiford, where I would be accused of attempted assassination with a golf club. It would be sort of the perfect murder. “7-iron flies out of arthritic golfer’s hands, smacks into the President, causing a subdural hematoma,” the coroner’s report would read. Certainly, it would rival the assassination of President Harrison back in 1841. Officially, he died of pneumonia. Modern-day epidemiology suggests typhoid fever. Clearly, salmonella ran rampant in Tiber Creek. There was no sewage system in Washington City. But I’m here to tell you that an assassin planted the salmonella in Harrison’s water supply. Admittedly, I don’t have a Frye-like dossier confirming my belief. I have undertaken some sound detective work, though, but more on that at another time.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Trump. “I can’t. My hands won’t allow it.”
The president responded in a strange way. He took off his white USA hat. He scratched his head. He slicked back his pumpkin hair. He then put on a new cap. This one was the sister of the previous cap. Same USA in big, embroidered letters. Same manufacturer. However, there was a color change. White became red.
Later, I went to a website identifying the idiosyncrasies of Donald Trump. When he wears a white cap, it means he’s in a friendly mood. A red hat represents his disdain. Apparently, he’s that idiosyncratic, and transparent.
Big Rush changed into a red cap, too, though this one had a cardinal perched on a baseball bat on the front.
6) I spent the day at Mar-a-Lago. Aside from checking in and napping in a very regal estate room, a staffer showed me around. His name was Anthony Senecal and he’d worn many hats over the years at the club. Today, he is known as the house historian, but that title is relatively recent. He began his long Mar-a-Lago career in 1959. “I was eighteen,” he told me, as we strolled the main house. “I got hired as a duster. I think Mrs. Post saw my mustache and she thought to herself… duster.”
Senecal, as he did back in 1959 and for most of the years in between, wears a walrus mustache, thoroughly covering the area between his nose and his upper lip. Of course, in 1959, at the tender age of eighteen, the color of the mustache was “jet black,” according to Senecal, “the color of a panther.”
Sixty years later, the color is “dove white,” according to Senecal. “But I’m still Panther-like fierce.”
I ignored his last words. I studied his mustache further. It looked like a dust brush, minus the handle.
Senecal continued, “I was the longest serving duster in the history of the place… Officially, I should say, Mrs. Post called me an ‘errand boy.’ But really what she wanted… better yet, what she insisted upon… was dust removal. All of the tiles had to be pristine clean. Mr. Trump likes it the same way.”
That’s not the only similarity between Post and Trump, but more on that in a bit. There are some 36,000 Spanish tiles layered upon the floorboards, a majority of them flow in arabesque lines. “Mrs. Post loved the style,” Senecal described, “but not the people.”
I responded to his line with a quizzical look, but more on that in a bit.
Marjorie Merriweather Post built the estate from the swampland up, beginning sometime in 1923. Construction took four years. She imported a world of building materials from Italy and Spain. She wanted “a Mediterranean feel to the place,” Senecal told me.
Frescoes from Rome cover the walls. “Mrs. Post was big on frescoes,” Senecal continued. “She used to say to me, ‘Tony, I am the fresco queen.’”
Actually, she was the cereal queen. Her father, C.W. Post, jumped on the cereal craze near the end of the 19th century. He formed the General Foods Corporation. Dry cornflakes made the family into millionaires. C.W. and his wife had one child. Marjorie’s inheritance made her the wealthiest woman in the United States. Some say her wealth rivaled the Queen of England. Well, that comparison would have begun around 1952, when Elizabeth’s reign began.
Elizabeth outlived Marjorie by many decades. Post died in 1973. In her will, she bequeathed the estate to the federal government. She wanted Mar-a-Lago to serve as a White House south. It didn’t turn out that way. Deemed too expensive to maintain, the federal government returned the property to the Post Foundation in 1981.
Senecal, on the kitchen staff back in the early 1970s, remembered Post’s death. “I was so broken up,” he reported. “She was the Dowager Queen to all of us. I heard the news of her death in the kitchen. I don’t know why but I got out a box of cornflakes. I arranged the flakes to look like Mrs. Post. Someone took a picture. We hung it over the main fireplace in the big house.”
It doesn’t hang there anymore. There is a painting of Trump in tennis whites hanging over the main fireplace. Senecal turned somewhat secretive. His dust brush mustache seemed to shrink. “I’ve been in other homes in the Palm area,” he confided. “Same exact painting. Only the head is different.”
The Post photograph, of Marjorie in cornflakes, fills a wall in Senecal’s office. He walked me into his private residence. Sure enough, Senecal, age thirty-two at the time, had arranged Post’s likeness. I immediately googled Marjorie Post. The similarity was striking.
Notably, Senecal did the same for Trump. The picture of Trump in cornflakes hangs in Senecal’s private residence, too, over his bed. “It’s a shame Mrs. Post and Mr. Trump never met,” Senecal told me. “They were cut from the same cloth.”
“Or corn,” I interrupted.
Senecal liked that. He laughed, with his dust brush mustache jumping up and down. “I should tell Mr. Trump that one,” he said.
“Do you ever call him President Trump?” I asked.
“Never,” Senecal reported. “I met the man back in 1985. He was Mr. Trump then and he’s Mr. Trump now. He’s the most patriotic man I’ve ever met.”
“Okay,” I responded.
“He was born on flag day,” Senecal continued.
It might be said, figuratively speaking, that Anthony Senecal is the offspring of Donald Trump and Marjorie Post. While his “parents” came from different eras, different geographical settings, different cultures, there are lines that comingle, arabesque style. Both Post and Trump came from money. Their fathers were notoriously big personalities, who, behind closed doors, were ruthless and authoritarian father figures. Both Post and Trump could never match the wants and desires of their fathers and that showed in their psychologies. They had the psyche of perfection embedded into them, but no way to measure up to that perfection.
That dynamic can be found in their multiple marriages, and divorces. Post married four times. Trump married three times, so far. Both Post and Trump produced children with different spouses. Neither gave much effort in child rearing. Post entrusted the raising of her children to a nation of nannies. Trump did the same, with his wives thrown somewhere into the mix. Post saw herself as the “Dowager Queen,” to use Anthony Senecal’s description. He clearly didn’t use the actual definition in his description. He meant in style and substance. The same applied to Donald Trump. To echo Senecal, it’s a shame the two never met.
Donald Trump bought the property in 1985. Senecal became the club’s official doorman. He held that title for five years. “I was the longest tenured doorman,” he reported. “I so thoroughly enjoyed the position. I was the portal for all of Palm Beach. They came to this great establishment for Mr. Trump. But they had to enter through me.”
Senecal’s sense of self-importance reminded me of another doorman, perhaps the most famous of the 19th century. His name was Edward McManus and he served as the doorman to the White House, or executive mansion as it was then called. He began his career during the second Adams and he retired when Lincoln died. The story goes that he was too broken hearted to greet Lincoln’s successor. Lincoln called McManus “Old Edward,” and he, too, was a portal. For the masses who formed and sought an audience with the president, there was no other way up to Lincoln’s second floor offices then through Old Edward. According to Joshua Frye, Old Edward liked to brag that he alone “determined Lincoln’s schedule.” He alone “kept out the riffraff.”
Anthony Senecal echoed those same words, but more on that in a bit. In Old Edward’s case, he never said no to wounded soldiers. They came en masse to see Lincoln. Old Edward let them through the door and Lincoln would listen to each and every story of battle. Each and every story of battle affected his life. Lincoln was a man both buffered and beaten down by war stories.
Trump isn’t much into stories. He’s not a storyteller and he’s not a story listener. Isn’t it ironic then that he would invite a writer to dinner?
Under a row of palm trees connecting the big house to Trump’s private residence, Senecal continued with his history. “I only left my doorman position to become mayor,” he said. “Do you know the first thing I did in Martinsburg? I hired a doorman for my office.”
To check the records in Martinsburg, West Virginia, where Senecal served from 1990 to 1992, is to see the employment of four different doormen during those years. Apparently Senecal hired doormen like Trump and Post found spouses.
Senecal’s tenure in Martinsburg was notable for one certain policy proposal. He wanted all panhandlers to carry permits. His proposal got an endorsement from the boss. “I got a letter from Mr. Trump,” Senecal reported. “‘Tony,’ he wrote, ‘this is so great.’”
Senecal, it turns out, loves his prejudices. He refers to panhandlers as “riffraff.” He refers to Muslims as “muzzies.” He thinks all American cities should be cleared of their “muzzy” populations. “We need to bomb ‘em out,” he declared. “I could care less if they’re in the U.S. I don’t want them in the U.S. They don’t belong here. They belong in the sand dunes where they came from.” (See Gary Legum, “Why Donald Trump’s racist butler actually matters,” Salon, https://www.salon.com/ 2016/05/13/why_donald_trumps_racist_butler_actually_matters/)
His reference to “sand dunes,” conveying his prejudice for all things Muslim, connects back to his talk of arabesques. Senecal holds on to many errors. Like all Arabs are Muslims. Like all Arabs live in the desert world. Sometime back in the early 1960s, I would wager, Senecal saw the movie version of “Lawrence of Arabia.” His knowledge of the Arab world started and ended there.
His intolerance of “muzzies” reached the White House. During Barack Obama’s tenure, Senecal kept up the birther myth. He called Obama a “Kenyan fraud.” He also kept up the myth of Obama as a secret Muslim. Senecal turned awfully belligerent, “This prick needs to be hung for treason.” He “should have been taken out by our military and shot as an enemy agent in his first term.”
Senecal returned to Mar-a-Lago in 1992. Trump hired him as his butler. “I was the longest serving butler in Mar-a-Lago’s history,” Senecal reported. “I retired in 2009. Mr. Trump, though, wouldn’t hear of it. He told me, ‘To retire is to expire.’ I became the house historian.”
I predicted Senecal’s next words, and sure enough, they came. “I am the longest serving historian in Mar-a-Lago’s history.”
Mar-a-Lago is an economy all to itself. It is a place to be seen. It is a place to be recognized. It is a place to throw your money around. There are world-class restaurants on site. There is a ballroom, built by Trump to be grander than Versailles’. There is a beauty salon. There is a spa. There is a swimming pool, a tennis pro shop, five clay tennis courts, a croquet court. “Mrs. Post loved croquet,” Senecal reported. “These days, it’s hardly used.”
“What does President Trump love?” I asked.
Senecal nodded his head. His dust brush mustache jumped up and down. “He has some prized possessions,” Senecal answered. “You’ll see them shortly.”
We arrived at the residence. Senecal knocked on the door. Notably, there wasn’t a doorman on location. There were secret service agents all around. A secret service agent did not open the door. The president’s private secretary did. “Welcome to Trump-a-Lago,” she said.
7) Her name, I immediately learned, was Maddie. She had been the president’s private secretary since 2017. She didn’t yet know it but she had about a week left on the job. After Mar-a-Lago, the first family flew up to New Jersey, to vacation at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster. Maddie apparently got all liquored up at a dinner with reporters and spilled a few Trump family secrets, along with her drink. The alcohol left a small smudge. Her running mouth left an acid stain.
Maddie greeted me with a big smile. It’s the same smile worn by all the women in Trump’s orbit. It’s the smile that suggests a compliment is coming, an ego stroke. All the women in Trump’s orbit, I suppose, have learned the smile to survive Trump’s ethology. Notably, though, the smile is only the beginning, the portal so to speak. All the women in Trump’s orbit – both the inner and outer circles – look a certain way. Those women in the inner circle – his wife and ex-wives, his daughters – look like they’ve just come from the plastic surgeon’s scalpel. There is a cutting away effect, a sheep shearing process, plus noticeable implantation. Those women in the outer circles – Kelleyanne Conway, Rhona Graff, Nikki Haley, the list goes on – look like they’ve just come from the plastic surgeon’s office. There is the look of botox, or chemical peel, or permanent makeup.
“You look relaxed,” Maddie said to me, as if she knew my stressed out look. “I trust you had a wonderful day.”
I smiled softly.
“Come,” she said, “let’s go meet everyone. They are very excited to meet you.”
A part of me wanted to run away. I freely admit, I felt a bit caged at Trump-a-Lago. As the evening progressed, I was never able to escape that feeling. That feeling led to a late night decision. I didn’t spend the night in the estate room. I fled. I drove north through the night. I wanted out of Florida altogether.
The first family had gathered in the “the trophy room,” as everyone called it. Trump houses all of his golf trophies there. He has several hundred, it seems. I snuck a peek or two as I met the gang. Most of the trophies celebrate his distance off the tee. His distance off the tee reminded me of something Anthony Senecal said. Apparently, the two men hit golf balls from Mar-a-Lago into the Intracoastal Waterway. Neither man, apparently, cares about the build up of plastic on the ocean floor.
According to Senecal, the conversation between the men always has to do with distance. “‘How far was that one?’” Trump would ask. Senecal would answer, “‘With that first bounce, maybe 300 yards.’” In actuality, Senecal confided, “The distance couldn’t have been more than 225 yards.”
Later, I googled “Trump as a golfer.” An article in Golfworld critiqued his game. The reporter wrote, “He was not particularly long off the tee – averaging about 230 yards.” He was straight, though. Which is more important. Trump was not a technician of the game. “I think of golf as a very natural game,” he told the reporter. “I never really wanted to know a lot about my technique. I really trust instinct a lot, in golf and a lot of things.” (Jaime Diaz, “How Good is Donald Trump the Golfer?” Golfworld, January 17, 2017. https://www.golfdigest.com/story/how-good-is-donald-trump-the-golfer.)
Maddie introduced me around. First Lady Melania Trump was there. I was struck by her height. She is slightly taller than me, just shy of six feet. Her son Barron was there. I was struck by his height, too. At age thirteen, he was the tallest person in the room. Tiffany Trump was there. Daughter of Trump’s second wife, Marla Maples, she was the only person born in Palm Beach in the room. She was a day old when she first entered Mar-a-Lago.
Ivanka Trump was there. Maddie introduced her as “Yael Kushner,” using her Hebrew name. I suppose Maddie did so in relation to my Jewish roots and to my book so clearly dealing in the Jewish realm. Trump corrected her. “Call me Ivana,” she said to me.
Ivana was the only Trump offspring from her father’s first wife present in the room. Neither of the sons showed. Ivana, it should be noted, is one of the wealthiest women in America. She might be the Marjorie Merriweather Post of the 21st century.
Ivana’s husband, Jared Kushner, was there. I immediately sized him up as an honorary member of Trump’s orbit of women, the outer circle. That’s not to say that Kushner is a female. But he looks the part to fit into Trump’s ethology. It’s as if he’s just come from the plastic surgeon’s office. He doesn’t have a laugh line on that smooth face of his. There’s not even a smidgen of beard growth. It’s like his hair follicles have been permanently removed by some kind of laser treatment.
I soon realized the true story behind Kushner’s wrinkle-free face. I met Kushner’s parents. Charles, or “Charlie” as he insisted on being called, reminded me of Donald Trump. The two men yearn for attention. Maybe Jared and Ivana got together because they subconsciously recognized the wound in one another’s psyche, the searing effect caused by fathers who need to be put on pedestals.
Seryl, I learned during introductions, was the first in the room to read my book Satan’s Synagogue. She passed the book onto her daughter-in-law. To Ivana, she called the book a “must-read, on all things Jewish.”
I realized that, when it comes to “all things Jewish,” there is a dividing line between Seryl and Ivana. Seryl is wary of Ivana’s non-Jewish roots. Worse, Ivana’s mother was born in Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Seryl has questions regarding the Zelnickova clan of Moravia, and what they did, or did not do, during the war years. Ivana’s conversion to Judaism, to marry Seryl’s son, only partially answered some of Seryl’s question. Seryl seems to be on some kind of mission to educate Ivana. It leads to some tension between the women.
What does this dynamic have to do with Jared Kushner’s wrinkle-free face, or my initial judgment of him as an honorary member of Trump’s orbit of women? Let’s dig deeper. Jared’s grandparents, Charlie’s father and mother, were Holocaust survivors. They came from a town in modern-day Belarus but on Polish soil back during the war years. When the Germans and the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact in August 1939, they secretly partitioned Poland in half. A month later, the town of Navahrudak fell into Soviet hands. Life for Jews was difficult, but tolerable. That changed when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. The Nazis, as per their normal operating procedure, constructed a ghetto. In 1941, the Nazis liquidated the ghetto of Navahrudak primarily by firing squad.
Jared’s grandmother, Reichel “Rae” Kushner, led an escape in the days before liquidation. As it became clear that all Jews would be eradicated – Rae Kushner’s mother in fact died by firing squad – Rae Kushner and her brigade began to build a tunnel underneath the ghetto, connecting them to the outside world. They fled through that tunnel. They joined a famous Jewish partisan group led by the Bielski brothers. They survived the war.
In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, Rae Kushner returned to Navahrudak. She found what all returning Jews found: a completely inhospitable environment, with locals having taken over all Jewish possessions and threatening more harm. The Kushners fled to a DP camp in Moravia, Czechoslovakia. Eventually, they made their way to the United States by way of the USSR. When they arrived, they brought with them the baggage of massacre, the baggage of the ghetto, the baggage of displacement.
What did that leave them with? Amongst their survivor traits, they have little sense of humor. That mark can be seen on Jared Kushner’s face. There are no laugh lines. The smoothness of his skin, the laser-like glassiness, has nothing to do with the plastic surgeon’s office. The smoothness is a product of his grandparents’ history.
Notably, the Trumps have no sense of humor, either. Maybe that helps to explain Jared and Ivana’s comingling, arabesque style.
Suddenly, the door to the Trophy room swung open and in walked the president of the United States. To those in the room, other than Maddie and me, he’s Donald. His thirteen-year-old son, notably, calls him Donald. Weird.
Jared, I immediately noticed, didn’t use a name. He lived in that odd space, with his father-in-law as president and boss. In the outside world, it was easy. “Mr. President” rolled off the tongue. But here, in private, awkwardness crept in.
Maddie introduced me to the president but, of course, I’d already been introduced. As he did out on the golf course, Trump shook my hand too hard. For a split second, he looked down at the handshake. “Sorry if that hurts,” he said, although his tone clearly didn’t express any sort of remorse. “Mr. Josephson suffers from arthritis,” he announced to the room. “He couldn’t play golf today.”
I ignored Trump’s mangling of my family name. I ignored the power play. I ignored Trump’s need to establish himself as alpha. I am not a dog.
“Brian,” I said.
“What?” the president replied.
“Call me Brian.”
Trump didn’t seem to hear my response. Or rather, he seemed to have his next line ready to go. “What are you drinking?” he said.
I then noticed that nobody in the room held a glass in hand. I determined that this was the normal operating procedure. When Trump entered the room, everything commenced.
“Whatever you’re drinking,” I responded. I’m not much of a drinker but I suppose I was up for anything: a martini in Roosevelt style, the madeira favored by the first Adams, the champagne of James Madison, the whiskey of the first Johnson, the scotch whiskey in a plastic cup of the second Johnson.
Lincoln, by the way, walked a fine line. He grew up on Knob Creek. His father worked at the distillery that made bourbon. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, the cagey-as-all-hell Douglas inferred that Lincoln ran a saloon. For a man running for political office, barman status was a death sentence.
The history is a little sordid. Lincoln never ran a saloon but he did in fact apply for a liquor license from the state of Illinois in the days before seeking high office. He and his business partner operated a grocery store.
As president, Lincoln only tasted the alcohol in front of him, so he wouldn’t offend his host. He was considered the driest of all presidents. Until Trump. Trump makes Lincoln look like the second coming of Martin van Buren, arguably this country’s greatest drinker while in office. Or George W. Bush, during his party days before finding some sort of sobriety.
Trump ordered “daiquiris for the boys, and D.C.’s for the ladies” from the waiter. While we waited, I presented the president and the first lady with a gift. In the weeks leading up to the dinner, I struggled to find something worthwhile. I mean, what do you give a billionaire president? I decided on some artwork. My mother, Susan, has been a painter since I’ve known her. In more recent times, she’s focused on abstract digital work. I thought about giving the president and his wife this one:
It’s called “The Pickle Sisters,” and my mother made it for her granddaughters. Strangely, it somewhat resembles the president and the first lady, particularly the hair. I didn’t give “The Pickle Sisters” to the president. Given the low level sense of humor in the room, I thought the gift would fall flat.
A notable moment occurred when I presented the wrapped package. Nobody made a move to unwrap it. Perhaps presidents and their families don’t unwrap gifts from invited strangers. Perhaps that’s a job for handlers, or the invited stranger. I unwrapped the gift. Here is what the room saw:
My mother entitled the work, “A Star with a Hole in it.” I think it’s quite wonderful and I have it on my computer as a screen saver. Also, let’s be real. It’s applicable. The anti-Trump crowd would think the title fits the man.
I didn’t notice Trump’s reaction as the waiter arrived with the drinks. Trump handed me a glass. “To Joseph and his great writing,” Trump toasted, meaning me. “And to whatever that is.” Meaning the artwork.
Again, I ignored the mangling of my last name. “Please, call me Brian,” I said.
“What?” the president said.
The “boys” drank virgin strawberry slushies. The “ladies” drank Diet Cokes. I did notice one of the “boys” add a little something from a bottle of Knob Creek to his slushy. I won’t say who but I promise it wasn’t Barren. This “boy” then passed the bottle to a “lady” who added a healthy pour to her Diet Coke. I suppose this is life in the Trump White House. You have to be subversive with your alcohol. Trump might interpret a drink as a terrible disloyalty.
While the subversiveness was going on, I heard a Yiddish word. It was odd, of course. Why would anyone speak Yiddish in a room full of English-speaking Americans? My Yiddish, it should be noted, is merely a smattering of words. In this case, though, I understood the speaker’s word.
“Shmendrik.” The word translates into English as a stupid jerk.
I looked at the speaker. It was the first lady. Why had she uttered the word? Why in Yiddish? Was Yiddish a part of her polyglot mind? And who exactly was she describing? These were the questions that instantly formed in my mind.
Trump, by the way, missed the entire scene. He was already making his way to the dining room.
8) The Trump dining room in the residence at Mar-a-Lago looks like a scene straight out of an opulent king’s dream landscape. The room itself is encased in gold. Gold floors. Golden walls. Gold ceiling. The table, the chairs, the plates, the cutlery, the stemware, all have golden hues. The symbolism is clear. Well, symbolism isn’t the right word, as there’s nothing indirect or suggestive in the room. The meaning is clear. Trump is a winner.
There is one exception to the golden rule. Stretched over a large wall hangs a flag, encased in a fine wood frame. The circular presidential coat of arms occupies much of the flag space. The eagle – that ultimate symbol of the American presence – fills the center of the flag. The eagle looks to his right, at the olive branch in his talon. He seems to ignore the shield on his chest with the thirteen bands running vertically. He seems to ignore the scroll emanating from his beak, with the Latin words “E PLURIBIS UNUM” in capitals. His focus is on the olive branch and its symbol of peace.
Don’t ask me why but I started to count the stars surrounding the eagle. I counted clock-wise. I started at the top, or the twelfth hour on an analog clock face. I anticipate fifty stars but, at first glance, there looked to be far fewer. Reaching the third hour on the clock face, I counted nine stars.
The president did not notice. He sat at the head of the table, with the presidential seal to his right. The first lady sat at the opposite end, with the presidential seal to her left. I sat to the president’s immediate left, with the president’s eldest daughter to my left, and her husband to her left. The three of us had a direct view of the flag.
It looked old. It looked tattered. It offered a notable juxtaposition to the shining gold imagery of the Trump dining room. The president ignored the flag, and my interest in it, and snapped his fingers. Anthony Senecal entered the room, carrying a set of golf clubs. He set the clubs down, near the corner of the table, between the president and me.
“Mr. Joepeser,” the president said, meaning me, “this is one of my favorite gifts. Tiger Woods gave me these clubs this past May. According to Tiger, he won his first Masters with them.”
The president pointed to the driver. Tiger had autographed it. “The driver is my favorite club,” the president continued. “I gave Tiger the Medal of Freedom and he gave me these clubs. Now that’s quid pro quo.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. I initially thought about his mangling of my last name. I thought maybe now was the time to emphatically correct him. I didn’t. I then thought about my gift to the president and his wife. Here’s how I interpreted the president’s meaning: “Tiger found a gift I could cherish. You found…” How did he put it? “‘whatever that is.’” Meaning the artwork.
My next response was to think about the president’s Latin phrase. A question quickly formed in my head. How much Latin does the president know? An ancillary question formed. Could the president translate the inscription on the presidential seal?
The answers remain unknown. Here’s what’s known. The president loves to utter “quid pro quo.” To him, the phrase wins every argument. But, notably, the phrase best describes his psychology. Everything in TrumpLand is a barter.
I turned from the golf clubs to the flag on the wall. My attention went to the count. From the third hour on the clock face to the sixth hour, I counted another nine stars. Simple math identified eighteen stars from the twelfth hour to the sixth. Shouldn’t there have been twenty-five stars?
While that was going on, I heard more Yiddish. It was odd, of course. “Oy Gevalt!” The expression could translate in many different ways. It could mean an expression of alarm, as the German word gewalt means force, violence. It could mean an expression of incredulity. It could also mean an expression of dismay, sort of the English equivalent of “oh my gosh.”
I looked at the speaker. It was the first lady. Why had she uttered the expression? Why in Yiddish? And for whom was she uttering it? These were the questions that quickly formed in my mind.
My attention then went to the ethnic component in the room. The breakdown totaled equal Jews to non-Jews, with the ninth person claiming either side. The Kushner parents are unequivocally Jewish, as is their son Jared. They are observant. I am unequivocally Jewish, too, though not observant. That made for four Jews in the room.
The Trumps are unequivocally non-Jewish. Donald, Melania, Tiffany and Barron are as goy as goy can be. The anti-Trump crowd might use more pejorative Jewish terms, sheigetz and shiksa, to describe the Trump White House. Both words stem from the same root word in Hebrew. They come with unclean connotations.
Ivana Trump goes both ways. She was brought up in the goy world of Donald and her mother Ivana. To marry Jared, she converted to Judaism – and modern orthodoxy, at that. Which side then does she claim? I guess it depends upon which way the wind blows.
Trump, by the way, missed the Yiddish entirely. His attention was on Senecal, who had taken away the golf clubs and returned with another gift. Senecal set the gift on the golden table. It was a baseball.
“Mr. Joséffer,” the president said, meaning me, “this is another great gift. The great Yankee closer, Mariano Rivera, gave me this ball. It just so happens that Mo, as I call him, is my favorite Yankee of all time. And, as I’m sure you know, the Yankees are my team. Someday I’m going to buy Steinbrenner out.”
The president pointed to Rivera’s autograph. He continued, “I gave him the Medal of Freedom and he gave me this ball. Now that’s quid pro quo.”
Again, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I was struck by the president’s mangling of my name. He pronounced the name with an accent mark, in the Spanish speaking way. Then, I thought about Trump’s use of the Latin phrase. I then thought about Trump’s nickname for Rivera. I am not a Yankee fan but I do live in New York, where everyone refers to Rivera as Mo. It’s just the standard nickname.
I then thought about Senecal. I thought about his history at the club. Here, in his dotage, he works as the house historian. But is that accurate? Hasn’t he returned to his original work description? He got hired originally as a “duster,” to use his word. But his official title then was “errand boy.” He sure seemed like Trump’s errand boy to me.
I turned from the baseball to the flag on the wall. My attention went to the count. From the sixth hour to the ninth on a clock face, there were another nine stars. Twenty-seven so far.
While all of this was going on, I heard more Yiddish. The first lady uttered, “What a shanda fur die goy.” Or, what an embarrassment. But unlike earlier Yiddish words uttered, this phrase identified the subject in the first lady’s sightlines. Her phrase didn’t incite a list of questions in my head. “Shanda fur die goy” means that the non-Jew, or the goy, has embarrassed himself, and/or his people.
Trump, by the way, missed the words entirely. His attention went to the hubbub. At that moment, a team of waiters entered the dining room. There were nine waiters in all, each carrying one gold plate. Each plate had a gold covering. The waiters set down their gold plates, in unison. The waiters lifted the gold covering, in unison. It was quite a show.
Each plate, I immediately noticed, was full of meat. While the waiters departed, I heard more Yiddish. I could only identify one word out of the phrase. The first lady uttered, amongst other words, “beheyme.” The literal translation – a cow’s head, and certainly a number of cows died for our dinner – also contained an insult. A fool, like a putz.
Trump, by the way, missed the words entirely. He was already cutting into his meat.
9) The Trump plate featured steak, and meatloaf sandwiches, and French fries. The fries tasted frozen. The chef hadn’t warmed the Ore-Ida long enough. There was nothing green on the plate. Not a hint of vegetables. There was a sizeable dollop of ketchup (for dipping, or to spread on the sandwich). In the Reagan White House, ketchup was considered a vegetable. Maybe the Trump White House agrees.
I took a quick look around the table for reaction. Notably, nobody offered an objection to the meat overload. Notably, nobody asked for a vegetarian plate. Notably, everyone’s head was down. Not in prayer. But, rather, staring at the contents on the plate. I then realized that the general reaction was a part of the Trump ethology. There is no objection around the Trump dinner table. There is a whole lot of staring at the food.
There was one wide grin. Barren could barely contain himself. And I realized, too, that this meal was a kid’s dream. No broccoli or asparagus to contend with. No fancy sauces to taste, and discard. No arugula to disdainfully swallow. Just meat and fried potatoes.
The steak was overcooked. And I don’t mean by a few degrees. I could barely cut into the beheyme with my steak knife. The meatloaf was only slightly less rock solid.
I looked over at the president. He couldn’t have been happier. He didn’t wear the Barren grin. That’s not in Trump’s ethology. But his body language suggested total happiness.
As the eating commenced and continued, and as the conversation ebbed and flowed, with Trump always in the center, never a peripheral player, I came to a realization regarding the president’s strongest attribute. There is nothing hesitant about Trump, nothing remotely introspective. The man is the least wonkish president of all time. He makes George W. Bush look like an academic. He’s all presenter, focused supremely on his vision. His focus is otherworldly. His focus is his guiding light. But in that focus, he has no ability to see the wider picture. His narrowness is stunning.
I glanced surreptitiously up at the flag. Though, let’s be honest, I didn’t need to be so surreptitious. The president wouldn’t have notice. I counted stars. Between the ninth hour on the clock face and the twelfth, I anticipate another nine stars. But I was wrong. There were ten. A quick math in my head identified thirty-seven stars. I was surprised by the number, dubious. I thought I should undertake a recount. I did, surreptitiously. Again, I didn’t need to be so surreptitious.
Meanwhile, the president snapped his fingers. Into the Trump dining room walked Anthony Senecal. He carried a basketball in his hands. He bounce passed the ball to Trump.
The president pointed to the autograph. It was awfully fresh looking. It turns out that the great Celtic, Bob Cousy, had signed the ball just a few days earlier. The president pointed to the signature. He said, “Cousy is a great champion, and we love champions. I gave him the Medal of Freedom and he gave me this ball.” I predicted Trump’s next words, and sure enough, they came. “Now that’s quid pro quo.”
While I wasn’t sure how to respond, I didn’t run through responses in my head. Instead I heard some Yiddish coming from the other end of the table. “Oy-yoy-yoy,” I heard the words, “what a moyshe kapoyer.”
The first part of the sentence translates into English as an expression of sorrow, or a shaking of the head. The second part speaks to someone who does things the wrong way, leading to a hot mess.
I looked at the speaker. It was the first lady. This time, though, I didn’t have time to question her Yiddish usage. I heard more Yiddish.
“It’s a narrishkeit.” Or, a foolishness or folly. I looked at the speaker. The words came from Seryl Kushner. She sat beside Barren, who sat nearest to his mother. They had their backs to the flag on the wall. I looked at Kushner’s plate. She hadn’t touched the meat.
I then realized something. This was the normal behavior pattern. To his face, the president needs constant reinforcement. Compliments go a long way, ego strokes. The president wears his fragility on his tie knot and a word or two of disagreement can lead to a sea change in behavior. But passive-aggressive behavior, like talking in disdain in a language the president couldn’t possibly know, bypasses the president’s psyche. Why? It bypasses the president’s psyche because Trump has no ability to listen. This is the Trump ethology practiced by those closest to him.
Trump, by the way, didn’t notice. The Yiddishkeit was almost drowned out by the noise of airplanes overhead. Trump yelled for the house historian. “Tony,” he barked, “call the tower.”
Senecal peeked his head into the room. “Right now,” he replied.
Later, as Senecal walked me to the main house from the presidential residence, he explained the noise sensitivity of the president. The noise of airplanes drives him crazy. He hates his residence at the Trump Tower, Manhattan, for this reason. High on the fifty-eighth floor, the buzz of airplanes is incessant. Notably, he likes his residence at the White House. The executive mansion falls within a flight-restricted zone. There is no airplane noise to contend with.
While Senecal called the tower at the Palm Beach International Airport, Trump segued from airplane noise to dessert. He snapped his fingers and, again, nine waiters appeared. As before, each waiter carried one gold plate. Each plate had a gold covering. The waiters set down their gold plates, in unison. The waiters lifted the gold covering, in unison.
The Trump dessert plate featured chocolate. There was chocolate cream pie with vanilla ice cream. There was a sizeable piece of chocolate cake. I looked around at the nine plates. Trump’s plate included something the others didn’t. His plate came with two scoops of ice cream. The other plates had one.
“Mr. Josephus,” the president said, meaning me, “eat your chocolate cake. It’s the world’s best. I should know.”
“How do you know?” I responded.
“I’m the king of chocolate,” he replied.
Here’s some irony. I work in a place in Brooklyn called The Chocolate Room. We make chocolate cake. To customers, I call the cake “world famous.” How does Mar-a-Lago’s chocolate cake compare to The Chocolate Room’s chocolate cake? I wouldn’t know.
Here’s some more irony. I don’t eat chocolate. I am a migraine sufferer. Chocolate is forbidden.
The president noticed my untouched plate. “Eat your cake,” he said again, in a tone that suggested an order.
“No thank you,” I responded, “it’s not for me.”
“Why?” the president said.
I explained my migraine affliction, and the trigger foods. The president responded, “You can’t play golf because of your arthritis and you can’t eat chocolate cake because of your migraines. What kind of life do you lead?”
There were all kinds of responses I considered. I nearly chose some Yiddish. “Nem zich a vaneh” seemed appropriate. Or, go jump in a lake. Instead, I asked about the flag on the wall.
10) The president told a story. “I love flags,” he began. “I was born on flag day.”
“So I heard,” I responded.
The president didn’t hear my response. He was focused on his story. “That flag flew two times in its history,” he continued. “The first time, at President Lincoln’s second inaugural. There is a famous photo. It’s used in all the history books. Lincoln stands on the portico, giving his speech. John Wilkes Booth stands behind Lincoln, on a platform off to the side. Everyone is so wrapped up in their close proximity, they miss the flag. You can see it off to the president’s right.”
Is that why the president sat with the seal to his right, a symbolic gesture to Lincoln? Did Trump somehow see himself as the 21st century’s equivalent to Lincoln?
He continued, “The second time it flew was a month later, on the day Lincoln died. They raised it to half-staff. There wasn’t a president for a moment there.”
I had never heard the story. Nobody else had, either. No history book recounts the tale. No Civil War historian or Lincoln scholar offers documentation. Later, I searched through that famous photo of Lincoln during his second inaugural. The up close photo of Lincoln, and the supposed Booth, doesn’t display the flag. It does, notably, display the American flag.
I then looked for a photograph with a wider lens, something that showed a broader view. Again, I didn’t see the flag.
“Where did you get it?” I asked the president.
“A great historian gave it to me,” the president responded. He then named names. “Conrad Black. He lives just down the road.”
“Conrad Black?” I repeated, perhaps in an octave too high.
“Yes,” the president responded, in the same octave. He then returned to his normal voice. “I gave him a full pardon and he gave me the flag.” Again, I predicted his next words, and sure enough, they came. “Now that’s quid pro quo.”
I ignored the disparagement. I thought about the historian. Conrad Black is sort of the perfect historian for the Trump age. When you read a Conrad Black book, you feel like he’s somehow the main subject. There’s great ego in his writing. There’s self-promotion in the research. When I read his biography on Roosevelt, I felt like I learned more about Black than FDR. And the book went on for 1,300 pages. That’s a lot of Conrad Black Me Time.
Black wrote a biography on Trump, it should be noted. He published that hagiography in May 2018. One year later, to the day, Trump pardoned Black for his crimes of fraud, embezzlement and obstruction of justice. Talk about quid pro quo.
“He’s a good friend,” the president said, “and a great guy.”
Here’s the thing about the flag. The stars on the seal are farkakt, to use a Yiddish word the first lady might have uttered, had she counted the stars. A flag flying in 1865, baring the presidential seal, would have had thirty-six stars on it. Two states were added during the Civil War era, West Virginia and Nevada. Thethirty-seventh state, Nebraska, was added in 1867. Someone was playing a trick on Trump.
Farkakt translates into English as messed up, ridiculous. Literally it means full of crap.
11) As noted earlier, I checked out of Trump-a-Lago after the dinner and jumped into my rental car. I drove north on the Interstate. I’m not sure what I thought about in that car, alone as the miles passed by. There was much to process. But at some point, I think it was as I crossed into Georgia, I had a realization. We didn’t talk about my book at all. Nobody asked a question. Nobody made a reference. Nobody complimented or critiqued. Did anybody in the Trump White House actually read the book? I have no idea.
I nearly reached Savannah. I thought about visiting another Civil War site that morning, the place where General Sherman ended his march. But I had a different destination in sight.
I pulled over and slept for a few hours in a rest stop. Three hours later, I was back on the Interstate. Some eight hours later, I arrived in D.C.
I pulled up near the west end of the National Mall. I walked over to the Lincoln memorial. Aside from the dedication written on the wall over the president’s head, two of Lincoln’s famous speeches greet the visitor, his Gettysburg address and his second inaugural. I walked over to the second inaugural on the north wall.
As President Trump noted, the proximity between Lincoln and Booth, if indeed the assassin attended the second inaugural, is what we fixate on today. Much has been forgotten. Saturday, March 4, 1865 was a cold, rainy day. Less than one thousand people attended the inauguration. Photographs of the event make the crowd look so much bigger. However, every major newspaper in the country printed the president’s speech. So hundreds of thousands of Americans read it. The second inaugural was the shortest inauguration speech in presidential history. Only seven hundred and three words. Lincoln, who was a notoriously slow reader, gave the speech in under six minutes. Imagine a president today giving such a quick address. And yet Lincoln’s second inaugural is the greatest inauguration ever delivered.
The beauty of the speech lies in its ability to listen. It’s as if Lincoln, while speaking to a torn in half country, was listening for any and all response. Lincoln spent the first half of the address determining blame for the Civil War. But before he blamed the Confederacy, he decided that humanity has its faults and grievances and only God has the ability to render judgment. At a time when Lincoln could have gloated, at a time when his supporters wanted him to condemn the South, he chose a higher ground. He chose the invocation of God. He chose moral strength and charity over the extremism of retaliation.
His final paragraph might be the highest point in American history: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
I sat down on the steps leading up to the statue of Lincoln in white marble. I thought about a few words in particular: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle.” The words are remarkable. They don’t speak to the winner or the loser. They speak to the participant. They speak to the greatest of sacrifice. They suggest a future. If victors write the history, Lincoln would have listened to the losers’ stories. Listening would have gone a long way during reconstruction.
From those steps leading up to the statue of Lincoln, I looked at the White House. The sun had set and the gloaming surrounded. The entirety of the estate was lit up, as is normal operating procedure. The president’s private residence was dark. As I knew, the president wasn’t at home.
Disclaimer: I’ve left out many details. I’ve left out a great deal of the conversation around the dinner table. I’ve left out some of the food served during the dinner. My reportage makes it sound like just meat was served, and chocolate cake. There were multiple courses to the meal. There was a beautiful salad. There was a fruit plate. There were appetizers.
Why did I purposefully neglect to add these details? This is a long story. The first lady might have uttered a great Yiddish word used to describe an interminable tale. A megillah. I had to make some cuts. Perhaps I should publish the entire story in book form. If I do, I would change the title to Trump-a-Lago. Trump-a-Lagowould add to my shelf of faux histories.