Mary Trump Book Review: In The Chaos Of Donald Trump’s Presidency, Will His Niece’s Tell-All Matter?

Mary Trump Peter Serling

As reporters rushed to post many of the juicy anecdotes and scorching analysis from Mary Trump’s new book this past week, they might have missed that the memoir also is a media critique.

In Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, set to be published by Simon & Schuster on Tuesday, the niece of President Donald Trump still seems a bit surprised that, through his entire career, her uncle, whether by design or impulse, has used distraction to his advantage.

“The media failed to notice that not one member of Donald’s family, apart from his children, his son in law and his current wife, said a word in support of him during the entire campaign,” she writes.

They are noticing now, obviously, as headlines were blasted out this week of some of her claims, including one that the future president cheated on the SATs and another that he tried to hoodwink his father into altering his will in a way that would give him control of his estate.

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Yet even these new claims about Trump might not have a long shelf life amid the daily chaos of the administration. As Mary Trump writes, “If he can keep forty-seven thousand spinning plates in the air, nobody can focus on any one of them. So there’s that: it’s just a distraction.”

Trump tell-alls seemingly are coming out fast and furious as Election Day nears. Last month it was John Bolton’s book; before he was returned to custody, the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen was promising one at the end of September.

With its shades of Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, Mary Trump’s vivid details of incidents, of the family dysfunction and ultimately the tragedy of her father’s death and, in her eyes, the election of her uncle to the presidency, makes the memoir unique.

Hers is from the family-insider’s perspective, threatening enough to spill all their secrets that another uncle, Robert, has gone to court to try to get her to stop it. The horse already has left the barn, though, and her version of family history isn’t pretty.

The book draws on her experience as a clinical psychologist, as she gives a full rundown of the dynamics at work in the family that made Donald Trump who he is. The title — Too Much and Never Enough — is perhaps apt for this moment, as the president dominates each news cycle yet is seemingly unable to sit one out. It’s a bit of a personality paradox that she ascribes to the president: the insecurity of feeling less than and greater than at the same time.

That said, despite her academic credentials, her analysis isn’t nearly as powerful as her anecdotes, largely because we’ve yet to see a version of the Trump story from the point of view of a family member, and it is, despite the gilt, one of indifference and alienation.

The book revolves around family patriarch Fred Trump Sr., described as sociopathic in his lack of empathy and emotional cruelty, and the spell he held over his children and many of the others in the family clan. It is his approval that undergirds so many family members’ decisions, even well into their adult lives. Even Mary admits that, on the advice of one of the family advisers, she changed her signature when her grandfather expressed his unhappiness over its legibility.

It was Mary’s own father, Fred Trump Jr., the president’s older brother, who bore the brunt of the family patriarch’s disappointment. In vivid detail, Mary Trump describes how it was her dad who was to be the chosen heir to the family real estate business, yet he could never measure up in the eyes of Fred Sr., who became somewhat of a wizard at working local politicians and securing valuable government housing contracts.

Fred Jr.’s real passion was to become a commercial airline pilot but, despite a promising start at TWA, he descended into alcoholism. The family, Mary writes, never really understood her father’s career nor did they accept it. He died of a heart attack, when he was just 42 and Mary was a teenager.

Instead of Fred Jr., it was Donald who slid into the role of heir apparent. Lacking the skills of his older brother, Donald nevertheless had the brashness, self-promotion and even shamelessness favored by Fred Sr., in many ways reflecting his own character, Mary writes. She goes to great lengths to try to dispel the myth that Donald Trump was self-made, instead crediting his early forays into the Manhattan real estate market to his father’s wealth, not a small amount of seed money. As she tells it, Fred Sr. was captivated by Donald’s penchant for publicity and media attention, enough to overlook his son’s limitations.

Even when Donald’s forays into Atlantic City went south in a big way in the early 1990s, his father tried to bail him out. In 1990, she writes, Fred Trump sent a chauffeur with more than $3 million in cash to purchase chips at the Castle, with no intention of gambling with them.

“The more money my grandfather threw at Donald, the more confidence Donald had, which led him to pursue bigger and riskier projects, which led to greater failures, forcing Fred to step in with more help,” Mary writes. “By continuing to enable Donald, my grandfather kept making him worse: more needy for media attention and free money, more self-aggrandizing and delusional about his ‘greatness.'”

A number of Mary Trump’s stories are beyond the scope of her own encounters, and it’s at times hard to determine the sourcing of the anecdotes and whether they are family lore, the types of tales that tend of embellish over the years. The most sensational story, of Trump paying a friend, Joe Shapiro, to take the SAT to give him a better shot at getting into Wharton, has been denied by the White House, while Shapiro’s widow, Pam Shriver, put out a video to cast some doubt on it.

The strength of the book, though, is in Mary Trump’s own recollections, of what it was like to grow up in the Trump clan, where “everyone in my family experienced a strange combination of privilege and neglect.”

“Although I had all of the material things I needed — and luxuries such as private schools and summer camp — there was a purposely built-in idea of uncertainty that any of it would last,” she writes. “By the same token, there was the sometimes dispiriting and sometime devastating sense that nothing any of us did really mattered or, worse, that we didn’t matter — only Donald did.”

She even recounts a time when Donald tapped her in the 1990s to ghostwrite his next book, which was to be his comeback tale even as he was still about to go through another bankruptcy, this time of the Plaza Hotel in New York. Mary’s problem, though, was she never got Trump to actually sit for an interview. She was instead handed 10 typewritten pages of his thoughts, but they were “an aggrieved compendium of women he had expected to date but who, having refused him, were suddenly the worst, ugliest, and fattest slobs he’d ever met,” she writes.

After the death of Fred Trump in 1999, Mary and her brother Fritz challenged the will, much to the dismay of Robert Trump and the other children. Their main source of dispute was that they should have been entitled to their late father’s 20% share of the family estate. After a bitter legal battle that briefly spilled out into public view, they settled.

Mary writes that they suspected even back then that the valuation of the estate was based on suspect numbers, and that it was far greater that the $30 million they had been told. After the settlement, the children sold Fred Sr.’s businesses for a far greater amount, she writes, a whopping $700 million.

After the legal acrimony, it took years for Mary Trump to gravitate back into the Donald Trump orbit, starting with a surprise invitation to the wedding of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner in 2009. It was then that she reconnected with her aunt, the president’s older sister Maryanne Trump, a federal court judge who also is thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.

While Maryanne kept silent during the campaign, she wasn’t in private. Mary writes that shortly after Trump announced his candidacy, in 2015, Maryanne told her that her brother was a “clown” and his election to the presidency “would never happen.”

When it did, Maryanne was still blunt with her brother about how his presidency was going. According to Mary’s book, on the eve of Trump’s historic summit with Kim Jong-un, Maryanne called the White House and left a message. “Tell him his older sister called with a little sisterly advice. Prepare. Learn from those who know what they are doing. Stay away from Dennis Rodman. And leave his Twitter at home.”

After Trump’s presidency, Mary Trump writes of what convinced to break her silence. When New York Times reporter Susanne Craig knocked on her door one evening in 2017, she initially was dismissive. After Craig asked for her help in “rewriting the history of the President of the United States,” she eventually agreed to cooperate, handing over boxes and boxes of documents.

“When I finally realized that my grandfather didn’t care what I accomplished or contributed and that my own unrealistic expectations were paralyzing me, I still felt that only a grand gesture would set it right,” she writes. “It wasn’t enough for me to volunteer at an organization helping Syrian refugees; I had to take Donald down.”

The Times exposé, headlined “Trump Engaged in Suspect Tax Schemes as He Reaped Riches from His Father,” was posted on Oct. 2, 2018. While it got plenty of attention at the time, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, there was plenty else going on that week, including the pending confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Even much of the coverage of the Supreme Court decision last week on Trump’s taxes seemed to ignore that a lot of information about the finances of the empire already have been reported.

The Trump years have been all about an unceasing series of flareups, with one sensational story then giving way to the next. Mary Trump in part faults the media for not asking the president more “pointed questions” and of focusing on the circus, and believes that Trump has “continually been given a pass and rewarded not just for his failures for his transgressions — against tradition, against decency, against the law and against fellow human beings.”

Trump’s handling of racial divisions and the pandemic have sunk his poll numbers, making him an underdog for re-election. But even as she warns of the dire prospects for the country if her uncle is re-elected, Mary Trump thinks that so far, “he’s gotten away with everything.” Perhaps part of it is the function of the way that news cycles work, even when it comes to her book.

Last week, reporters scrambled to query White House officials about the tome. By Friday, the news was old, and there was a new story atop the media agenda: Roger Stone’s clemency.

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