The voice is instantly familiar; the tone, confident, even cocky; the cadence, distinctly Trumpian. The man on the phone vigorously defending Donald Trump says he's a media spokesman named John Miller, but then he says, "I'm sort of new here," and "I'm somebody that he knows and I think somebody that he trusts and likes" and even "I'm going to do this a little, part-time, and then, yeah, go on with my life."
A recording obtained by the Washington Post captures what New York reporters and editors who covered Trump's early career experienced in the 1970s, '80s and '90s: calls from Trump's Manhattan office that resulted in conversations with "John Miller" or "John Barron" — public-relations men who sound precisely like Trump himself — who indeed are Trump, masquerading as an unusually helpful and boastful advocate for himself, according to the journalists and several of Trump's top aides.
In 1991, Sue Carswell, a reporter at People magazine, called Trump's office seeking an interview with the developer. She had just been assigned to cover the soap opera surrounding the end of Trump's 12-year marriage to Ivana, his budding relationship with the model Marla Maples and his rumored affairs with any number of celebrities who regularly appeared on the gossip pages of the New York newspapers.
Within five minutes, Carswell got a return call from Trump's publicist, a man named John Miller, who immediately jumped into a startlingly frank and detailed explanation of why Trump dumped Maples for the Italian model Carla Bruni. "He really didn't want to make a commitment," Miller said. "He's coming out of a marriage, and he's starting to do tremendously well financially."
Miller turned out to be a remarkably forthcoming source — a spokesman with rare insight into the private thoughts and feelings of his client. "Have you met him?" Miller asked the reporter. "He's a good guy, and he's not going to hurt anybody. . . . He treated his wife well and . . . he will treat Marla well."
Some reporters found the calls from Miller or Barron disturbing or even creepy; others thought they were just examples of Trump being playful. Today, as the presumptive Republican nominee for president faces questions about his attitudes toward women, what stands out to some who received those calls is Trump's characterization of women who he portrayed as drawn to him sexually.
"Actresses," Miller said in the call to Carswell, "just call to see if they can go out with him and things." Madonna "wanted to go out with him." And Trump's alter ego boasted that in addition to living with Maples, Trump had "three other girlfriends."
Miller was consistent about referring to Trump as "he," but at one point, when asked how important Bruni was in Trump's busy love life, the spokesman said, "I think it's somebody that — you know, she's beautiful. I saw her once, quickly, and beautiful . . . " and then he quickly pivoted back into talking about Trump — then a 44-year-old father of three — in the third person.
In 1990, Trump testified in a court case that "I believe on occasion I used that name." He did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
In a phone call to NBC's Today program Friday morning, Trump denied that he was John Miller.
"No, I don't think it — I don't know anything about it. You're telling me about it for the first time and it doesn't sound like my voice at all," he said. "I have many, many people that are trying to imitate my voice and then you can imagine that, and this sounds like one of the scams, one of the many scams — doesn't sound like me."
Later, he was more definitive: "It was not me on the phone. And it doesn't sound like me on the phone, I will tell you that, and it was not me on the phone. And when was this? Twenty-five years ago?"
Trump has never been terribly adamant about denying that he often made calls to reporters posing as someone else. From his earliest years in business, he occasionally called reporters using the name "John Barron."
A "John Baron," described as a "vice-president of the Trump organization," appeared in a front-page New York Times article as early as 1980, defending Trump's decision to destroy sculptures on the facade of the Bonwit Teller department store building, the Fifth Avenue landmark he was demolishing to make way for his Trump Tower. Barron was quoted variously as a "Trump spokesman," "Trump executive," or "Trump representative" in New York magazine, the Washington Post and other publications.
Trump's fascination with the name "Barron" persisted for decades. When he was seeing Maples while still married to Ivana, he sometimes used the code name "the Baron" when he left messages for her. In 2004, when Trump commissioned a dramatic TV series based on the life of a New York real estate mogul like him, his only request to the writer was to name the main character "Barron." And when Trump and his third wife, Melania, had a son, they named him Barron.
In the 1991 recording, Miller sounded quite at ease regaling the reporter with tales of Trump hanging out with Madonna at a ball at the Plaza Hotel, which he owned at the time. Asked about the rumored Madonna-Trump friendship, Miller, unlike every other PR man on the planet, neither batted the question away nor gave it short shrift. Rather, he said, "Do you have a second?"
Carswell, the reporter, sounded a bit startled: "Yeah, obviously," she replied.
Whereupon Miller offered a detailed account of the Trump encounter with Madonna, who "came in a beautiful evening gown and combat boots." The PR man assured the reporter that nothing untoward occurred: "He's got zero interest that night."
Miller also revealed to Carswell why Trump seemed to relish any and all media coverage, even the most critical. "I can tell you that he didn't care if he got bad PR until he got his divorce finished," Miller said. The more the press wrote about Trump's money troubles, the greater advantage he would have in negotiations toward a financial settlement with his then-estranged wife, Ivana. Then, "once his divorce is finished," Miller said, you would see stories about how Trump was "doing well financially and he's doing well in every other way."
Carswell this week recalled that she immediately recognized something familiar in the Queens accent of Trump's new publicist. She thought, "It's so weird that Donald hired someone who sounds just like him." After the 20-minute interview, she walked down the hall to play the tape to co-workers, who identified Trump's voice. Carswell then called Cindy Adams, the longtime New York Post gossip columnist who had been close to Trump since the early 1970s. Adams immediately identified the voice as Trump's.
"Oh, that's Donald," Carswell recalled Adams saying. "What is he doing?"
Then Carswell played the tape for Maples, who confirmed it was Trump and burst into tears as she heard Miller deny that a ring Trump gave her implied any intent to marry her.
Carswell, now a reporter-researcher at Vanity Fair, said the tape cuts off mid-interview, leaving out the part in which Miller said that actress Kim Basinger had been trying to date Trump. Hearing the tape for the first time in decades, Carswell said, "This was so farcical, that he pretended to be his own publicist. Here was this so-called billion-dollar real estate mogul, and he can't hire his own publicist. It also said something about the control he wanted to keep of the news cycle flowing with this story, and I can't believe he thought he'd get away with it."
The Post obtained the recording from a source who asked to be identified only as a person with whom Carswell shared the microcassette of the call shortly after the interview.
From the start of his career as a builder in New York, Trump worked the press. He believed in carrots and sticks, showering reporters with praise, then pivoting to a threat to sue them if they wrote something he considered inaccurate. He often said that all publicity, good or bad, was good for his business.
He made himself available to reporters at nearly any time, for hours on end. And he called them, too, to promote his own projects, but also with juicy bits of gossip.
"One thing I've learned about the press is that they're always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational the better," Trump wrote in his bestseller The Art of the Deal. "The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you."
Trump did not describe using false identities to promote his brand, but he did write about why he strays from the strict truth: "I play to people's fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That's why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It's an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion."
Carswell was far from the only reporter who received calls from suspiciously Trumpian characters. Longtime New York Daily News gossip columnist Linda Stasi said Trump once left her a voice mail from an "anonymous tipster" who wanted it known that Trump had been spotted going out with models. And editors at New York tabloids said calls from Barron were at points so common that they became a recurring joke on the city desk.
After Carswell's story appeared -—headlined "Trump Says Goodbye Marla, Hello Carla . . . And a Mysterious PR Man Who Sounds Just Like Donald Calls to Spread the Story" — Trump invited the reporter out for a night on the town with him and Maples. Carswell says Maples persuaded Trump to issue the invitation as an apology for tricking her. A few weeks later, when People ran a story about Trump and Maples getting engaged, Trump was quoted saying that the John Miller call was a "joke gone awry."
Carswell had been skeptical all along. On the recording, she challenged Miller: "Where did you come from?"
"I basically worked for different firms," he replied cryptically. And then he marveled at his boss's ability to withstand critical news coverage: "I've never seen somebody so immune to . . . bad press."
Miller was also impressed by his client's social life: "I mean, he's living with Marla and he's got three other girlfriends . . . " But the PR man wanted the reporter to know that Trump believed in "the marriage concept" and planned to settle down, on his own terms: "He does things for himself. When he makes a decision, that will be a very lucky woman."