Mary Lea Trump, 55, is Donald Trump’s only niece. Her father, Fred Trump Jr., who died in 1981, was his older brother. Her recent book “Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man” caused quite a stir in the U.S., broke sales records and remains in the top nonfiction spot on the New York Times bestseller list.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Trump, you write that your uncle is the world’s most dangerous man. What do you mean by that?
Trump: The combination of his pathologies and his position is extremely dangerous. In some sense, you could say that any American in his position is potentially the most dangerous person on the planet. But my uncle clearly doesn’t have the intellectual capacity or the impulse control to be trusted.
DER SPIEGEL: What went through your mind when he was elected back in 2016?
Trump: I was devastated. In a really weird way, I took it personally. I used to be really proud of my family name because it just sounded cool. It was difficult to hear my name constantly referring to somebody who was doing all of these horrible things. It felt like an assault.
DER SPIEGEL: What was it like to grow up as a Trump?
Trump: It was totally normal because we had no perspective from the outside. I just went to my grandparents’ house on the weekends and hung out.
DER SPIEGEL: Your great-grandfather, Friedrich Trump, was born in Kallstadt, located in the present-day German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. He died in New York City during the 1918 flu pandemic. Was his death or your family’s German heritage ever discussed when you were younger?
Trump: My grandfather never spoke about his dad. I don’t think he was particularly bothered by his death. My grandfather was a first generation American. It was total assimilation, no clinging to pride about his country of origin at all. And Donald, too, never referred to himself as being German because they did a lot of business with Jewish people. Apparently, they didn’t understand that people can make the distinction between having a German heritage and being a Nazi.
DER SPIEGEL: Your father, Fred Jr., was supposed to inherit the family’s real estate business. Instead, your grandfather anointed Donald as his heir and set in motion a series of events that has led us to where we are today. What was your grandfather like?
Trump: There was no emotional bond or affection between my grandfather and his children. He had no real human feelings. More crucially, he saw people as extensions of himself to be used for his own purposes. If you failed to fulfill that purpose, you would be excised, as my dad was. In my family there could only be one winner. As time passed, it became very clear it wasn’t going to be my father Freddy. So Donald did everything to make sure that the winner was going to be him. No matter who he had to step on.
DER SPIEGEL: Instead of going into the family business, your father became a pilot. What was your grandfather’s reaction?
Trump: My dad was getting torn down on an almost daily basis. He was a professional pilot at the dawn of the jet age, but my grandfather told him he was no better than a glorified bus driver. My dad was constitutionally incapable of being the kind of son my grandfather wanted him to be. My grandfather was willing to do whatever it takes to advance his own agenda. When I was finally able to make sense of what I witnessed, and just by being an adult and by my training as a psychiatrist, I realized my grandfather was a sociopath. I’m perfectly comfortable saying that. I’m not being hyperbolic, I mean that in a clinical sense.
DER SPIEGEL: Your dad became an alcoholic. How did your family deal with that?
Trump: When alcoholism is not understood as a disease with this strong genetic component but is treated like a moral failing, the sick person will never be able to recover if there’s no outside help, which there wasn’t for my dad. Donald, who was seven and a half years younger, witnessed the abuse and dismantling of my dad and had the benefit of seeing what not to do and how not to be.
DER SPIEGEL: Donald emulated his father?
Trump: The character similarities between him and my grandfather don’t run as deep as they might seem. My grandfather was a very competent person. He was a successful businessman. Donald is neither of those things. He’s not competent and he’s never been good at business. However, my grandfather saw Donald’s savvy with the media. He also saw Donald as somebody who was totally willing to do whatever it took to win, whatever that meant in their universe. Get the deal, screw somebody over, lie, cheat, steal.
DER SPIEGEL: Was there no moderating influence? Your grandmother?
Trump: That’s one of the fascinating things about this story. There was no moderating influence. As a kid, Donald was abandoned by his mother, my grandmother. It wasn’t her fault. She was very sick and absent at an extremely crucial developmental point in his life. From that age on, Donald experienced devastating loneliness, terror. His only real human connection was taken away from him. It was just devastating from a character point of view. While my grandfather had pushed my father to be the best, the killer, the tough guy, the winner, Donald took that a step further. Not only was he going to be the best, he was never wrong, because that was something you’d never admit. You never apologized.
DER SPIEGEL: Is that how the myth of Trump took hold?
Trump: Donald needed to find a way to survive, and I mean that literally. It’s astonishing to see how many different people and entities were willing to take over my grandfather’s project of propping up and putting forward this man who had nothing to recommend him, starting with the media in the late 1970s and ’80s and then the banks, and then Mark Burnett (the creator of “The Apprentice”), and then the Republican Party.
DER SPIEGEL: Did your grandfather realize what he was setting in motion?
Trump: I don’t think my grandfather understood right away just how bad Donald was going to be. It probably wasn’t until Atlantic City that even my grandfather could no longer deny what a disaster Donald was in the world of business.
DER SPIEGEL: You are referring to when he drove several Atlantic City casinos into bankruptcy.
Trump: Donald didn’t seem to understand how casinos work. Instead of operating one casino that could have been wildly successful, he had three, which cannibalized each other’s profits. And he was running them so poorly. Very shortly after his third casino, the Taj Mahal, opened, he was already in enormous trouble. My grandfather had a chauffeur drive to Atlantic City with a registered check for $3.35 million to buy chips and leave the casino with them. That was illegal, because it was an unregistered loan. My grandfather actually ended up having to pay a fine. But a couple of days after that, he did it again.
DER SPIEGEL: But he let your father die broke and alone. How did that come to pass?
Trump: My grandfather resented the reminder of my father’s existence and just how much of a failure he was in his view. After my father lost his job as a pilot, he put him on a maintenance crew at Trump Management, which was this empire worth hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars that my dad was supposed to take over. But he had him doing maintenance with a bunch of guys driving around in the truck. Nothing wrong with that per se, but given the tremendous symbolism, it was one of the biggest cruelties, but not the last. When my dad was 39, he got very ill and had to have open-heart surgery. Eventually he just got sicker and weaker. My grandfather had a lot of connections to local hospitals. Jamaica Hospital actually named a wing after my grandmother because they had donated so many millions of dollars. But my father ended up in a random hospital in Queens, where he died. And nobody was with him.
DER SPIEGEL: Not even his brother?
Trump: Donald and his sister Elizabeth went to the movies.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump has voiced regret for having pressured your father, but not for having abandoned him on his deathbed.
Trump: I don’t think it mattered to him that his brother died alone. Look what’s happening in this country right now. People are dying alone because of Donald’s failure to lead.
DER SPIEGEL: Where was Donald Trump in his career as your father got sick?
Trump: He was working on Trump Tower, or should I say, he was taking advantage of my grandfather’s money, power and connections to get Trump Tower pushed through. Donald always seemed incredibly wealthy, but until then, everything was financed by my grandfather.
DER SPIEGEL: Doesn’t your uncle have any redeeming qualities?
Trump: A long time ago, he had some impulses towards kindness. But the idea of kindness had become so perverted that he doesn’t even know how to do it properly.
DER SPIEGEL: Did he go to church? Many Evangelicals love him.
Trump: He has no religious impulses. And that’s not even the problem. The problem is the hypocrisy. The problem is his willingness to use other people’s beliefs to convince them that he has their best interests at heart. It is like a cult.
DER SPIEGEL: You have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. What’s your professional assessment of your uncle?
Trump: It was important to me not to diagnose him directly in my book. I wanted to give people insight into understanding what was going on. To give them tools to make sense of his behavior. A lot of people have presented these definitive diagnoses – narcissistic personality disorder, malignant narcissism, etc. But we also have to consider other things outside of personality disorders, like sleep disorder and learning disability.
DER SPIEGEL: Learning disability?
Trump: He seems to have a very difficult time processing information. It’s very possible that he had a learning disorder when he was a kid that was just never diagnosed and therefore not properly addressed.
DER SPIEGEL: In your book you call him a racist but offer no definite evidence. Did you ever hear him, or any other family members, say anything racist while growing up?
Trump: Yes. I’m not suggesting that my family was particularly more racist or anti-Semitic than other people in New York City back in the 1940s and 50s. The use of the N-word and of anti-Semitic slurs was just part of the way it was. It was background.
DER SPIEGEL: You kept your relationship to another woman from your family. Why?
Trump: My family was spectacularly uncurious about my personal life. In my home, homophobia wasn’t a thing to be spoken about because people didn’t really talk about homosexuality. There was no direct evidence that my family was homophobic. It wasn’t until my grandmother made a really disparaging comment about Elton John, calling him a “little faggot,” that I realized, OK, this is really something I need to keep to myself.
DER SPIEGEL: The New York Times revealed in 2018 that the Trumps cheated you out of your inheritance.
Trump: I had known something was wrong. But didn’t know what it was. It just had seemed unlikely that my grandfather’s estate was worth only $30 million when he died. The Times revealed that it was worth more than $970 million. It was really devastating to find out that my aunts and uncles, who were made my trustees after my dad had died when I was 16, were using their power to get away with defrauding me.
DER SPIEGEL: This hasn’t been rectified?
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 32/2020 (August 1, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.
Trump: Throughout Donald’s entire life, nothing is cumulative for him. One horrible thing replaces the earlier horrible thing, and in the end, he’s held to account for none of it. That’s been going on from the time he was a teenager.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think your book will hold him accountable?
Trump: I had wanted to speak up before the 2016 elections, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Nobody would have listened to me. He was getting away with everything. Nobody has ever been willing to speak out about this. Certainly nobody close to him and the family.
DER SPIEGEL: Why now?
Trump: I wanted for voters to avoid what happened in 2016. I don’t want anybody going to the polls this November and pretending they don’t understand what’s going on.
DER SPIEGEL: You write that if Trump gets a second term, it would be “the end of American democracy.”
Trump: We’re so weakened by his incompetence and his enablers. We’re on a knife’s edge. It’s terrifying. Unfortunately, it’s not even hyperbole anymore.
DER SPIEGEL: Some critics accuse you of profiting off the family name. Your uncle called you a “seldom seen niece,” claiming he didn’t have a relationship with you when you were younger. Is that true?
Trump: That’s not entirely true. I wasn’t some random stranger.
DER SPIEGEL: Once the idea of a book tour becomes possible again, would you travel to Germany, the land of your ancestors?
Trump: It would be nice to visit my old stomping grounds. I studied in Tübingen for a semester. I love Munich. Hopefully next year Americans won’t be pariahs anymore.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Trump, thank you very much for this interview.