It’s been a month and a half since Donald Trump’s only niece released the bestselling book in which she described the president as a “a narcissist,” “a petty, pathetic little man,” “ignorant, incapable, out of his depth, and lost in his own delusional spin.”
Since then, Mary Trump, a clinical psychologist, has continued to up her profile in the stretch run of this election as the only member of the president’s family who has dramatically broken ranks. She has spoken to Joe Biden donors at an event put on by a Biden-backing super PAC, headlined a fundraiser for the anti-Trump Lincoln Project and shared with the Washington Post bombshell parts of 15 hours of face-to-face conversations with her aunt that she secretly recorded—transcripts and audio excerpts in which Maryanne Trump Barry, the president’s oldest sister, called her brother phony, untrustworthy and “cruel.”
On Friday afternoon, a little more than 12 hours after her uncle had capped the Republican National Convention with a 70-minute speech on the South Lawn of the White House, Mary Trump told me she considered the four-day event “disturbing” and “law-breaking” and marked by a “breathtaking” torrent of lies. She especially criticized her own cousins, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump, whose speeches she characterized as “hateful” and “mendacious,” respectively. “When a family system arranges itself or organizes itself around the most deeply damaged person in the family,” she said, referring to the president, “nothing good comes of that.”
In her book, she wrote that the reelection of Donald Trump “would be the end of American democracy,” and so as a rattled America hurtles toward Election Day, Mary Trump has decided she will play as large a role as possible in the effort to topple the president.
“We’re at this extraordinarily crucial point in this country’s history, and we need to do everything,” she told me on Friday.
“Everything has to be put on the table. Everything.” Does that mean the release of more tapes? A spokesperson for her declined to comment.
Our conversation has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Michael Kruse: What did you see? What did you hear? What stuck out?
Mary Trump: The most jarring thing initially was the recognition that the entire convention was a law-breaking enterprise. And people may say, ‘Oh, Hatch Act, not a big deal,’ but it is a big deal. He co-opted or the Republican National Committee co-opted the people’s house for their own political benefit. That’s not a small thing. And when people say, ‘You know, nobody outside of the Beltway cares’—well, people in the media say, nobody outside of the Washington Beltway cares—well, maybe that’s because the media is telling them it’s not a big deal, you know? So I found that just disturbing from the very beginning. Other than that, though, just as a through-line, the extent to which every, almost every single participant in this convention was willing to lie, and knew they were lying, and didn’t care that pretty much everything they said was a lie, was breathtaking.
Kruse: I think it’s fair to say that the most personal testimonials about the president came from aides, employees and acquaintances, not his family, not his sons, not his daughters, not his wife. Given your understanding of the family, given that you are family, why is that?
Trump: Because their relationships are all transactional and conditional. It is interesting that there is this weird combination with my cousins of, you know, formality and desperation. They’re constantly aware that they can’t put a foot wrong or they’ll suffer some kind of consequences, but at the same time, there’s this distance they keep by calling Donald their ‘father.’ There’s no casualness at all to the way they speak about him. It’s very odd. But I think at one point in their adult lives, they decided that, you know, they were willing to enter into that transaction with him. In order for them to be in his life, they were working for him, entirely dependent on him, and conceded their own individuality and independence. And I guess that’s the deal they were willing to make.
Kruse: So, some speakers, including family members—I’m thinking here of Ivanka in particular—tried this week to soften his persona, tried to sand down aspects of the man, suggesting essentially that, yes, he can be crass, he can be a loose cannon, he can be a jerk, but he’s a jerk who gets stuff done. What do you make of that sell?
Trump: On the one hand, it’s absurd on its face to anybody who’s paying attention. On the other hand, though, it’s very dangerous. And what I worry about is—particularly in the case of Ivanka—her pitch may be more effective because it’s quieter, it’s more moderated, while also being equally vicious and mendacious. I found her entire speech deeply disturbing, but there’s that aspect of it. And I felt similarly, in a totally different context, about Richard Grenell’s speech—that it was a lie from beginning to end, but it wasn’t this unhinged screaming, yelling tirade. He was just calmly lying to everybody about our intelligence community, Donald’s foreign policy, Joe Biden.
Kruse: Was Ivanka’s speech, in your estimation, a lie from beginning to end, too?
Trump: I can’t say that with complete certainty because she was talking about anecdotes that I would not have been privy. I’ve never been in the Oval Office with him and his grandchildren, for example, so …
Kruse: More generally, do you agree with what seems to be the conventional wisdom that Ivanka has been and remains his most effective surrogate?
Trump: I don’t know exactly—I mean, certainly not with the base, but he doesn’t need anybody to be effective for him with the base. And even if he did, [his son] Donny’s got that covered because he rants, he’s hateful, and he hates all the right people, and, you know, he’ll literally say anything, at a high volume, to ramp them up. With people slightly outside of the base, who may still be convinced one way or the other, that’s potentially true. Sometimes, though, it’s hard for me to evaluate these things—because, as with Donald, I look at her, I look at him, and I don’t see anything admirable about either one of them, so I’m completely mystified why anybody would be taken in by it.
Kruse: Let’s talk about Don, and Eric, too. What have you seen over the course of the last handful of years, or before, that we should know about the dynamic between the two of them and how it informs their relationships with their father?
Trump: They’re much younger than I am, so my main experience of them was on holidays and they wrestled a lot, like pummeled each other into the ground, while Donald just like sat in a chair and stepped on them occasionally.
Kruse: A scene from the book that I recall.
Trump: There’s a desperation to Donny that I don’t see in Eric.
Kruse: And why do you think that is?
Trump: I think there are two possibilities. One is that Donny still thinks that he has a chance to gain his father’s favor and will do anything to do so—not sure why—and Eric, maybe, knows there is no chance. And so why bother? You know, I think that’s the most likely possibility, to tell the truth.
Kruse: So, at the risk of oversimplifying, you portray the family, your family—starting with your grandfather, the president’s father, and his wife, and their five children—as deeply wounded damaged, troubled, “malignantly dysfunctional.” How did you see it play out over these last four days?
Trump: I guess the simplest way of putting it is that Donald continues to be this vortex that kind of sucks in attention. I think in the book I refer to him as ‘a black hole of need.’ And just as his family of origin organized itself around him, his family now, his children, seem to be playing the same role. And when a family system arranges itself or organizes itself around the most deeply damaged person in the family, nothing good comes of that. We see the same thing with the Republican Party. I know it sounds reductive, but it actually seems to be playing out that way—and it’s quite terrifying.
Trump: No. No. They, when I knew them—well, not the whole time—but after Robert rather abruptly left the Trump Organization, they hated each other. There was no love lost. And from what I understand, it wasn’t until Donald started running, or secured the nomination, that Robert, for purely opportunistic reasons, kind of got back in with Donald—and, like everything else in the family, it was transactional and it was mutually beneficial in whatever way. I also question Donald’s capacity to have deep, close friendships, anyway—but I don’t think that that’s at all true. In fact, if that had been the case, then Donald probably should have been with his second brother who was dying in a hospital.
Kruse: Sort of a replay of his older brother, in a way, right?
Trump: Not as bad, of course, because Robert had a wife and stepchildren who hopefully were with him. You know, I’ve seen people say you can’t criticize somebody, everybody grieves differently, and the truth is Robert wasn’t dead yet. Donald could have been with him. He wasn’t grieving when he was playing golf. Robert was still dying when he was playing golf. So, yeah, I don’t think he gets let off the hook for that.
Kruse: Have you talked to your Aunt Maryanne in the last week?
Trump: No—I haven’t spoken to her since late January 2019.
Kruse: What went into your decision to share with the Post that recorded audio of face-to-face conversations you had with her in ’18, and I think ‘19, too, right?
Trump: Yep. Because we’re at this extraordinarily crucial point in this country’s history, and we need to do everything. We need to do absolutely everything. Everything has to be put on the table. Everything. And if I take a hit personally, so be it. We can’t pull any punches. And if I can encourage other people to reveal information they have—that might make them uncomfortable—then it’s worth it. Because people are still confused about the character of this man. I’m not sure why, but they are. So if his sister, who’s known him his entire life, says definitively these things about him, I’m hoping that people will listen in a way they’re not going to listen to people who haven’t known him as well or as long.
Kruse: What in your estimation are the most important things that your aunt said in those 15 hours? In other words, what do you want people to know about your uncle, the president, heading into the last couple months of this election?
Trump: That he cares about nobody but himself. That he has no loyalty to anybody. And that he will use anybody for his own purposes and lie to them about his motives. Oh, and of course that he’s cruel, which should be self-evident—but I think it has more power coming from his sister.
Kruse: Is there any part of you that’s concerned that, while what you did is legal, it’s also somewhat sneaky, or could be seen that way, and then it could undercut your voice or your credibility, even for people who are more inclined to agree with you and to not like the president and to not want to support the president?
Trump: Yeah—of course I was concerned about that. But it doesn’t change what she said. And I know what my motives were. And I am—well, comfortable is the wrong word, and don’t get me wrong, I took no pleasure in this, at all—but I know why I did it. And other people? I completely understand why other people might think it was wrong or worse. But if they knew why, then I think they might change their minds—but either way, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what she said, and what anybody thinks of my behavior doesn’t change what she said, so it was worth the risk to me—because this is too important. I mean, our country’s on a knife-edge right now, so anything I can do to push us to the right side is what I’m going to do.
Kruse: Last question. You’ve joined forces with, among other people, Tony Schwartz to help a pro-Biden PAC. Is that part and parcel with what you were just saying about the importance of this election, and what you can do to make sure it goes, in your view, the right way?
Trump: I’m doing various things with a lot of people. Whatever is most effective: If somebody thinks that my doing a fundraiser with Tony is helpful, fine; if somebody thinks that my doing something with the Lincoln Project is effective, fine. But I’m not technically joining forces with anybody. I am going to make decisions going forward to see how I can be most effective. And if that means doing something with somebody else, fine. And if it means doing something by myself, fine. And we’re just going to have to see how this plays out, because we’re still a ways out—and it’s important for me to figure out how to marshal my resources so they have the most impact.