There have been so many Trump World tell-alls over the past few years that you’d be forgiven for wondering: Is there really any more to say? Donald Trump’s niece, Mary, thinks so. Her new memoir, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, offers an intimate look at the president’s childhood and psychology, and it’s remarkably blunt about its motive: taking down Donald Trump. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I talked to Washington Post reporter Shane Harris about what we can learn from Mary’s portrait of the president and what it has in common with former national security adviser John Bolton’s Oval Office exposé, The Room Where It Happened. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Talk to me a little bit about who Mary Trump is.
Shane Harris: Mary Trump is the daughter, one of two children, of Fred Trump Jr., who is Donald Trump’s older brother, often called Freddy. Freddy was one of five Trump children and, early on in life, was the presumed heir to the Trump real estate business, and of course it didn’t work out that way. Mary Trump grew up around her father and his extended family, as well as her mother. Her parents divorced when she was younger. Her father becomes this black sheep, if you will, of the Trump family and actually is living a life that is quite distinct from the one that his younger brother and other siblings are living.
She describes a family very much controlled by Fred Trump Sr., Donald Trump’s father. I think she even calls him a sociopath.
She does at one point call him a sociopath and says that what the sociopath does is co-opts others towards his ends. Her argument there is that that is what Fred Trump did with Donald Trump when he realized that Freddy was, in his eyes, good for nothing and was not going to be the inheritor or the heir that he had hoped that he would be. It is a family in which the disappointment of the father is what the children fear. It’s his rules only. He’s not a physically abusive man, as she describes him, but definitely emotionally so.
And she paints in the picture of her father and her uncle two very different reactions to the elder Trump. Her father is someone who is much more sensitive, much more inward, and kind of retreats from his father, even though he’s trying to please him, but he just can’t live up to his expectations. Donald, on the other hand, embodies what his father would see as “the killer.” He has this instinct to always win, to beat other people, that life is a zero-sum game. So there’s some kind of natural instinct for Donald to always demonstrate this aptitude to his father. And what’s really fascinating is as Donald Trump gets older, she writes, his father begins to envy him for his ability to not just beat other people, but to flout convention, to break the rules. All of the things that we now know Trump doing as president he was doing when he was younger in the business world, and his father is sort of in awe of his own son and can’t believe how he’s gone beyond what it was that he hoped to create. She compares it to Frankenstein’s monster.
So I feel like we can’t go much further without exploring Mary Trump’s motivations. She’s liberal, and she says at the beginning of the book she doesn’t want him reelected. She was also cut out of the family wealth.
That’s right. After her father had been dead for some time, then her grandfather dies, and it comes time to divvy up his estate or to allocate it among the surviving children. She sees her father essentially being erased.
And she sued over this.
She refused to sign off on the will, which would have let it go into probate. So she and her brother held up the works for two years, with lawyers going back and forth on it. Ultimately she and her brother signed a settlement, the terms of which are not disclosed. But importantly, when she does that, she does it believing that the total value of her grandfather’s estate is around $30 million. She later finds out it’s actually a billion dollars. So she now believes that she signed this settlement and accompanying nondisclosure requirements that go with it on false pretenses, and that the family defrauded her, which is an argument that she’s making now for why that nondisclosure requirement should no longer hold.
She does come at this from a point of real grievance and, frankly, admirably, she lays that all out in the book. She’s not hiding it. And there are parts where, frankly, it is hard to separate to some degree that grievance from the picture that she’s painting. But she’s also painting a portrait that’s been fleshed out by journalists in some cases. We have heard stories about the Trump family and how they operated. And that portrait really does line up quite a lot with what we’ve heard elsewhere. So while she does have a bone to pick, at the same time, I think that she’s rendering a pretty credible picture of what family life was like.
Mary Trump has a Ph.D. in psychology. There have been so many armchair psychologists who’ve looked from the outside at this president and tried to analyze what’s going on in his mind, and so it’s interesting to me to see an actual psychologist with actual access try to put into words motivations for how the president is behaving.
Yeah, I agree. This book is both a family memoir and a work of psychoanalysis, if I can use that term. You know, she is careful not to say I am diagnosing him with the following conditions. She does raise conditions that he might have and seems to indicate that he probably does. But she is saying, The man you see before you today is a product of the following influences, and this is what I think is going on in his mind, and these are the black holes that he is constantly trying to fill.
For her, it really comes down to two big ideas. One is that his parents never loved him. They never nurtured him. And so he is constantly trying to fill this void that he never got from his parents. And the other is that he’s living in a constant state of fear. It’s fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of contempt. And I think we clearly see that in the way that he is constantly exaggerating everything. Everything is the best. It’s the greatest. It’s the No. 1. Remember when he got into that word salad where he talked about how he tested negative for the coronavirus, but he kept trying to say that was positive? He tested negatively in the positive direction. It was like this weird impulse to say positive, positive, positive, not negative.
After reading this book and Bolton’s book, I wonder what you think each of these authors wanted to accomplish with what they wrote.
I do think that both Bolton and Mary Trump want Donald Trump not to be elected again. I think that they are trying to forcefully warn people about what they see as the danger of his presidency and of his personality. So in that sense, they have a lot in common. I think where they differ is that Bolton really wants people to focus on what he sees as the damage that Trump is doing to the institution of the presidency and the way he is perverting political tradition in the United States and the risk that that causes of long-term damage. What Mary Trump is doing is trying to explain the person of Donald Trump as a product of this cauldron in which he was brought up, as someone who is the end result of a family culture that prized loyalty and aggression above empathy and sharing and selflessness. It’s much more of a personal portrayal.
Does it make a difference to you that either John Bolton or Mary Trump waited to put these allegations out there and put them out on their own terms in a way that they could profit from them?
As a journalist, I want to encourage every public official and every person close to someone empowered to, whenever they’re ready, come out and talk. And I don’t see anything in principle wrong with them being compensated for the work. Bolton’s decision to publish seems more problematic to me in the sense that he had an opportunity to testify before Congress—putting aside that he has an argument for why he was unable to do that. The cynical argument, which I’m persuaded by more and more, is that he wanted to do that because he wanted to promote book sales. And he seems quite dismissive of the whole impeachment effort anyway, so I’m not sure he felt all that badly about having not availed himself of the opportunity to testify to Congress.
Mary Trump’s is different, though. The timing is notable. It’s coming out not long before an election, although they did speed up the publication date partly because of these legal battles they’ve been involved in. But she does write in the book about how she’s wrestled with the question of whether or not to speak out, and she’s honest about the process that she went through in deciding to do it. She could have spoken out during the election, and she talks about that, and frankly I think needs to say a bit more about why exactly she didn’t. But she’s at least honest with her struggle about when to speak. And now, even if it’s arguably a little bit late, if she thought this was important for people to know four years ago, she’s laying all her cards on the table.
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.