Donald Trump, in the mid-1980s, aggressively pursued an official government post to the USSR, according to a Nobel Peace Prize winner with whom Trump interacted at the time.
"He already had Russia mania in 1986, 31 years ago," asserts Bernard Lown, a Boston-area cardiologist known for inventing the defibrillator and sharing the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize with a top Soviet physician in recognition of their efforts to promote denuclearization. Lown, now 95 and retired in Newton, Massachusetts, tells The Hollywood Reporter that Trump sought and secured a meeting with him in 1986 to solicit information about Mikhail Gorbachev. (Gorbachev had become the USSR's head of state — and met with Lown — the year before.) During this meeting, Lown says, the fast-rising businessman disclosed that he would be reaching out to then-President Ronald Reagan to try to secure an official post to the USSR in order to negotiate a nuclear disarmament deal on behalf of the United States, a job for which Trump felt he was the only one fit.
"He said to me, 'I hear you met with Gorbachev, and you had a long interview with him, and you're a doctor, so you have a good assessment of who he is,'" Lown recalls. "So I asked, 'Why would you want to know?' And he responded, 'I intend to call my good friend Ronnie,' meaning Reagan, 'to make me a plenipotentiary ambassador for the United States with Gorbachev.' Those are the words he used. And he said he would go to Moscow and he'd sit down with Gorbachev, and then he took his thumb and he hit the desk and he said, 'And within one hour the Cold War would be over!' I sat there dumbfounded. 'Who is this self-inflated individual? Is he sane or what?'"
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Lithuania-born Lown, who today is professor of cardiology emeritus at the Harvard School of Public Health, had been the subject of considerable media attention shortly before he first heard the name Trump. In October 1985, he and Yevgeny I. Chazov, the personal physician of the Kremlin's senior leadership (including Gorbachev), were chosen to share the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, a group they co-founded in 1980 that had grown to include more than 150,000 members in 49 countries. And in December 1985, shortly after collecting their Nobel medals in Oslo, Lown joined Chazov for a meeting at the Kremlin with Gorbachev, who unexpectedly had come into power that March, making Lown one of the first Westerners to spend time with him.
It wasn't long after Lown returned to the United States that he learned about Trump. "I get a call from New York and it was a Wall Street broker who was a friend of Trump's," Lown recalls, declining to name the individual. "He says, 'Trump would like to see you,' and I said, 'Who is Trump?' I had no idea." He continues, "This fellow was a member of the board of the Lown Cardiovascular Research Foundation, this Wall Street fellow, and he knew that we were short on funds for the research that I outlined and that we had to do in the following few years. He says, 'Here's somebody who might be a source of [funding]. Why don't you meet him? He wants to talk to you — he asked me to arrange it.' So I came into New York and went to Trump Tower and met him for lunch." Lown says it quickly became apparent that Trump had an agenda of his own. "I was sitting there in this glass bubble, overlooking New York, and feeling, 'What am I doing here?'" he recalls. "He seemed totally disjointed."
"I talked to [Trump] extensively about my experience with Gorbachev," Lown recalls. "I talked for about 20 minutes or so, about how I thought Gorbachev behaved, blah, blah, and he sat there, sort of listening. He was fidgeting and I realized he had a short attention span." Lown emphasizes that the whole situation felt strange. "I thought there was another agenda, perhaps, but I didn't know what that was," he says. "I was not sure about his motivation for why he was doing it. But it puts together sort of a continuum that began way back in '86, with his fixation on Russia — the Soviet Union, then." Trump and Lown never spoke again.
Mikhail Gorbachev and Bernard Lown greet each other at the 7th Congress of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in 1987.
Though the lengths to which Trump went to learn about Gorbachev and to secure an official post from the Americans never have been revealed, Trump's interest in "making a deal" with the Soviets was widely reported — and mocked — at the time.
In an April 8, 1984, profile in The New York Times, Trump revealed that concern about a nuclear holocaust had plagued him since his uncle, the groundbreaking nuclear physicist Dr. John Trump, first spoke to him about it 15 years earlier. "His greatest dream is to personally do something about the problem," wrote the Times' William E. Geist (NBC anchor Willie Geist's father), "and, characteristically, Donald Trump thinks he has an answer to nuclear armament: Let him negotiate arms agreements — he who can talk people into selling $100 million properties to him for $13 million." Geist continued, somewhat snarkily, "The idea that he would ever be allowed to go into a room alone and negotiate for the United States, let alone be successful in disarming the world, seems the naive musing of an optimistic, deluded young man who has never lost at anything he has tried. But he believes that through years of making his views known and through supporting candidates who share his views, it could happen someday."
Trump expounded on these ambitions in a Nov. 15, 1984, Washington Post profile at the urging, he said, of his mentor and lawyer Roy Cohn, who was best known as Joseph McCarthy's chief counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings. The Post's Lois Romano asked Trump for specifics about how he would approach a U.S.-Soviet deal, and recounted how he demurred (using terms familiar to those who followed the 2016 presidential campaign): "'I wouldn't want to make my opinions public,' he says. 'I'd rather keep those thoughts to myself or save them for whoever else is chosen. … It's something that somebody should do that knows how to negotiate and not the kind of representatives that I have seen in the past.' He could learn about missiles, quickly, he says. 'It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles. … I think I know most of it anyway. You're talking about just getting updated on a situation.'"
In Ron Rosenbaum's November 1985 profile of Trump in Manhattan, Inc. magazine (later republished as part of the 1987 book Manhattan Passions: True Tales of Power, Wealth and Excess), Trump discussed his obsession with brokering this ultimate deal, stating, "Nothing matters as much to me now." He coyly suggested that he already was "dealing at a very high level on this," hinting at connections in Washington and at the White House, and that negotiators like him were needed: "There's a vast difference between somebody who's been consistently successful and somebody who's been working for a relatively small amount of money in governmental service for many years, in many cases because the private sector, who have seen these people indirectly, didn't choose to hire these people, any of them, because it didn't find them to be particularly capable."
By December 1985, Trump's infatuation with negotiating a deal between the Americans and the Soviets was so widely known that The New York Times' George Vecsey proclaimed, "People used to titter when Donald Trump said he wanted to broker a nuclear-arms reduction. … If the United States gave Donald Trump an official title and let him loose on the arms race, he might lay off on his threat to darken the western sky of Manhattan with his personal Brasilia North. Make peace, not skyscrapers, that's the general idea."
It wasn't long after the Trump-Lown meeting in 1986 that Trump made his first trip to the Soviet Union: In July 1987, he traveled to Moscow and met with Gorbachev. "The ostensible subject of their meeting was the possible development of luxury hotels in the Soviet Union by Mr. Trump," The New York Times wrote at the time. "But Mr. Trump's calls for nuclear disarmament were also well known to the Russians." (Trump told Playboy three years later, "Generally, these guys are much tougher and smarter than our representatives.")
In the fall of 1987, Trump, a registered Republican who had made large contributions to Democrats as well, hinted that he might make a run for the presidency in 1988 — but for which party it wasn't clear. That Sept. 2, he took out a full-page advertisement in three major newspapers criticizing the Reagan administration's foreign policy under the headline, "There's nothing wrong with America's Foreign Defense Policy that a little backbone can't cure." Asked why he had done so, his spokesperson said, "There is absolutely no plan to run for mayor, governor or United States senator. He will not comment about the presidency." A month later, though, he did: ''I'm not running for anything,'' he told The New York Times, while adding, ''I believe that if I did run for president, I'd win.''
Trump went on to give a series of political speeches that fall, some of which, according to the Times, touched on "speeding up nuclear disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union." In December 1987, Gorbachev made a historic three-day trip to the U.S. for a summit with Reagan that included a White House state dinner. There, in a receiving line, was Trump, whom Gorbachev had met in Moscow just five months earlier. Trump subsequently recounted their conversation to The Washington Post: "They want to have a great hotel, and they want me to be the one to do it."
Trump didn't run for president in 1988. A Trump hotel never was built in the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991. But Trump's interactions with Russia were only just beginning.