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A New York book party is often a ho-hum affair. But not when Michael Bloomberg hosts. On Oct. 16, the mogul, philanthropist and former mayor of New York feted Walter Isaacson’s latest biography, Leonardo da Vinci, in the lobby of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Upper East Side offices, bringing together power brokers such as Bob Iger, Henry Kissinger and Michael Lynton. “Walter writes award-winning biographies as fast as certain people write tweets. The only difference is, Walter’s books contain no alternative facts,” Bloomberg, 75, said, making a not-so-veiled dig at Donald Trump.
After building a sprawling financial-services and media empire, Bloomberg LP, which employs 19,000 people and brings in annual revenue of about $9 billion, Bloomberg, who has two daughters, Georgina and Emma, from a previous marriage, has pledged to give away most of his personal fortune, estimated at $47.8 billion. Founded in 2006, Bloomberg Philanthropies boasts assets of $10 billion (the mogul himself so far has contributed $5 billion) and employs 120 people. As part of its environmental efforts, the foundation has donated more than $100 million to move America away from coal.
He and Bloomberg Associates principal Katherine Oliver sat down with THR to discuss their new film, From the Ashes, which they’re pushing in the Oscar documentary feature race. The coal industry doc offered an ideal entry point into the larger issues of Trump’s environmental policy, Bloomberg’s near-presidential run in 2016 and why The Donald hasn’t ruined it for other would-be presidents with no public-service experience (like, ahem, Iger).
The Trump administration recently announced it was terminating President Obama’s carbon emissions rule and that the war on coal was over. What was your reaction?
MICHAEL BLOOMBERG It doesn’t matter what the federal government does. In the end, it’s people making individual decisions: “I want to reduce my energy costs. I want to be more environmentally friendly. I want to spend my money on something else because I want my kids to breath cleaner air or I want to drink purer water.” Corporations are moving in this direction, too. Your stockholders want you to be environmentally friendly. Why? If you think about it, most stockholders are pension funds and endowments. People don’t own the stocks individually. They own them collectively. They pressure their money managers to invest socially responsibly. When Fidelity, which manages big money for pension funds and endowments, goes in to see Boeing, it says to Boeing, “What are you doing for the environment? Our customers are investors. Our beneficiaries want to know.” The federal government really doesn’t have any say in this. It’s not a factor. They can do some things that are not helpful. They can do some things that are downright dumb. You can say, “How can anybody do something like that?” But whether it was under the Obama administration or the Trump administration, we have closed half of the coal-fired power plants in the country. As a matter of fact, the rate of closure since Trump got elected is higher than it was before Trump got elected.
Have you ever reached out to President Trump about his environmental policy?
BLOOMBERG No, I have written a number of editorials on Bloomberg that hopefully he has read. (Laughs.) I don’t know if he did or not. I’ve only talked to the president once since he got elected. A few weeks after he got elected, he sent word he would like to get a call from me. I called him. He’s the president. I don’t have an ego. He joked about my speech at the Democratic Convention, and I joked about what he said about me the next morning. [Trump tweeted: “‘Little’ Michael Bloomberg, who never had the guts to run for president, knows nothing about me. His last term as mayor was a disaster!”] He said, “Well yours was only one night,” and I said, “Yes, yours was only one morning.” So, we laughed and let bygones be bygones. He asked my advice on how to attract people, and I gave it to him. I’m not sure he did any of it. He probably didn’t, but that’s OK. He gave me his private cell phone number and said if you ever need anything, call me. I think I entered it into my address book on my iPhone. I’m not sure. I have not talked to him since then.
But he still can do damage, right?
BLOOMBERG [Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative] America’s Pledge came about because President Trump said he was pulling out of the COP21 Paris Agreement. Keep in mind, you can’t do it over night, and maybe we won’t pull out. Who the hell knows? He says one thing and then hopefully he learns and does something else. That’s a nice way to phrase it, but it also may be true. I don’t want to condemn him yet. I just disagree with a lot of things he said he’s going to do and hopefully he doesn’t execute those things.
THR has reported you counseled Bob Iger on possibly running for president. What did you advise?
BLOOMBERG Bob Iger is a good friend, and he’s on the board of my foundation. We’ve talked about government and politics, I’m sure. I don’t remember any specific conversation. He’s a very smart guy. He cares very much about the environment and public education. He seems to have an interest in politics, which I would encourage. I don’t know we ever discussed literally should he run for president or shouldn’t he run for president.
Given Trump’s low approval ratings, do you think anyone with a business background and no political experience can win again?
BLOOMBERG Number one, Trump is not a business guy. I joke that he’s not a billionaire either. He probably is, but not the kind of money that he said he has. But no, I think if anything, Trump spoke to people that the establishment were not speaking to. That’s why you have him and not Hillary. I don’t see any reason why a businessperson or an entertainer or anybody else couldn’t run. The presidency is not a partisan issue. It’s two people running against each other much more than the party. The party sort of gives you a leg up. What’s for sure is you can’t win as an independent. That we found out when I thought about running. I don’t see any reason why a businessperson or an entertainer or anybody else couldn’t run.
What kept you from running?
BLOOMBERG We did a lot of polling. We actually had commercials made. We had lawyers on retainer to get on the ballots. We could do all of that. That was not an issue. It was that what we found was that a third of the public is pretty rock solid, will vote Democratic. I think if Trump were the Democratic candidate they would vote for him. A third rock solid Republican. If Hillary were their candidate, they would vote for her. Unfortunately, the way the Constitution is written, you have to have a majority of the electoral votes, not a plurality but a majority. An independent candidate cannot get a majority if two-thirds of the vote is already spoken for. If you don’t have a majority then it goes to the House of Representatives to pick the president, it goes to the Senate to pick the vice president. There are no independents in the House so an independent would never be picked. In the French government, it’s a plurality. And Macron, people say, “Oh, he ran outside the party structure.” Yeah, but they don’t have the Electoral College. If you want to be the president of the United States, you have to be the candidate of the Republican or the Democratic party. There’s a whole group of people that have left both parties to form this independent block. People say, “Isn’t that wonderful because they can go back and forth?” It’s not wonderful because you’re leaving the parties more in the hands of the extremist both on the right and the left. You can probably expect more extremist candidates unless somebody comes through the primary system and can beat everybody else. That gets harder to do. I would think there would be an awful lot of people running in three years, at least the way it looks now. Who knows whether Trump will run for reelection. My guess is he will. Who knows? I do not see him resigning or being impeached. I think that’s very unlikely, both of those scenarios. If he were to run for reelection, the incumbent has a real advantage. Trump did speak to roughly half the voters. Hillary, it’s true, had a few more of the popular vote, Trump had a few more of the electoral vote. Unfortunately for Hillary, and fortunately for Trump, it was the electoral vote that counted.
Do you regret not running?
BLOOMBERG No. I just couldn’t win. You couldn’t win. I’m not going to have a regret. Running and knowing you can’t win is not a smart thing to do. That just gets in the way of the political process. If I had run and we got Donald Trump, my obit would be I was the guy that gave you Donald Trump. They wouldn’t have cared about anything else I had done in my life.
Why did you make a film about the coal industry?
KATHERINE OLIVER Two and a half years ago, when we decided to start thinking about how to use film to convey our messaging, (to Bloomberg) you said, “Let’s start with the environment. Nobody is talking about coal.” Mike is a U.N. special envoy to cities focusing on the environment. He said, “Nobody is talking about coal. We’ve been doing all of this work with the Sierra Club. We need to start this dialog.” So, we finished shooting right after the election and then went into the editing room. We wanted to launch it at Tribeca. And then everybody was talking about coal. Alec Baldwin doing skits on Saturday Night Live with coal miners. We’re just really fortunate with the timing. It was serendipitous, fortunately or unfortunately.
BLOOMBERG Trump did us a great favor because he galvanized the people that understood and would be in favor of taking action and not where he wants to take America. I have always thought — sugar drinks. People say, “Oh you lost the full sugar drink battle,” and they hold up these Big Gulps and make fun of me. If we had won that battle, which we would have if we had appealed in court. Unfortunately, we aren’t in office any more. The fact is that it became a worldwide thing to talk about. Coke and Pepsi sales are off 30, 40 percent around the world because sometimes you win when you lose.
Is it frustrating that there has been little outrage about Trump’s environmental moves as compared to other issues like the so-called Muslim ban? For instance, I don’t think I’ve seen any celebrities tweeting about coal.
OLIVER We had a number. Leonardo DiCaprio was tweeting.
BLOOMBERG It was me. It wasn’t DiCaprio. You just can’t tell the difference. (Laughs.)
OLIVER Al Gore was tweeting about coal. Katie Couric has been very vocal on the issue. Mark Ruffalo, America Ferrera, Sigourney Weaver.
But the issue hasn’t received the same level of outrage as other Trump proposals have.
BLOOMBERG Well, it isn’t sexy. It’s not a one-time thing as in outrage over one issue. You can’t tie in the Kardashians, whoever they are, to this issue.
Will you be doing an awards campaign for the movie?
BLOOMBERG Could we win an Academy Award for this? (Laughs.) Do I have to wear a tux? I went to the Vanity Fair party one time with my youngest daughter, had to be 15 years ago. I never saw any of the movies. My daughter loved it. She met Monica Lewinsky in the ladies’ room.
OLIVER We’ve got some stiff competition, but we are very proud of this one.
What was your reaction to the Harvey Weinstein story?
BLOOMBERG I don’t really know.
Were you friendly with Harvey Weinstein?
BLOOMBERG No, we gave him an award for a movie once.
OLIVER A Made in New York award back in 2013.
BLOOMBERG It’s hard to understand. It’s disgraceful, his conduct. I just don’t know enough. It’s not a world that I’m really familiar with. I certainly never heard stories. I don’t know about rumors or anything, but I never heard stories. I’m not tuned in to the Hollywood thing. No offense intended.
But you do occasionally appear onscreen.
BLOOMBERG I was on The Good Wife. It was the best episode they ever had. (Laughs.)
OLIVER You were on Gossip Girl too. Sex and the City was the best, though.
BLOOMBERG But I got cut from it.
Are you a SAG member?
BLOOMBERG I keep it up to date, thank you very much. Just renewed. On the way out, I will show you the card.
Some people in the New York film community, like Robert De Niro, have criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s policies on film production and say your administration was much more supportive. Do you agree with them?
BLOOMBERG I made a commitment when I left office that I would not discuss my predecessor or my successor or the governor. I will stick to that. We’re very proud of what we did. I think we did a great job. All I can say is I hope that future administrations, including this one, build on what we do.
OLIVER We created a lot of jobs. We created buzz for the city. That’s what I do now, advising global mayors. Not every city is going to be a New York or an L.A., a production center, but everybody wants a piece of the film industry and wants to figure out, how do they tell their story of their city through film?
Why did you sign the Buffett-Gates Pledge, and how would you urge other moguls to join?
BLOOMBERG Look, I’ve committed to give away all of my money. I give away all the profits of the company to the foundation. I don’t need any more money. I’ve set my kids up. They’re not going to get any more when I die. Everything I do is to give money into the foundation, and I use the foundation to try to make the world a better place for my kids and my grandkids. Signing the pledge was just to incentivize other people to do it. I’m already going to give 100 percent away rather than the pledge of 50 percent. There’s no other reason.
What do you think of the current journalism landscape?
BLOOMBERG I know that Jeff Bezos seems to have done a good job with The Washington Post, made it a better newspaper. I don’t read it every day but read it occasionally. Certainly, Washington Post stories are on Bloomberg [terminals], so I read a lot of stories from Washington Post there. I think what’s happened to journalism is the advertising has gone over to the internet. The contact with the customer has been given over to these social media companies, which is not smart for the news organizations. I think they are so desperate for clicks and eyeballs that they are in ways that they probably would not admit more susceptible to publishing sensationalism, scandal, failure, envy, those kinds of things. That’s why Donald Trump was able to build a national election with virtually no money. For all I know, it was zero money of his own. I don’t know if he ever put anything in. I think he lent some money, probably got it back. He’s charging the secret service for golf carts! I think Donald Trump would not have gotten elected if it weren’t for newspapers like The New York Times putting him on the front page every day. There’s the old adage there’s no such thing as bad publicity as long as they spell your name right. They never misspelled his name. They never missed an opportunity. I think CNN did the same thing with all Trump, all the time. Because of that behavior of the news organizations, he was able to get his message out again and again and again. It takes an awful lot of times before the people get it, but he was able to do that without spending any money. I don’t know about the future. There’s still great journalism. New York Times still has some great journalism, so does the [Wall Street] Journal, so does the FT.
What is your take on the fake news phenomenon?
BLOOMBERG The worst thing about all of this is we are dumbing down the discourse. We’re reducing the standard to which we want to hold ourselves and our kids. We have reduced it dramatically in the last year or two, I would argue. Building that back up is going to be very hard to do, and maybe it’s not even possible.
OLIVER As you saw in the film, it was a lot of data, a lot of infographics, really trying to help reinforce what’s going on with the war on coal. The goal is to really equip people with real facts so they can have intelligent conversations and approach their local officials to continue this dialog. I think that’s what we look at internally whether it be in education, environment or arts and culture. We’re trying to now explore how do we use film to engage some other audiences, influence and also try to prompt change.
You’ve never invested in Hollywood. Why not?
BLOOMBERG Yes, I did. I produced a movie, Focus, based on Arthur Miller’s only book. William Macy and Laura Dern. I had a dinner party with Woody Allen one time, and he said he happened to see the movie and he loved it. He asked me which one of his movies I liked, and it was Bananas and Sleeper.
I mean you could have bought a studio and didn’t. Are the economics just not attractive?
BLOOMBERG It’s not my world. I don’t watch television. I don’t go to the movies.
OLIVER But we’ve been in the storytelling business for 30 years, a different type of storytelling. As I was saying earlier, Mike is one of the rare few who has been successful in business, government and philanthropy. How great is it for us here to be able to use the power of storytelling to bring these things to life?
How much have you planned for the Bloomberg empire to outlive you?
BLOOMBERG When I die, the ownership of the company goes to the foundation. The tax laws are such that they would have to sell it within five years. They will have to figure out who to sell it to. I’ve appointed a committee of three of my directors to manage the sale, but hopefully it won’t be for a long time. My mother lasted to 102. So by that standard, I’ve got 27 more years to work here. I actually hope to live a lot longer than that.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.