I once had my own relationship with Donald Trump, a fleeting light-touch relationship that lasted a few months back in 2000 when we photographed his girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife Melania for a magazine I was steering at the time. Her agency had been very keen for us to shoot her, so in the end we complied, coming up with a rather kitsch and camp fashion story for her to feature in.
As befitted the heightened sexuality of the time we photographed her James Bond-style on Trump’s own private jet, lying naked on a fur rug and handcuffed to a briefcase. It sounds tacky now but was intended as a tongue-cheek takedown of corporate debauchery. Not that Trump understood that, of course; he was simply pleased to have his girlfriend photographed in his own plane in a fancy magazine.
He loved the pictures when he eventually saw them and called the office personally to congratulate us. This was nothing less than surreal, especially as the irony of the exercise appeared to have escaped him. He was charming, though, if slightly unhinged. We even framed some of the pictures and couriered them over to his apartment in New York. For me the whole project was a successful prank, highlighting the ludicrous nature of celebrity culture in the Noughties. Our magazine sold bucketloads in the process (185,000, if I remember correctly, and I do).
In March 2016 the pictures surfaced again, sparking a particularly ugly war of words between the then-Republican GOP candidate and his rival Ted Cruz. Found by a pro-Cruz super PAC, one of our pictures featured prominently in an ad that invited viewers to “Meet Melania Trump, Your Next First Lady,” part of an attempt to dissuade potential Trump voters in the Mormon community.
Before his first indictment, Trump’s funding was generating $130,000 per day, now it is around $780,000
Trump immediately hit back, in his traditionally elegant fashion, directly at “Lyin’ Ted Cruz,” saying he would “spill the beans” about his rival’s wife, Heidi. In response, Cruz then called Trump a “snivelling coward” and said he should “leave Heidi the hell alone”.
Melania has been rather quiet of late, no doubt fuming over her husband’s various indictments, particularly the one down in Georgia. Maybe she doesn’t call him anymore, maybe he doesn’t call her, who knows? She might also be reeling from the opinion polls, which increasingly suggest the 45th President might end up being the 47th. The First Lady never appeared that thrilled by being incarcerated in Washington, and she’s unlikely to have changed her mind.
But Trump’s odds are shortening. Republican voters now view Trump’s legal troubles as a proxy attack on them as well as him, in a weird new reality where every criminal charge somehow acts as a political asset.
“Each time he’s indicted his polling gets a little kicker,” said a Democrat friend of mine who I saw last week. “If he gets in it’s going to be a lot worse this time because he won’t make the same mistakes he made before,” she said. “When he entered the White House last time he had no experience, and consequently made a lot of public errors and hired the wrong people. He won’t do that again.”
The likelihood of Trump being re-elected is all most right- (small r) thinking Americans are talking about. For the past two years, Fox News and its many facsimiles have been weaning themselves off Trump, falling in behind Florida’s Ron DeSantis instead. But now his star is fading, while Trump’s team use every court appearance as a press conference, working with the TV networks to ensure optimal coverage.
It’s working, too, as before his first indictment Trump’s online funding was generating approximately $130,000 per day; afterwards he was averaging around $780,000. People want to believe in Trump, and when they look at the polls they start to believe in themselves, too.
“The indictments have no impact on my support for Trump,” Sean Roh, 39, a “reluctant Trump supporter” from Lynnwood, Washington state, told the New York Times yesterday. “In the past I’d followed the news but now I don’t care to read the details.”
And that’s the nub of it, a campaign run by the only man who really understands what it is that makes Trump work — Trump himself. It’s maddening, counterintuitive and batshit crazy, but there we are. The more some people know about Donald Trump, the less they care.
As for me? Well, Donald never writes, never calls. Honestly, sometimes I feel like his wife. Not that I’ve been photographed in a private jet recently, at least not naked or chained to a briefcase.
Dylan Jones is editor-in-chief of the Evening Standard