The three things Donald Trump really cares about

Story highlights

  • To understand Donald Trump, it's vital to recognize how much he craves approval, writes biographer Michael D'Antonio
  • Trump wants positive media coverage, high approval ratings and a thriving Trump brand, D'Antonio says

Michael D'Antonio, the author of "The Truth About Trump," is writing Trump Watch, a series of columns on President-elect Donald Trump for CNN Opinion. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Two weeks into his transition from President-elect to America's commander in chief, Donald Trump has signaled his priorities and demonstrated the habits of mind he will bring to the most powerful position in the world. The clues tell us we shouldn't expect this 70-year-old showman to be transformed into a genuinely sober, predictable leader, but this is not necessarily a bad omen.

There are lots of things ordinary politicians care about -- rules about what kinds of things can be said while in office or on the campaign trail, traditions that have been tested in the history of US government and politics -- that Trump may not care about. But it's clear from his career and evident from his period as President-elect so far that there are three things he does care about:

He still cares about the media -- a lot.

    Trump has attended two big gatherings in the days since he seized the presidency. Neither of these sessions brought him together with the campaign staff that served him so well or a large group of men and women who might serve in his administration.
    Instead Trump chose to spend hours with the key leaders of the major TV news networks and the writers and editors of The New York Times.
    The sessions with journalists tell us that Trump remains all-but-obsessed with the power of the news media. His stagecraft was vintage Trump. The TV news folks were required to troop to his domain, Trump Tower, where they were photographed like supplicants coming to honor the monarch seated high in the sky above them. Instead of the "reset" of a relationship described by campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, Trump apparently used much of the meeting as a platform of complaint against organizations such as CNN and NBC.
    The New York Post reported the encounter as a full-on conflict, but CNN's Brian Stelter wrote that Trump also asked for a positive relationship between his White House and the media. The participant said that a New York Post account, which had a source describing it as Trump giving the assembled members of the media a "dressing down" like a "firing squad," was overstated.
    Ground rules accepted by the TV news folk made the meeting an off-the-record affair but as a man with 40 years of experience with the press, Trump had to know that the tone of his remarks would be shared and thus, his decision to criticize and scold them must be considered deliberate and intentional. Within hours he was rewarded by Right Wing media outlets -- "Trump Eats Press," declared Breitbart News -- where Trump loyalists would be cheered by the thought of him scolding people they love to hate.
    How controversial are Trump's Cabinet picks?
    How controversial are Trump's Cabinet picks?


      How controversial are Trump's Cabinet picks?


    How controversial are Trump's Cabinet picks? 07:37
    More revealing, perhaps, was Trump's encounter at The New York Times. First there was his decision to demonstrate his respect by trekking to the Times building (after temporarily canceling the meeting).. Then there was the agreement to make public the record of their conversation. Here it's worth noting that by making this demand, the newspaper's executives showed they are aware of their power and Trump, who knows strength when he sees it, was willing to bend.
    The transcripts of the Times gathering revealed someone who cares very much what the paper publishes about him. In the past, Trump attacked his hometown newspaper with terms such as "third rate" and "wacky" and "phony" and "failing." But in this session he was conciliatory to the point of fawning as he called the paper "a great, great American jewel."
    What's going on here? The simple, and most essential explanation is that though Trump cares about TV news, he truly respects the country's unofficial but widely recognized newspaper of record. As a very young man, Trump got his big media break when the Times published a profile of him as a mogul before he really was one. He knew that the paper sets the agenda for the rest of the media in New York, the nation and (sometimes) around the world.
    In the time since he has courted its editors and reporters and, with his usual level of exaggeration, called attention to approving articles. (He once bragged to me, erroneously, that an article about him was one the longest ever published in its pages.)

    Trump cares about your opinion of him

    The President-elect's interest in demanding or pleading for the approval of important news outlets coincides with his longstanding, and obviously ever-present desire to be admired by great numbers of people.
    Every election campaign is, at some level, a popularity contest and no one should doubt that when he declared his candidacy in June 2015 Trump was, in part, seeking to show how many people liked him. Presidential campaigns are routinely reported as a horse race, with poll results generating a stream of headlines. After a president is elected, the public's support, measured as an "approval rating," fuels similar reporting on whether a president is succeeding.
    Like an athlete who takes comfort in the score of a game that has been won, Trump likes it when the numbers indicate he's doing well. During the presidential race he often called attention to favorable polls. And as host of the TV show "The Apprentice" he avidly promoted positive ratings reports. One of his aides on "The Apprentice" told me that long after his ratings declined Trump continued to seek attention based on the idea that he still had a top show. When this was pointed out to him, Trump ignored the reality and continued to say he was on top.
    Similarly, Trump has used his wealth, or at least the level of wealth he claims to possess, as an indicator of his success. He has famously lobbied and then argued with the editors of Forbes magazine, insisting that in their annual announcements of the richest people in America and the world that they shortchange him.
    As Trump's complaints to Forbes indicate, he can be impatient when other people have control of the scoreboard. This is one reason why he is entranced by social media. He enjoys having direct access to huge numbers of followers on Facebook and Twitter where he can make whatever claims he wants to make without being checked by outside authorities. He exploited social media before and during the campaign and he seems unable to give it up now.
    Perhaps the least presidential thing Trump does now is issue his own, often argumentative, statements on Twitter. When a cast member at the hit Broadway play "Hamilton" made a public post-show plea for Vice President-elect Mike Pence to keep all Americans in mind, Trump couldn't help but take offense, in the Twittersphere. He wrote "Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!"
    Twenty-four hours later Trump was at it again, complaining about "Saturday Night Live." "It is a totally one-sided, biased show - nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?"
    Setting aside the fact that Trump has appeared on the program many times (even during the campaign), his complaint about "SNL's" bias ignores the many times the cast has skewered his political rivals. Worse, Trump's tweets about the TV show and "Hamilton" demonstrate that Trump doesn't understand the role of press and artists in challenging presidents. He seems unaware, also, of the need to preserve a certain dignity based on his status as president-in-waiting.
    No one in such a high position should feel compelled to respond to the rather mild types of commentary expressed on "SNL" or at the "Hamilton" performance. Barack Obama, to cite one very apt comparison, didn't respond every time Donald Trump suggested inaccurately he might not be legitimately the president because he could have been foreign-born.
    Behind Trump's resentful tweets, of course, resides his deeply felt insecurity and constant concern for his public image. He may be poised to accept the most powerful job in the world, but the comments prove he doesn't really feel powerful. He remains needy and obsessed with making sure everyone recognizes his greatness.
    Complaint is Trump's longstanding practice and in the transition period he has shown he remains vulnerable to insult. Sometimes he sees insult when it isn't even present. The "Hamilton" tweet is a case in point. As the cast member gave his brief speech, the object of it, Pence, told his children that the moment demonstrated what freedom looks like.

    Trump still cares about personal profit

    Although he has referred to the arrangements he is making for his businesses as a "blind trust," Trump is keeping his holdings intact and will put his kids in charge. To expect them to do anything inconsistent with his wishes is like expecting lion cubs to turn vegetarian. We should, instead, assume that they will not only inform him of their activities but they may also exploit his status as president.
    No one elected president has carried into office the complex and far-flung interests Trump has built over his many decades of entrepreneurial activity. Trump partnerships and branded projects can be found across the United States and around the world. Trump has already been subject to reports that in post-election contacts with leaders in Argentina and the United Kingdom he may have mixed business with affairs of state.
    Despite the demands of the transition, Trump made time to meet with business partners from India.
    Worse, in terms of the image it conveyed, was the effort by one of Ivanka Trump's businesses to market the bracelet she was seen wearing during an interview with the TV news program "60 Minutes." Priced at $10,800, the Ivanka Trump Fine Jewelry piece is made of gold and diamonds. A "style alert" her company sent to the media noted it is her "favorite bangle." (An executive of the brand said a marketing employee had sent the alert to the media and that the company was still adjusting to the post-election reality. The company said it is considering new policies about how it sells her products.)
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    As he moves between business and government, President-elect Trump has made the point that "the law's totally on my side" and a president "can't have a conflict of interest." That is consistent with his lifelong practices of equating what is "legal" and what may be the right thing to do. It is also not entirely accurate. Presidents have long been given the benefit of the doubt by those who assume they will avoid conflicts and they are exempt from regulations covering other government officials. However the US Constitution bars officeholders, arguably including the president, from receiving "foreign emoluments." This clause of the Constitution indicated the Founders concern about undue influences and could provide the basis for a challenge to Trump's practices should he indicate a conflict.
    Although one can imagine a legal challenge if Trump mixes business and his role as president, the true counterweight to his more risky impulses is his desire for approval. Here the time he spent at The New York Times is most illuminating.
    On position after position, from climate change to the use of torture against terror suspects, Trump offered the editors and reporters more nuanced and flexible attitudes than he ever showed during the campaign. On a personal level, though, his comment about Republicans who rejected him during the campaign but want to be in his good graces now showed where his heart tends to go. "Right now, they're in love with me," he said at the meeting.
    In his candid references to critics who now love him, and new policy positions that would reassure those who worry about a future with Trump in the White House, the President-elect reminded us that he wants, more than anything else, the security that comes when admiration is added to his wealth. He wants love to go with his money and he's willing to behave more like a responsible politician if it means he will get it.