As with all things pertaining to Donald Trump, people will surely project their preconceived notions onto “The Trump Dynasty,” a three-part, six-hour A&E documentary presented under the Biography banner. This deep dive into the president’s life is nevertheless well worthwhile – especially through the first two parts, which offer a detailed guide of the people and events that shaped him.
Perhaps foremost, the documentary (really about 4 ½ hours sans commercials) features a wide array of Trump’s friends, critics and biographers, while drawing upon not only the rich video evidence that’s available but rare material like audiotaped interviews conducted with him. If there’s one primary takeaway it’s the manner in which Trump assiduously built his brand, which included aggressively cultivating the press that he now regularly derides.
The title notwithstanding, “Trump Dynasty” is perhaps too grandiose a title for a project that focuses pretty steadfastly on a single person. That said, the narrative does reach back to his grandfather, who came to the US in 1885, profitably running a restaurant/hotel that catered to miners during the Klondike Gold Rush, an enterprise whose services included prostitution.
The documentary covers Trump’s youth in some detail, including the lessons he learned from his father, Fred, a successful real-estate tycoon, and the federal lawsuit brought against them for alleged racial discrimination in housing in 1973.
Still, the more significant thread stems from Trump’s relationship with attorney Roy Cohn, the one-time right hand of Sen. Joe McCarthy, who became a sort of professional father figure to Trump. Cohn provided a guide for dealing with the rough and tumble of New York politics, and among other things, introduced Trump to Roger Stone, the political operative who urged Trump to run for president. (Stone, who was recently indicted in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, is among those interviewed.)
The small details, asides and video snippets are among the most interesting. Newspaper columnist Linda Stasi recalls that Trump would “call you up and plant stories” (there’s audio of him calling a reporter in the guise of PR rep “John Baron”). Editor Tina Brown notes that the press “loved him” because he was so accessible, adding wryly that Trump Tower – an edifice to his ambition – was “the Liberace of buildings.”
Trump’s personal life also receives its share of attention, with the random footage that includes his wedding to Marla Maples, with Howard Stern and O.J. Simpson conspicuous among the guests.
Tony Schwartz, Trump’s collaborator on “The Art of the Deal,” and now a staunch critic, discusses how the book “set him up for national celebrity.” The documentary also devotes time to Trump’s older brother, Fred Jr., who battled alcoholism before dying in 1981 at age 43 – a series of events that reportedly left a mark on Trump.
Granted, much of this won’t come as news to those who have closely followed Trump’s career. But for those less well-versed in his life before “The Apprentice” helped emboss his image as only hit primetime series could, it’s a nicely constructed look at Trump’s colorful life, laying the groundwork for his improbable shift from the status of celebrity businessman to the Oval Office.
The list of more than 60 interviewees runs literally from A to Z – from journalists Kurt Andersen and Ken Auletta to Melania Trump friend Paolo Zampolli – and also covers the political gamut, including Fox News’ Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell.
For all that, “The Trump Dynasty” is likely to be a virtual Rorschach test, with one’s view of Trump going in likely determinative in terms of which parts seem most significant. That filtering of the same presentation of facts through the prism of partisan opinion is, perhaps, one of the most indelible aspects of the Trump legacy.
“Biography: The Trump Dynasty” airs Feb. 25-27 at 9 p.m. on A&E.