I grew up in New York City, which means I’ve always been familiar with Donald Trump. In middle school, I made friends with a girl who lived in an apartment in Trump Place, a complex near Riverside Boulevard that hid lavish amenities—a pool with a waterfall, a children’s playroom—within its glitzy facade. A family friend worked for Trump's daughter Ivanka and then was snatched up by The Trump Organization to scout locations for new hotels. My mom knew a man who owned a flooring company and put everything on the line to work for Trump, but was never paid and nearly went bankrupt.
These days, it’s hard to imagine Trump as anything but the focal point of the 2016 bid for the presidency: an unexpected, undeniable candidate who, win or lose, has had a shattering impact on the political process. But not too long ago, he was the guy tossing out slogans to hired actors in the lobby of Trump Tower, promising to Make America Great Again as political analysts scoffed. And not too long before that, he was a bombastic New York personality who traded in real estate and insults and who, for many of us, was always just kind of around.
I wanted to hear more of those stories, the ones like mine, and I found them in a corner of the internet relatively untouched by the virulent debate that surround Trump’s political celebrity: Quora.
Quora, for the uninitiated, is an online platform where the curious can seek answers from the knowledgeable, like a friendly Reddit or a flawed, human-driven Google or a smarter Yahoo Answers. Questions range from utilitarian ("What happens if I do not tip my waiter in the U.S.?") to the existential ("I'm a 22 year old desperate girl. I have no money, no job, no college degree. Do you have any advice, or book recommendation about how to start a business, or anything that will make me progress, especially financially?"). Answers with the most views are pushed to the top.
I scoured through two Quora threads that allow users who’ve met Trump to share their experiences: “What is Donald Trump like in person,” and “What is it like to do business with Donald Trump?” People shared small, personal interactions. Their exchanges with Trump weren’t long or substantial enough for him to ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement, but meaty enough to give us a taste of the man behind the orange mask.
I picked my favorites, and did some digging into the likelihood of their being true, or truly legends. Here’s some of what I learned.
Verdict: Gonna go with probably true.
Confirmation: Trump has certainly told brazen, easily disprovable lies in the past, so this type of statement wouldn't be out of character.
Verdict: Who knows? But I certainly hope this happened.
Urban legend: "He doesn't shake hands and is a self-admitted germaphobe [sic]."
Verdict: Checks out.
Urban legend: "I was surprised by how polished he was, just physically."
Confirmation: Quora user Roberta Fineberg met Trump on one occasion, in 2004. She had set up an interview between Trump and a friend working on a book about a celebrity (Fineberg didn't disclose the name of the subject) and was tagging along as photographer. “It was pretty relaxed, and there were no expectations of me to do some sort of spectacular photo so he wasn’t really on, I think, he was just kind of being himself.” Fineberg told me in an interview. She was surprised by two things. "I liked him more than I thought I would," she said. "He was very down-to-Earth, very welcoming, I would say warm, and I guess professional."
Fineberg was also surprised by how much she loved what he was wearing. "What I remember most… [is] how he dressed: Brioni pink tailored shirt, silk tie, gold cufflinks, navy blue blazer—looked like a gentleman, 'tawked' like a New Yorker," she wrote on Quora. "I was surprised by how polished he was just physically," she told me. "He wasn't so tanned at the time, and he was a little younger, too."
Verdict: Trump circa 2016 is far from a fashion icon—his ties are weirdly long, his hair is confusing, and his skin is unnaturally tinged—but in 2004, he actually kind of was. The New York Times reported in November of 2005 that "the release of a survey by a marketing company last week not[ed] that Donald J. Trump had beat out Giorgio Armani and Donna Karan as one of the most trusted fashion names in America."
Confirmation: Though there's not been much information about Trump's tipping habits, back in 2007, he was quick to point out that he absolutely did not leave a $10,000 tip on an $82 bill. "This was done by the stupid restaurant to get publicity," Trump said of the incident.
Verdict: I mean, maybe?
Urban legend: "Donald Trump couldn’t help himself but to say what a piece of crap [Richard] Branson’s reality show was."
Confirmation: Mark Greenberg is a photographer who wrote on Quora about the first time he met Trump, and how much he didn't like him. "He neither greeted us or said goodbye, thank you…nothing," Greenberg wrote of the time he and a partner shot pictures of Trump for a spread on the opening of Trump Tower in the German magazine Stern in 1983. "I recall that we took one more [P]olaroid with Mr. Trump to be sure that the lighting was just right for his reflective value- and [my photography partner] Wayne then began to shoot with his Nikon using Kodachrome. Wayne took two shots and Mr. Trump turned and disappeared.We were dumbfounded, mouth open. He neither greeted us or said goodbye, thank you… nothing," Greenberg wrote. When we spoke over the phone, Greenberg said he was shocked by how rude Trump was during their first meeting. "I had never, ever in my entire forty year career met anybody who did what he did in that very first encounter," he said.
Greenberg saw Trump again for the second and (so far) final time about two decades later, at a party hosted by Richard Branson. "I pretty much always did Richard’s events," Greenberg told me, "so I was always the go-to photographer for the group." Greenberg said that a few people were gathered before the party had begun when Trump entered the room. "Donald came in with Melania, the usual Donald, very overdressed, formal… he was quite dour and sour, I remember," he recalled.
Greenberg explained that Trump took the more intimate, pre-party opportunity to gleefully bash Branson's short-lived 2004 reality show The Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best, which premiered months after The Apprentice. "Donald Trump couldn’t help himself but to say what a piece of crap Branson’s reality show was," he said. Despite the slight, Branson still let Trump attend the party, which he did—barely.
"Trump came in and he was almost silent," Greenberg said. "He did the shaking of hands with Richard, exchanged half a dozen words. And I couldn’t help but noting that Melania was there, said nothing to nobody, and was just pure eye candy. And then they turned and left shortly afterward. And then the party went on."
Verdict: Trump wasn't shy about sharing his assessment of Branson's show with the media, and it lines up well with Greenberg's recollections. Back in 2004, People reported that he told Extra that "Branson's ratings were terrible, down the tubes. … The Apprentice is the hottest show there is! Richard Branson, your ratings speak very loudly and you just got fired!" and The New York Daily News, "I thought the show was terrible."
Urban legend: "Mr. Trump ate simply usually a steak and well done fries."
Confirmation: When I spoke to Mike Dotti, the author of this Quora post and an employee of Trump's Atlantic City casino Taj Mahal when it opened in 1990, he had only good things to say about his former boss. "When he had a good meal, or if we had to stay late, or if we had to do something extra special for a client or a guest or somebody he was working with, he showed up in the kitchen afterward and thanked us," Dotti said. "He stuck his head in the kitchen while we were all sitting there, unwinding at the end of a long night, and thanked us… that rarely happens." Dotti told me that in addition to being impressed by Trump as a leader, he was impressed by his kids. "His children were never out of control," he said. "They were polite."
Verdict: Dotti's not the only one who considers Trump a good boss: A number of former Taj Mahal employees echoed the sentiment to Press of Atlantic City reporters. And Trump is notorious for ordering his steaks well done. Unfortunately, I can't confirm the fries rumor. In an email after our conversation, I asked Dotti to clarify the statement. "His steaks were well done," he told me, but "we didn’t serve fries. So the fries part is faulty memory."
Urban legend: "Trump claimed that the golf club handle [he wanted to patent] was a major advancement that would allow any good golfer to hit the golf ball ten percent farther with any club, and putt and chip more accurately too."
Confirmation: According to Quora user Davo Hilti, Trump planned on patenting a golf club that would allow golfers to play better, and hired a law firm to make sure that whatever prospectus was sent out to potential investors was accurate. The firm, in turn, hired Hilti's father, an "executive for a major American golf club maker," as part of a team of industry experts who would test out the product and evaluate it. Per Hilti, Trump had said that 1,000 people had used the golf club and affirmed its greatness.
"The first thing they wanted to do was play golf with a few of the 1,000 people who supposedly liked the golf club handle," Hilti wrote, adding, "[Trump's] staff would not allow that—not even one person… instead, [his] staff would only allow my dad and his team to talk on the phone with a handful of selected golfers." Those golfers, said Hilti, "turned out to be a bunch of Yes Men who too often used the exact same words to describe the golf club handle, like, 'It fits more naturally into the natural contours of the hand.'"
Eventually, Hilti's father and his colleagues used the golf club and found it no different from any average golf club.
Verdict: I couldn't find any record of a Trump-patented super golf club, which could mean Hilti's father and his colleagues quashed that business venture, or it could mean nothing. Who knows.
Urban legend: "Trump refused to pay the full amount, so the builder took him to court. Trump's legal team successfully delayed and delayed until the builder couldn't afford to pursue the case any longer. He lost his business and everything he had worked for his entire life."
Confirmation: In a 2015 interview with Reuters, Trump said "I've had many people that when they work for me they get very rich," adding "sometimes I renegotiate." That tactic, Reuters reported, "has left some small business owners who have done jobs for him over three decades of real estate deals saying they have felt cheated and don't want to ever work for him again." Reuters added that "in a number of cases they have also faced big legal bills from subsequent court action." At least 12 people Reuters spoke to "said they had been left out of pocket or had watched as other contractors were short-changed," and it confirmed that "they were instances in which he decided the finished product was not worth the originally agreed-upon price."
Verdict: Though I can't say for sure whether the incidents described in the two Quora entries are true, they certainly track with the presumptive GOP nominee's general business practices.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.