Mary Trump and Me: The Source Who Got Away

How I ended up in the acknowledgements of her new book.

Peter Serling, 2020

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It came as a surprise. On Tuesday afternoon, a reporter tweeted a photograph of the first page of the “acknowledgements” in the new revelatory memoir by Donald Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous ManAnd there I was at the top of the list, with her thanking “David Corn at Mother Jones for your kindness.” Immediately, colleagues, reporters, tweeters, and others began asking me to explain this prominent shout-out in the yet-to-be-released book (which Donald Trump and his family are still trying to block). A few people on the Internet speculated I had ghost-written the work. 

Nope. I had done nothing regarding the book. I had been unaware it was in the works, until the news broke a few weeks ago. But I did know Mary Trump’s story. And I did know here was a journalistic coup that had eluded me. 

Toward the end of the 2016 campaign, I was pursuing Trump-related stories that had not received sufficient attention during the race. One of these tales, which Mother Jones had reprised in a short post, focused on a dramatic Trump family lawsuit. After Fred Trump (Donald’s father) died in 1999, Mary and Fred Trump III, the adult children of Fred Trump Jr. (Donald’s deceased brother, who was known as Freddy), sued Donald and two of his siblings. Mary and Fred (who was known as Fritz) claimed they and their families had been unfairly cut out of much of Fred Sr.’s estate—then (under)valued between $100 million and $300 million—and they accused Donald and those siblings of engaging in “fraud and undue influence.” What made this story more tragic was that as retaliation for the lawsuit Donald Trump and these siblings (Robert and Maryanne) terminated the medical coverage for Fritz’s family, even though he had an infant son who had recently been born with a rare neurological disorder that had led to medical bills topping $300,000. At the time, Donald Trump huffed, “When [Fritz] sued us, we said, ‘Why should we give him medical coverage?'”

This piece of Trump family lore did not receive much media attention during the 2016 race. A New York Times article about Freddy, who was eight years older than Donald, who battled alcoholism, and who died at the age of 43 in 1981, focused more on what Trump had learned from his brother’s tragic life than on the lawsuit; it contained one passing reference to Mary. In fact, Mary never emerged as a source or figure during the campaign. So at this late stage I went looking for her. Who knew what she had to say about her uncle?

A database search showed she lived on Long Island and was a registered Democrat. I located several possible phone numbers and called each, leaving messages for her. This was days before the election. As Mary notes in her book, I was one of three reporters to contact her during the campaign. The two others were from Frontline and Inside Edition. She returned my call and told me I was the only journalist to whom she had responded. She explained that she had long read my work and wanted to at least say hello. 

That seemed promising. But then she quickly noted that she could not say anything on the record about Donald Trump or the family. She hinted that there was a financial reason for this, and I took it mean that her and Fritz’s families could be punished by Trump if she publicly denigrated her uncle. And it was clear that all she had to say about him was derogatory. (Mary did sign a non-disclosure statement in 2001 as part of the settlement of the lawsuit regarding her grandfather’s estate.) 

As we talked, Mary didn’t hide how upset she was. She was aghast that Trump had a chance of becoming president. She explained that he was a psychologically broken man who would be a threat to the nation as president. She blamed this on Fred Sr., who she said had destroyed her father. (Freddy had defied his father’s wishes to take over the family real estate business and opted to become a pilot.) Donald Trump had watched his father demolish his older brother, and that trauma had warped his character. 

It was a fascinating insider’s account of a family cauldron that had yielded the mean-spirited, bullying, vengeful, bigoted, dishonest, insecure, narcissistic Donald Trump. But I could use none of this material. Still, I listened, as Mary vented and described the horror she had experienced watching Trump become a presidential nominee and a hero for tens of millions. For her, this was a personal nightmare. She fervently hoped it would all be over within days. It was a long call. She said she would stay in touch. (I have received permission from a representative of Mary Trump to report on our interactions.) 

Three days after Trump was elected, Mary emailed me. She was devastated. It wasn’t just that a damaged man had won. She was despondent that so many Americans were not repulsed by Trump’s racism, misogyny, ignorance, bigotry, cruelty, and dishonesty. Trump reaching the White House had been unimaginable, she noted. And her heart was broken. She feared the American experiment was in danger of failing. (On election night, she had tweeted, “This is one of the worst nights of my life. What is wrong with this country?”) She pointed out that she now had to think if there were anything she could do to mitigate the damage. She said she would be willing to meet, as she considered how to be an effective voice against Trumpism. She also thanked me for being kind and hearing her out, even though everything was still off the record. 

We talked again and exchanged emails. Should she do an interview? Print? Television? With me? Should she publish a statement? Should she associate herself with an organization opposing Trump’s policies? Weeks after the election, she was still unsure whether to go public. I checked in occasionally, obviously hoping that she would eventually agree to speak to me on the record. But she still hadn’t reached any decisions.

Months passed. I kept sending her notes. Sometimes she replied; sometimes she didn’t. When she did, she explained that this was a tough stretch for her. She sent me a congratulatory email when I published a book in 2018. At one point, she informed me she might be visiting Washington, DC, and raised the possibility of a meeting. But that never happened.

When the New York Times published a bombshell article in October 2018 revealing that Donald Trump and his family had engaged in massive tax fraud to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, I emailed Mary. She agreed it was a stunning story but didn’t say much else. I suspected she knew more. But I didn’t guess she was deeply involved. In her book, she describes how she had retrieved loads of family tax records from the documents involved in her lawsuit over Fred Trump’s estate and handed them over to the Times reporters, who had come knocking on her door. She recounts that she had finally been moved to act after watching “our democracy disintegrating and people’s lives unraveling because of my uncle’s policies.” And she writes, “In the past, there had been nothing I could do that would be significant enough, so I hadn’t tried very hard.. .It wasn’t enough for me to volunteer at an organization helping Syrian refugees; I had to take Donald down.”

In early May, I thought about Mary Trump. She was the big story that had gotten away. We had never met. I had not succeeded in persuading her to share her secrets with the public. And as the coronavirus pandemic raged, with Trump now more a danger to the nation than anytime in his presidency, I figured I’d take another stab. I emailed her to see how she and her family were doing. “I imagine it must be very difficult to watch all this from your perspective,” I wrote. There was no response. A few weeks later, the reason for her silence became obvious: Trump’s niece would soon be publishing a book about the family dysfunction that produced Donald Trump. “Now I understand,” I wrote her.

So I failed as a journalist. I never nabbed the Mary Trump story. But it was hers to tell in the fashion and at the time that was right for her. And now she finally has her say.

A source close to Mary tells me that she was highly appreciative that I listened to her and was empathetic when she was undergoing a terrible time. Of course, that’s what a reporter is supposed to do when trying to win over a source who could deliver a helluva blockbuster. But I did feel her pain, and I appreciated the difficulty of her situation. I tried to nudge her without being a pest. That didn’t work, and it does burn to know that Mary had access to records showing the Trump clan acted as a criminal enterprise. Yet being publicly cited for kindness—while not a scoop—is a fine consolation prize. 

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

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