Originally published on Politico.com
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I had been at Trump magazine for only four months when my first paycheck bounced.
We’d heard rumors of the company’s financial troubles, but I had no idea how bad it really was until my landlord called me one afternoon to tell me that my rent check hadn’t cleared. I logged into my online banking account and saw, to my amazement, that the magazine I worked for—the one with the billionaire’s name on the cover—had stiffed me. Although it was a stressful moment, the irony was not lost on me. It felt like I was living in an Onion article: “Luxury Lifestyle Magazine Can’t Pay Its Own Employees.”
It was the fall of 2006, and Trump magazine was my first job in journalism—albeit as the receptionist. I’d landed the gig by answering an ad on Craigslist. Fresh out of journalism school, I moved to New York with two undergraduate degrees, my student loans, some meager savings and dreams of becoming a theater critic. The receptionist gig paid a paltry $25,000 per year—barely minimum wage. And that was when the checks cleared.
Personally, I had never been a fan of Donald Trump and knew very little about the man. I had never seen The Apprentice and I was hardly a real estate expert. The piles of fan mail that arrived at our office addressed to him—filled with adoring testaments to his “genius”—amused me to no end. We received handwritten letters asking for money, a formal request for Donald’s daughter Ivanka to escort a woman’s son to his Junior Ring Dance at the Air Force Academy, and incoherent six-page rants about the state of the economy and how Trump was the only man who could fix it. One letter stated, “I sincerely hope you will run for president someday.”
Before I was hired at Trump, the magazine had already gained a reputation, most of which I wouldn’t find out about until after it folded. And by that time, I had been diagnosed with cancer and—thanks to Trump—lost my health coverage.
Trump had been, from the beginning, the brainchild of a man named Michael Jacobson, who’d worked in advertising and promotions at Bob Guccione’s infamous lad-mag Gear. In 2002, Jacobson launched the magazine under a different publisher as Trump World. It lasted just two issues. By spring 2003, Jacobson was already feuding with his publishers, Lockwood Publications. “I wanted to go national, they didn’t,” Jacobson told the New York Post. So he departed to form his own publishing company and took Trump World with him.
I The timing of the magazine’s relaunch, in 2004, was fortuitous for both Trump and Jacobson. Coming on the heels of the bankruptcy of his Atlantic City casinos, Trump was enjoying a rebirth. The Apprentice was a hit, and about to enter its second season. He had a new casino, Trump Tower, under development in Vegas. In interviews, Jacobson presented the magazine as another new piece of the Trump empire: “I brought this idea and this concept to Mr. Trump, and I didn’t even need to go on The Apprentice. I was hired,” he bragged to Reuters. Trump played along: “I figured we conquered the TV business,” he told USA Today, “so I guess we have to go magazines now, right?” The magazine was envisioned as a bimonthly, Jacobson told the New York Times, with a circulation of 200,000. About 50,000 of those would be distributed free to residents and visitors to Trump’s buildings; the rest would show up on newsstands with a cover price of $5.95. The target demographic was “a reader that buys a lot, that spends a lot of money,” Trump told the Times. What could go wrong? “He’s the human logo,” Jacobson told the Village Voice’s Ta-Nahesi Coates. “He’s a branding king, and the magazine will tie all of those branding opportunities into one.”
The first issue featured Melania—then still Melania Knauss, engaged but not yet married to Trump—on its back cover, sporting a diamond opera necklace in an advertisement for a jeweler. About a third of the magazine was dedicated to Trump, his family and his businesses. Trump personally signed off on each issue, marking up proofs with a sharpie, making sure it contained nothing untoward about himself or his family. The rest? “Wealth porn,” the magazine’s creative and editorial director told the Daily News.
About a third of the magazine was dedicated to Trump, his family, and his businesses. The rest? “Wealth porn,” according to the magazine’s creative director.
About a third of the magazine was dedicated to Trump, his family, and his businesses. The rest? “Wealth porn,” according to the magazine’s creative director. | Trump Magazine
A steady stream of news releases trumpeted the magazine’s supposed advertising prowess. In 2005, Trump World teamed up with a travel website to launch The Apprentice-themed cruises. But by the end of 2005, the magazine had lost more than $3 million, according to Forbes. In typical Trump fashion, the mogul was still making money—he received a licensing fee of $120,000 per issue in 2005, raised to $135,000 per issue in 2006—even as Jacobson’s company, Premiere Publishing Group, sank deeper into the red.
Then, in 2006, Jacobson rebranded the publication as Trump magazine, instead of Trump World, and claimed it turned a profit. Trump told CNBC that the magazine was taking off: “All of a sudden it started selling fast, and they said let’s take it to the next level. That’s what they [have] done.” If the magazine did, in fact, make it to the next level, it didn’t stay there for long: Securities and Exchange Commission records would later show that by the end of 2007, the company had an accumulated deficit of $7,361,716.
But in that fall of 2006, all I wanted was an entry-level job at a publishing company with the opportunity to advance, and Trump—essentially a small startup with a tiny office and an informal atmosphere—seemed as fine a place as any to begin. Located on the 16th floor of 386 Park Ave. South, the magazine employed about 20 people, including one alumnus of The Apprentice. Most were under the age of 40. (Jacobson, the editor and publisher, was a notable exception.) I sat at the front desk, with Jacobson’s private office directly next to mine, and the rest of the staff located through a small entryway. My job was to answer the phones, handle the mail and messengering, and complete various administrative tasks. Meanwhile, I kept my ears open for any opportunities to write—and for anything Jacobson might yell through the wall to me. One day, I had to run into his office and tell him how to spell “Chihuahua,” even though he was sitting in front of his computer when he asked me the question.
Trump magazine itself was gaudy and gauche, with its motto—“Think Big. Live Large.”—plastered above the Trump logo on the cover, and cover-lines touting advice on investing and golf. Each issue was packed with full-page ads touting Trump products like the Trump Ocean Resort in Mexico and Trump Vodka. The pages were filled with copy about luxury items like Hermès pocket squares, Baccarat Christmas ornaments, personal canoes and 18-karat solid-gold Gameboys.
The first issue released during my time there was a holiday-themed affair. On the cover was a woman photographed from mouth to abdomen, with a champagne flute positioned between her ample cleavage. It featured a Trump “Year-in-Review,” including a portrait by Annie Leibovitz of Trump’s then-pregnant wife wearing a gold bikini, and news of the alumni of The Apprentice. In public, the magazine attempted to practice what it preached: Just six weeks after I was hired, I worked the door at a glamorous party the magazine threw at FAO Schwarz, and planning was underway for a big summer event at Trump Casino.
I tried to train myself to ignore the magazine’s sexist content, which proved difficult—especially when the end-of-year “Trumptastic Gift Guide” featured a picture of a young blonde woman wearing a pink babydoll nightie and holding a Trump teddy bear, her mouth suggestively open.
It was even harder to ignore the chaos that was building inside the office. The lack of organization was rampant. There was no companywide database for subscriptions; all the information was stored in Excel spreadsheets that were emailed back and forth. Staff meetings were few and far between, with little communication taking place despite our close quarters. Jacobson’s demands were erratic and always urgent, and often had no clear connection to the publication, including shipping framed paintings via UPS and DHL. I left the office promptly at 5 p.m. every day, but the majority of the staff was still hard at work when I closed the doors.
Our creative and editorial director would throw explosive temper tantrums, then threaten to quit—a cycle repeated numerous times during my few months at the company. One time he actually did quit—demanding that the contents of his desk be messengered to him—only to get rehired without explanation. (“Life … is about perspective,” the director, Aaron Sigmond, said in a statement when contacted by POLITICO. “[My] discontent with Michael Jacobson and his financial advisers who controlled the company … stemmed from self-preservation of my professional standing that at that point I had spent over a decade building.”)
A few years before the real-estate crash, one Trump magazine cover story: “Bubble? What Bubble? Real Estate Tips from Trump U.”
Jacobson was himself a mystery, disappearing for days at a time without explanation. The office was frequently visited by his friend Billy K., an obese man who always carried a tiny Yorkie tucked under his arm, who had no official position, and whose presence was never explained. By then, the number of employees was rapidly decreasing. One at a time, the magazine’s longtime staffers—including Jacobson’s personal assistant, who had been with the company since its first day—found new jobs and left the company. Rumors began circulating about the state of Trump, and nobody was optimistic.
That’s about when our paychecks started to bounce.
The first time it happened, it seemed like an accident, or maybe an oversight. The office accountant quickly issued a new payment and covered the fee for the check bouncing. But then it happened again. And this time, the company didn’t reissue a check. Instead, I was handed a brown paper bag filled with hundred-dollar bills to cover for the company’s lack of payroll funds.
My paycheck bounced. Instead of reissuing it, they gave me a brown paper bag filled with hundred-dollar bills.
By then, I wanted to find a new job. But there was a big reason I couldn’t just walk out the door with everyone else. Five months into my employment, I had begun taking a lot of sick days—more than the company handbook outlined. I had to: I had been diagnosed with cancer.
It was thyroid cancer, which had a high success rate of treatment (two of my friends, in fact, had survived it and were happy and healthy). My real fear wasn’t even the cancer itself—it was that I would lose my health insurance before I had finished treatments. When I was diagnosed in mid-March 2007, I immediately met with Trump magazine’s human resources manager. Her advice? Get the treatments over with as quickly as I could, because she couldn’t promise medical coverage lasting beyond the next eight weeks.
So I did. The cancer had already progressed to Stage 3, and many of my parathyroids and lymph nodes had to be removed. I began radiation treatments and, fortunately, recovered quickly; I was going on job interviews while bandages were still visible on my throat. It was a surreal whirlwind—I barely had time to process that I had cancer, or that my company was going bankrupt, or any of the emotional aspects of the chaos that had become my life. All I cared about was getting through it.
The news of my diagnosis had quickly circulated around our small, anxious office, and, grateful for the support, I made no attempt to keep it a secret. Former colleagues who had moved on to new jobs called to ask how I was doing. But even though Jacobson knew what was happening, he never acknowledged my diagnosis. The only time he brought it up was when my mother flew to the city to visit; he told me I couldn’t leave the office to pick her up at the airport because I had “taken so much time off recently.” (Politico made repeated attempts to contact Jacobson for comment but could not reach him.)
Donald Trump at a Sept. 2006 gala celebrating Trump magazine going public.
Back at Trump, the office had progressed to full-blown dysfunction, with Jacobson disappearing for days at a time. After a few days out of pocket, he would suddenly reappear out of the blue, firing off a frenzy of emails—including memos to the staff assuring us everything would be fine—and issuing a series of orders for 20 media kits to advertise the company. This turned out to be impossible because we didn’t have any ink or paper with which to print them.
In the fall of 2006, the company had gone public, and just a few months later, the phones were now ringing off the hook with concerned stockholders demanding to know about their shares in the company. Then came the creditors. Premiere Publishing, it became clear, owed money all over town. At least once, the electricity was cut off; with no lights to work by, we sat in a circle on the floor like a group therapy session.
Eviction notices began to show up. I knew because they didn’t go to Jacobson—they came to me, the receptionist. I had to sign forms confirming I’d received the notices from our landlord, but it was impossible to pass them along to Jacobson because I couldn’t find him. In September 2007, the company was forced into bankruptcy by its creditors. By then, Securities and Exchange Commission records show, the company owed Trump $270,000 in unpaid license fees—a small fraction of the more than $7 million it owed it total—and rather than bail out the company, Trump severed his licensing agreement with Jacobson and moved on, relaunching Trump with a new publisher. He bragged to the New York Times that he wasn’t putting any money in up front with that version of the magazine, either. In the six months I worked there, I never met or spoke with Donald himself, and he never came to the office.
Surgery over, radiation over, bandages off, I resumed my job search and quickly found a new position. But it turned out I wasn’t free of Trump magazine yet. It found one last way to affect my life.
In an effort to keep up the illusion that I worked for a functioning company, I gave Trump magazine two weeks’ notice, only to be informed that my employment had been immediately terminated and that I could pack my things and go. My new job didn’t offer benefits until after my first 90 days of employment. This was no small matter: I needed health coverage to continue seeing my surgeon and endocrinologist every few weeks—and to fill a prescription for the synthetic thyroid hormone I have to take every day as well as the various supplements I’ve been prescribed to counter the long-lasting side effects of radiation treatment. So I wrote a hefty check for my first month of COBRA and was assured by Premiere Publishing that I would have the option of continuing it for the next 90 days.
But as with so many other promises Jacobson made, he broke this one as well. A few weeks later, he emailed me to say Premiere had been declared insolvent and that my medical coverage through UnitedHealthCare had been terminated. My COBRA check would be returned, he said, and he “strongly recommended me finding a new carrier for my personal insurance needs.” He said he was sorry for the inconvenience.
Because of Trump magazine, I was a cancer patient without health coverage.
I had four days to find a new insurance plan—which proved impossible. Because of Trump magazine, I was a cancer patient without health coverage. And since that cancer could be classified as a pre-existing condition, I was worried it could threaten my ability to obtain health coverage from new employers for the rest of my life. (My new employer’s plan, for instance, required a lapse in health care of 60 days or less; mine was 64.) And there was another complication—despite having cleared everything with the insurance company in advance, I was belatedly denied coverage for my thyroid removal and received a bill nearly equal to my annual salary. Eventually, I fought the insurance company and got them to cover the procedure. But sorting out the mess took months, left me frantic and stressed, and depleted what little was left of my savings.
When Trump talks about using bankruptcy law as a business tool—“I used the law,” he said in a debate last September, “and made a tremendous thing. I’m in business. I did a very good job.”—he doesn’t talk about the people that bankruptcy can leave behind.
Trump magazine may have been merely a licensing deal for him, but it was also the aggregation of everything he held dear: a magazine with his name (and often his image) on the cover, a luxurious fantasy wrapped in cover shots of Trumpish opulence. The people who actually put out the magazine—people like me—were left in the dust. The lack of accountability and responsibility was infuriating.
As a candidate, Trump has built his campaign on his success as a businessman, boasting about his successful deals, the jobs he claims he has created and his personal wealth. But in the case of Trump magazine, he licensed his name to an inept and irresponsible businessman who broke promises, put its staff out on the street, and left a cancer patient without health care. Almost 10 years have passed since this took place. It has left me hoping that come Nov. 8, Donald Trump will add another item to his long list of failures.