Donald Trump loves Silvio Berlusconi. I met the unlikely front runner for the Republican nomination on Tuesday evening at the US Open in Flushing Meadows, New York, and for the first time he opened up about something that, according to many, should be embarrassing. But, as is his custom, he went on the attack. Trump has been criticized, ridiculed, for being materialistic, womanizing and superficial like Berlusconi. Even more, for being “Trumpusconi”—the name given to him a couple of months ago by Frank Bruni, a New York Times commentator and former correspondent in Rome. Back then, it seemed that Trump was just a temporary joke candidate. Bruni wrote: “It is a comedy, it is a tragedy. Now, please, can you leave us in peace?”
But Trump is Trump, he understands that going against the grain, that talking about excessive “political correctness,” about women or about dangerous Mexicans is his strength. And so, talking about Berlusconi, he couldn't help but express his admiration and praise—with sincerity. “Do you like Berlusconi?” I asked him. He stopped for a moment, changing the tone of his voice, infusing it with determination: “I like him. I like him. He is a good person. I like Italy too. My best to all of you folks in Italy,” he says, speaking loud and clear into the tape recorder.
I meet Trump at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the central court of the US Open where the Williams sisters were playing in the quarterfinals. He was just a few boxes over. He was sitting next to his wife Melania, close up and unmistakable: blue suit and red tie, strangely ‘perfect' hair style. The evening was a memorable one, with the game between the Williams sisters. But for Italians, the day was important for other reasons, both sport and business. Italy's women tennis players, for one, did great, Roberta Vinci is in the semifinals, and the day after is Flavia Pennetta, a boost that Italian tennis has not seen for some time. Then, there was this: among the dozens of brands sponsoring the US Open—from JP Morgan Chase, to IBM and Mercedes—for the first time there was an Italian brand, Lavazza, which set up many espresso and cappuccino cafés all over the tennis complex aimed at making itself better known in this market, as it has already done with cultural initiatives at the Guggenheim (a Burri exhibit is in the works) and with philanthropic and environmental projects. The stadium is full. Serena Williams wins the match in three sets. Now she can hope for a Grand Slam record, like Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court and Steffi Graf, the only women that ever won four major international tournaments in the same season.
In the stands were all kinds of celebrities, from Oprah Winfrey to Kim Kardashian and Anna Wintour, actors, former soccer players, rappers. And Trump. When the cameras look for him, the reaction is mixed: whistling and applause. But for sure it is the strongest when measured in decibels. It is surprising that he came to the quarter finals when he should be busy with the electoral campaign. But the ability to relax, to enjoy himself when and how he wants is in his DNA. And as for those who accuse him of racism, he has an indirect answer: he knows the Williams sisters, he appreciates their success and wants to recognize them. A point for him in the African-American community. It is hard to say how far Trump will go. Until yesterday, I had known him only indirectly. His former wife, Ivana, had been linked years ago with the late Roffredo Gaetani d'Aragona, an influential Italian celebrity in New York. When I saw them, privately, she always had words of admiration for her ex-husband, something uncommon among divorced couples. For what I could see the other evening, his relation with his current wife is intimately relaxed. Again, in character: hard with enemies, forever warm and loyal with friends, former lovers, ex-wives. This, in an era of ethical uncertainty, makes him likable. But there is also the dark side of Trump, which we have not yet touched upon. His friendship with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier accused of abuse of minors, the organizer of parties that involved Prince Edward of England. Before Epstein's guilty verdict, a few years ago, the two of them often went together to Palm Beach for wild days and nights (Trump then, in 2005, was not married). Those who know him well now tell me that the risk of dangerous leaks about those years worries him more than any other political attack.
But the other night, he was just relaxing, with minimal security around him, the door to his box unlocked. We went in, he was talking with friends, on the tables the junk food you can find in any Stadium in the world, but there was also a wonderful bowl of berries. I saw his famous security guard, who became front page news in the New York Times for manhandling journalists. Luckily, everything went well, before and after, during a meeting at the end of the match. I asked Giuseppe Lavazza, chairman of the company and busy with several American reporters (the company denies it, but there are rumors of a possible IPO) if he is surprised to see Trump calmly sitting and watching a tennis match when he should be managing a complex campaign for the US presidency: “I always found politics a separate world, very difficult to understand—Lavazza told me—I already find it difficult to interpret Italian politics, I certainly would not dare try with American politics. But I can tell you something I know for sure: If Trump drank a coffee tonight, it was 100 percent Lavazza.”
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