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Encore: This Is Where Donald Trump Learned How To Beat The System


Donald Trump might appear to be a man who doesn't play by the rules, but he is actually more calculated than many give him credit for. In a piece we previously aired, we go back to Trump's childhood to military school. NPR's Ailsa Chang says it was a place where kids learned to follow the rules.


AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: What Donald Trump was famous for before military school was breaking the rules. Long before buildings would be named after him, schoolmates borrowed the Trump name for this.

PAUL ONISH: We used to refer, our detention, as a DT, a Donny Trump.

CHANG: Why was that?

ONISH: Because he got more of them than most other people in the class.

CHANG: That's Paul Onish, Trump's grade-school friend. They both got in trouble constantly, talking out of turn during class, passing notes, throwing spit balls and goofing off on the soccer team.

ONISH: There was even a couple of incidences during halftime when we would eat whole oranges, without peeling them, in front of the competition to show them how tough we really were.

CHANG: OK, so this was the 1950s. This kind of stuff was embarrassing for Trump's well-to-do parents in Jamaica Estates, Queens. So before eighth grade, his father sent him, literally, up the river to New York Military Academy in the Hudson Valley.


CHANG: Colonel Ted Dobias remembers the tall, lanky kid who showed up at his dormitory.

COLONEL TED DOBIAS: He didn't know how to make a bed. He didn't know how to shine his shoes. He had a problem, you know, with being a cadet. You know, being a cadet, you've got to take care of yourself.

CHANG: And Trump, the cadet, didn't quite know how at first. Dobias had a reputation for being one of the school's toughest instructors, and he made it clear to Trump he didn't care who his daddy was.

DOBIAS: When he got out of line, he got the same treatment like everybody else. His name was Donald Trump, like Johnny Jones, you know? And that was all the same. Nobody was different.

CHANG: New York Military Academy is tucked in a small speck of a town called Cornwall on Hudson. Arriving here is like stepping back in time. Antique cannons squat on green fields. Buildings date back to the 1800s.

MASTER SERGEANT FLETCHER BAILEY: Wright Hall was a dormitory at one time. It's not being used now.

CHANG: Master Sergeant Fletcher Bailey gave me a tour of the grounds on a chilly autumn day.

BAILEY: This is Jones Barracks, which is a dormitory.

CHANG: Back in Trump's day, cadets would wake up near the crack of dawn, hurry into their uniforms and march in formation to breakfast. First-year cadets had to eat their meals squared off, lifting their forks in a right-angle path into their mouths. And after breakfast, they'd scurry back to clean their rooms for inspection. Colonel Dobias says it was a place where kids who didn't like following the rules learned to like it.

DOBIAS: It's a hell of a thing for a kid to, you know, go to military school, especially when they had to say, yes, sir, no, sir, had to learn how to salute, how to do about-face, how to march, how to carry a gun.

CHANG: But instead of recoiling from the discipline, Trump thrived under it. Mike Kabealo, a classmate, says in the confines of these rigid rules, Trump wanted to be a standout.

MIKE KABEALO: Cocksure, positive and anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better kind of stuff, you know? He was very competitive.

CHANG: And friends say Trump channeled that competitiveness into everything at military school. When he was in charge of the rifle rack, he cleaned the rifles obsessively. He was meticulous about his uniform. When it was his turn to do inspections in the barracks, he whipped other cadets into shape. Ted Levine was Trump's roommate.

TED LEVINE: My bed wasn't really made right. And he ripped it.

CHANG: Trump tore Levine's sheets right off. His bed hadn't passed muster.

LEVINE: Then I lost it (laughter). I totally lost it. So I think I hit him with a boot and a broomstick. And he came back at me, and...

CHANG: With the broomstick.

LEVINE: No, with his hands. He was bigger than me. And it took three people to get him off me (laughter).

CHANG: Levine was 4-foot-11, Trump, 6-2. In the pecking order of young boys, that size gave him authority. Trump became captain of the baseball team, and Colonel Dobias was his coach.

DOBIAS: He was very coachable, yes. If I told him to do this, he'll do it. If I told him to do it the other way, he'll do it that way. So that's what made him a good baseball player. He accepted criticism. He wanted to be best, not better.

CHANG: And then there were the girls - so many girls - visiting on Sundays.

GEORGE WHITE: Extremely attractive, well-dressed women.

CHANG: Classmate George White still cannot forget them.

WHITE: The type of women who were coming up to see him or he was bringing were definitely from the upper levels of New York society. I mean, I remember there were so many, it was a revolving door.

CHANG: Trump was voted ladies' man in his senior yearbook. His friends say he cared about his hair even then, growing it to the maximum length regulations would allow so it would look fuller. And Trump had this way of laughing when others spoke. It used to get on White's nerves.

WHITE: It made you feel like he was separating himself from you that made you feel like there was an air of superiority - just enough of a signal that he was laughing at you.

CHANG: As his roommate Levine says, maybe it was that quality that made it difficult to get close to Trump.

LEVINE: I don't think he had a handful of loyalists, you know, because he was so competitive that everybody who could come close to him he had to destroy.

CHANG: But now, 50 years later, Levine says he and the other guys still kind of admire Trump. Today, Levine's office is littered with Donald Trump knickknacks like this talking doll.

DONALD TRUMP: (As Donald Trump doll) This one's easy for me. You're fired.

LEVINE: So I go back to these, and there's one favorite one I have.

CHANG: Sometimes, Levine says, the Donald gives him guidance about how to run his packaging business.

Wait, wait, wait, so you really squeeze this doll for advice?

LEVINE: Once in a while, yes. I just - it's reinforcement, positive reinforcement of true values that are very important for businessman.

CHANG: Values like winning, how to fight back and win.

TRUMP: (As Donald Trump doll) Never give up under any circumstances. Never give up.

CHANG: Well, Levine says he didn't learn that one of from Trump. They both learned that in military school. Ailsa Chang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.