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What we learned from Mary Trump's damning portrait of her uncle

Mary Trump, a licensed clinical psychologist, is open in her disapproval of her uncle's policies but also uses her knowledge of his childhood to paint a broader portrait of the man who became president.

The White House on Tuesday rejected most of her claims, and other members of the Trump family had attempted to prevent the book's publication, citing a non-disclosure agreement she signed during a dispute over her grandfather's will.

Father figure

In the book, Mary Trump casts her family's dysfunction as something out of Greek tragedy, with a once-overpowering patriarch reduced at the end of his life to being upbraided by his son -- the future president, whose entire career and mentality were shaped by him -- for over-dyeing his eyebrows.

The relationship between the President and his father, a first generation son of German immigrants, has always been a complicated and defining element of his public and private personas. Upon taking office, a black and white framed photograph of Fred Trump was the first -- and for a while, the only -- personal item Trump placed in the Oval Office behind the Resolute Desk (he has since added photos of his mother and wife).

Yet the centrality of Fred Trump Sr. to his son's life, both in his financial support and his emotional withholding, is laid bare for the first time by someone who both witnessed it firsthand and experienced its repercussions.

"He short-circuited Donald's ability to develop and experience the entire spectrum of human emotion," Mary Trump writes, describing father and son locked in deep psychological warfare. "By limiting Donald's access to his own feelings and rendering many of them unacceptable, Fred perverted his son's perception of the world and damaged his ability to live in it."

Mary Trump describes her uncle Donald as something of a proxy for her grandfather's long-sought but unachieved dreams, which she says he was prevented from obtaining for himself because of his still-accented English and his stoic character.

"In retrospect, Fred was the puppeteer, but he couldn't be seen pulling his son's strings," she writes. "Fred was willing to stake millions of dollars on his son because he believed he could leverage the skills Donald did have -- as a savant of self-promotion, shameless liar, marketer, and builder of brands -- to achieve the one thing that had always eluded him: a level of fame that matched his ego and satisfied his ambition in a way money alone never could."

Yet in his later life, she writes, Fred Trump was hardly repaid in kindness by the son he created and whose career he made possible. Instead, Mary Trump describes her uncle Donald treating his father with contempt as his Alzheimer's disease progressed.

"Whatever had once tied them together, Fred's remaining sons had given up all pretense of caring what their father thought or wanted," she writes. "Having served his father's purpose, Donald now treated him with contempt, as if his mental decline were somehow his own fault."

On Tuesday, the White House said the book's depiction of the President's relationship with his father was false.

"The President describes the relationship he had with his father as warm and said his father was very good to him," said deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews. "He said his father was loving and not at all hard on him as a child."

Character traits

Open in her opposition to Trump's presidency, Mary Trump identifies a number of characteristics in his governing style that can be traced to earlier episodes in his life. She frames his childhood as one lacking in proper parenting or displays of empathy, a pattern she says transferred onto his adult life and his tenure in office.

In more specific descriptions, she ties Trump's penchant for cozying up to authoritarian leaders to his early association with Roy Cohn, the controversial lawyer hired by the Trumps after they were accused by the Justice Department of refusing to rent apartments to African Americans.

She said Trump's affinity for Cohn -- and later dictators and strongmen -- stemmed again from his father.

"Fred had also primed Donald to be drawn to men such as Cohn, as he would later be drawn to authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un or anyone else, really, with a willingness to flatter and the power to enrich him," she writes.

Later, she describes the scene at family holiday gatherings as akin to Trump's current circle of advisers, who she says are in place only to appeal to the President's ego and feed his impulses.

At holiday gatherings, she says family members "formed a claque with one mission: to prop Donald up, follow his lead in conversation, and defer to him as though nobody was as important as he was."

"It was easier to go along for the ride," she says, likening the experience to West Wing advisers letting Trump be Trump: "Donald's chiefs of staff are prime examples of this phenomenon."

Insulated from the world through cheating

If there is one feature of Donald Trump's life that his niece traces from his earliest years, it is a persistent insulation from the world -- created, in part, she writes, by cheating and lies -- that allowed him to develop an inflated sense of his own self.

"Donald has, in some sense, always been institutionalized, shielded from his limitations or his need to succeed on his own in the world," she writes. "Honest work was never demanded of him, and no matter how badly he failed, he was rewarded in ways that are almost unfathomable."

That includes Trump's alleged efforts to cheat his way into college, which she claims involved paying someone else to take entrance exams, and his later efforts in business, which she says were propped up by Fred Trump's repeated financial backing, even when those businesses were failing.

The White House says the assertion Trump cheated on his SATs is false.

While she describes lying as endemic in her family, Mary Trump says Donald's penchant for "lying was primarily a mode of self-aggrandizement meant to convince other people he was better than he actually was."

"In Donald's mind, he has accomplished everything on his own merits, cheating notwithstanding," she writes.

Throughout, Mary Trump portrays the support Donald received from his father as critical to his attempts to create a brand for himself as a "master of the universe" with a preternatural ability for business.

She describes her grandfather's creation of Midland Associates in the 1960s, in which each of his children was given a 15% stake, as a way to avoid paying taxes on inheritance gifts. And she recounts a series of building transactions in which Fred Trump's company received massive government subsidies to construct housing projects at almost no cost, all while giving Donald Trump vague consulting positions and providing him with the credit and profits from the development.

Later, as one of Trump's casinos in Atlantic City was failing, she said her grandfather dispatched his chauffeur with $3 million to purchase chips as a way to bolster the establishment, though that wasn't enough to prevent the establishment from failing.

Women as objects

The President's objectification of women is a well-worn facet of his persona, from sexist remarks to his ownership of the Miss Universe beauty pageant. Additionally, more than a dozen women have shared stories alleging sexual misconduct by Trump, spanning from groping on planes to unwanted advances in the Trump Tower to rape in a department store.

Trump has strongly denied all the allegations.

From an early age, Trump received little by way of parenting from his mother, according to Mary Trump, who says the household was split along strict gender lines, even for the 1950s.

"It's clear that Fred and his wife were never partners," the book states. "The girls were her purview, the boys his."

Later, Trump and his father are described as sharing in a crude sensibility toward women, even in the months following the death of their brother and son: "Fred and Donald didn't act as if anything was different," she writes, "Their son and brother was dead, but they discussed New York politics and deals and ugly women, just as they always had."

In another instance, Mary Trump describes when, at age 12, her grandfather showed her a nude photo of a woman "who couldn't have been more than eighteen and might have been younger" he kept in his wallet.

" 'Look at this,' he had said, sliding the picture out of its slot," she writes.

Looking to her uncle Donald for a clue on how to respond, Mary Trump writes "he'd merely leered at the picture."

A few decades later, when Mary Trump was visiting her uncle at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, she says he reacted inappropriately when she arrived to lunch wearing a bathing suit: "Holy sh*t, Mary," he told his niece. "You're stacked."

Cruel and unfeeling

Central to Mary Trump's book is the downfall of her father, Fred Trump Jr., whose decline into depression and alcoholism was met with apparent disinterest by other members of her family. The culture of cruelty -- both casual and systematic -- continues to inform now-President Donald Trump's approach, she argues.

She describes her father's death from a heart attack at age 42 as a regretful episode that illustrated the dysfunctional family dynamics of her grandfather and uncle.

Despite having long-standing financial ties to nearby hospitals -- including a whole wing named for the Trump family at Jamaica Hospital -- no one sought medical help for her father, who had suffered from alcoholism and a faulty heart valve, for weeks as he was ailing in their family home.

"A single phone call would have guaranteed the best treatment for their son at either facility. No call was made," she writes.

When he did eventually get taken in an ambulance to the hospital, he went alone. Despite grave updates on his health, none of his family members went to be with him. Instead, she writes, Donald Trump and his sister Elizabeth went to the movies.

After Fred Jr.'s death, Mary Trump advocated for his ashes to be spread in Montauk instead of buried, a wish she said her father had voiced loudly when alive. But her grandfather refused, associating the wish with his son's passions for boating and fishing of which he disapproved. Instead, his ashes were buried in a family plot.

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