Interview: Donald Trump on his guiding forces of work, willpower and women

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Determined, aggressive, bullish ... but also decent and kind; a loyal friend. Is it possible to get under the skin – and comb-over – of Donald Trump?

YOU could interview for 50 years and not come across two Donald Trumps. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I met him first in 2008 when he visited Aberdeen for the public inquiry into his controversial plan to build a golf course, hotel and 500 houses on the Menie estate – a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Two years later, the memory still prompts a smile.

The Donald (first wife Ivana added the definite article in front of his name once and it stuck – this Donald is a very definite article indeed), swept into the inquiry to give evidence. But he didn't face the formalities in the usual way. Instead, he took hold of a chair, turned it back to front and sat astride it as if it were a horse, his arms resting along the back. Who does that? A man at ease in his own skin, I suppose, who doesn't like to toe convention's line. Not that he wasn't respectful. One unfortunate questioner who bumblingly doubted the American billionaire property tycoon's acumen was shrivelled by a quiet, but icily polite retort. "Nobody has ever told me I don't know how to buy property. I appreciate your advice."

Afterwards, he strode purposefully towards the outer door, his entourage flapping behind him, creating the kind of buzz normally associated with royalty. His schedule had collapsed and his private jet was now waiting to whisk him back to New York. "Mr Trump?" It felt a bit like pulling the emergency cord on a train. He stopped. The entourage stopped.

I kept my hands pinned firmly to my side because Donald Trump notoriously dislikes the germ risk of shaking hands. (A man once asked him to in a restaurant, having just come from the toilets and "jiggling his hands like they were still wet". On reflection, Trump decided to shake anyway. "I was a little overweight and knew that if I shook his hand I wouldn't eat my meal.") But this time, it was actually The Donald who put out his hand. I was supposed to be interviewing him, I told him. He promised to reschedule it and, somehow, I believed he would keep his word. Why didn't I come to New York, he said, which is presumably the way the world works for billionaire tycoons. I resisted the urge to say, give me a lift then.

Two years later, a 4x4 is sweeping me over the rutted tracks of white sand where the golf course will hug the coastline. The machinery is finally moving in. After a protracted start, permission has been granted by the Scottish Government. Protesters say politicians have sold out the environment for the sake of jobs. But Trump and his project manager son, Donald Jr, claim it's the most environmentally sensitive enterprise in the whole of Europe because it has come under such intense scrutiny.

The famous 100ft sand dunes will be left intact and have, they say, been shored up rather than left to the vagaries of the weather which could eventually have destroyed them. This was a stretch of land few people ever visited, Trump claims. And it was a shooting estate. "Dead animals," he told the inquiry two years ago. "Some people might be into that – I'm not."

Cold, brittle, October sunshine on jewelled white sand; a rolling stretch of undulating green hills peppered with higgledy-piggledy houses and outbuildings nestling in the contours of the land. In the distance, a huddle of buildings can be seen that belong to Michael Forbes, one of Trump's main opponents, who has refused to sell his land. Trump, in his ebullient way, described Forbes' land as "a slum".

It was not his finest PR moment. People didn't take kindly to a billionaire American jetting in to a rural corner of Scotland, making disparaging remarks about a collection of buildings on a hillside that didn't fit with his idea of an upmarket golf resort.

In fact, maybe there has been as much resistance to "big shot" syndrome as there has been to environmental changes. Today, those around Trump say privately that only the government makes compulsory purchase orders, not Trump International, and if Forbes declines to sell they will most likely work round him.

The Scottish Government, says Trump, has supported him strongly. In the preliminary stages, Aberdeenshire Council turned down his planning application. "I give the Scottish Executive a lot of credit. They called me and really wanted me to continue going forward. I said, 'Are you kidding? I just lost. I don't like to lose.' They said, 'No, you'll win.' They didn't want me to leave. They knew what we were doing was right, that it was going to create a lot of jobs and maybe, most importantly, that it was going to be great in terms of the psyche of Scotland because it's going to be really special."

How personally involved was the First Minister? "I have a lot of respect for Alex Salmond. He's a strong man who loves Scotland above all else. I know he wanted the project to happen because it was good for Scotland."

The Menie estate is beautiful. It is right that questions be asked about environmental impact here. But now they have been asked, answered and decided. The question people still have is, who is this man Trump really? He seems like a caricature. He talks in excesses. The best property developer on Earth. The best golf course in the world. The best, the best, the best. The New York Post claims he is such an intense self-publicist he even put fliers for his golf courses in his daughter's wedding invitations. But is Donald Trump all bluster or is there substance too? He did, after all, once write a book in which he entitled one of the chapters: "Bullshit Will Only Get You So Far."

Trump's sister Maryanne is a quietly spoken woman, deceptively gentle given that she is an American appeal court judge. People say Donald listens to her. "I'm his fan and he's mine," she says. "There's mutual respect." Her assessment of her brother captures both her love for him and his apparent contradictions. "People don't know how nice he is. He's a good, decent, kind man. He's also tough and aggressive." Good friend, formidable enemy.

Sean Connery spoke in favour of the Menie development and Trump now describes him as a wonderful man and a wonderful actor at every opportunity. That's just Trumpland. If Connery had spoken against, he would have been the biggest schmuck in the history of movies. Trumpland philosophy is simple. "When somebody hurts you," he once wrote, "go after them as viciously and as violently you can."

Yet in person, Trump is very charming and quite warm. "I'm a much nicer person than people think," he says, echoing his sister's words. We're in an office in Menie Lodge. Trump stays in rooms above the office rather than in some five-star hotel when he's in Scotland. He is more controlled in his responses than you might imagine, and funnier, with a dry humour that is occasionally turned on himself. (You haven't asked about my hair, he chides. Do I want to tug it to prove it's his own? I don't need to. The Aberdeenshire wind has buffeted it and the normally immaculate coiffeur is straggly. Frankly, he'd have got his money back by now if it was a rug.)

Brisk, though. Little patience for staying still. "Next question," he has a habit of saying. "Go ahead …" As soon as he starts one task, you suspect he's mentally moved on to the next already. As a child, he was always on the go. "He was a typical boy, always getting into scrapes," says Maryanne. A good athlete, too, using up energy and constantly running home hungry, hollering for a lettuce, tomato and mustard sandwich from his mother Mary Anne, who was originally a MacLeod from Stornoway. When Maryanne invites Donald for dinner, it is their mother's food she cooks. "She was a wonderful lady with a wicked sense of humour," she says.

"She left Stornoway when she was 19," explains Trump, "and went to New York to seek fame and fortune and the second day she met my father, who became a very successful builder." An unusual move for a young woman in those days. "Very unusual and it tells you she had great imagination. She was 5ft 11 inches tall and a great beauty, actually. She and my father were married for 63 years. They had one of the few really good marriages I have ever seen. You don't see too many of them."

Trump's grandparents were from Germany. His father, Fred, passed on the work ethic that made him so successful to his own children. "We all worked at summer and weekends," says Maryanne. "Dad, can I have a dollar? Well, take the garbage can out."

Trump wanted to prove himself rather than simply work for his father. "I think I wanted to create my own niche and that was very important to me. Much as I loved my father, I am very competitive. But of all the people, my father was proudest of my success. I have seen fathers virtually disown their sons if they become more successful because they can't take it but he was so proud. He always bragged about me."

Trump's mother died just four years before he bought the Menie estate. It is Mary Anne, who returned every year to her native land, who is perhaps the emotional fuel for this project. The problem with Trump is that he makes everything – even his mother's Scottish connections – sound like a PR puff but, in fact, his feelings about his mother are said to run deep. He spoke earlier about the project being good for the Scottish psyche but in his bullish presentation of himself, is the Scottish psyche perhaps the one thing he has failed to understand?

"I don't think so. I have a great connection because of my mother, who was a great Scot. I don't feel like an interloper. I don't feel that people see me as an outsider." He doesn't work for money. He works "for the artistry". "And in this case I do it because my mother was such a lover of Scotland and doing something, and giving something back to Scotland, is my honour."

Trump may appear to reticent Scots to be an adherent of the bull-in-the-china-shop school of management but, interestingly, he actually spends three hours a day reading and has a particular interest in psychology, particularly the work of Carl Jung. "The mind is the whole ball game," he says. "You have to be intelligent, understand people's feelings. You can't just be a flame-throwing maniac. This project was a very delicate negotiation, very delicate balance, and ultimately I got a lot of environmental groups on our side."

Is he as arrogant as people assume? "No, I am not arrogant. I am short. It's very hard for me to accept incompetence, whether it's in politics or business." He thinks power is the best test of a man's character. "I have seen a lot of people with power over the years and some of them, the power went to their heads. In almost all cases, those people failed ultimately. I've seen other people with tremendous power who kept their equilibrium and they seemed to be successful for far longer."

Money is one of life's ultimate powers and Trump has an impressive portfolio of properties, hotels and casinos. But sometimes, he has been accused of inflating his personal wealth to help create his brand. What's he really worth? "The magazines say I am worth two and a half billion to six billion dollars. Am I worth more than that? I don't know. It's hard to say. It depends what value you put on properties but I can say I have great properties – nobody has better."

In the early 1990s, his business almost collapsed and he owed over $900 million. But he held his nerve, made deals with the banks and recovered his fortune. His house in New York is simply an extraordinary fantasy: a 50-room, gold-encrusted triplex on the 68th floor of Trump Tower, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a 360-degree view over the city. Onyx walls. Crystal chandeliers. But is there anything in life he would like that money can't buy?

"Oh yeah … look, money does not make you happy. It makes your life easier. You don't have to worry about education for your kids or medical expenses." Being poor must be "brutal", he says. Being rich is better. "But I have known many wealthy people who are unhappy." What makes them so? "I think because they are a certain type of person to begin with. They are extremely driven and very highly motivated and that makes life harder in a certain way."

He could be describing himself, couldn't he – at 64, still driven and highly motivated? "I am but I am not motivated for the sake of motivation. I just like what I'm doing. I am highly driven and, at the same time, I sometimes wonder why. What's the purpose? You kick the bucket, your kids take over … who knows what happens."

Next question. The thoughtful Trump is more interesting than the braggard. But just when he gets serious he throws in some kind of advert about himself or his business to tilt control back from his vulnerability to his strength. His life, though, has had the same emotional ups and downs as anyone else's. He lost brother Fred to alcoholism, an event that had a huge effect on him.

"He was a great guy, handsome, a fabulous personality. He taught me a lot. He would always tell me, don't drink, don't smoke. He had everything going for him but ultimately the alcohol got him." Trump doesn't drink. "I am a very excessive person," he admits, "or I wouldn't be saying, 'Let's build the best golf course in the world.' I'd just say, 'Let's go to some little course somewhere.' I have little doubt that if I had drunk, I would have been a dead drinker – but I have no interest."

Trump has been married three times. His first marriage, to Ivana, in 1977 produced three children, Donald, Ivanka and Eric. His second, to Marla Maples in 1993, brought him a daughter, Tiffany, and he also has a four-year-old son, Barron, with current wife Melania. All good women, he says. Does it feel like a failure that he couldn't achieve what his parents did? "No, because life is very complex. You have a series of things that don't go your way but it doesn't mean you are a failure. But certainly a marriage that doesn't work is a devastating thing. When I told my parents I was first getting a divorce they didn't even know what I was talking about."

What has he learned about women? "I love women but they are very complex and in certain ways that's much more difficult to me than business. Business has come much easier to me than the personal. The problem with the personal is my business takes over. It's like the second wife, almost. I have a great wife, Melania, who understands me well. She really does allow me to do my business thing."

Work is "his business, his hobby and his vacation", agrees his son Donald Jr, though his father still likes going to sport games. "When we were children and spent time with him, we didn't necessarily go round the backyard and play football. We followed him on job sites so we grew up very much in the business. Maybe that's why we are passionate about what we do as his children."

There is a forthright quality to the Trumps. "We always joked in our family," says Donald jnr, "that if you didn't speak up, you probably wouldn't have made it past a couple of years because you would have starved." Does he feel intimidated by his father's success? "I am pretty comfortable with who I am and what I do. I guess if my aspirations were to surpass him in some way it would be daunting but I don't really think of it in those terms."

Trump Sr has recently said he is considering running for US President as a Republican candidate. "I haven't made any decision but I am certainly thinking about it. It's a decision I would rather not make but I see what is happening in the United States and it is not positive. A lot of people want me to do it." What motivates him politically? "Only to do the right thing for the United States."

He believes in God (and recognises he's not Him), says we can't all be going through this for nothing. He says a person must be guided by conscience. So how will he be judged? "I have put a lot of people to work. I have helped a lot of people through school and medical problems. I think I'll be judged well. I've been fair. I've done a good job. I have done quality stuff."

Next question. Go ahead. He is itching to escape. "You've given me a headache with all your questions," he says. But before we release him back into Trumpland, is he frightened of anything? "I guess you can always say yes but I like to think no. We are here for a short period of time, a speck, and then we go."

He isn't even frightened of the going? "I don't like the concept of it because I enjoy what I am doing but that is one thing I have no choice over. What's to be frightened of?"

Then he kisses me politely – he must be on a diet again – puts a baseball cap over the windswept locks, and bolts.