Four decades before President Donald Trump grasped French President Emmanuel Macron for almost half a minute, he experienced what for him was a life-changing handshake.
Around 1978, Trump, then still near the start of his real estate career, visited a businessman named Walter Hoving to make a deal. Hoving was chairman of Tiffany & Co., and Trump wanted to buy the air rights to the Tiffany building adjacent to the site in New York City on which he was planning to build Trump Tower. Trump called Hoving and the businessman agreed to meet with him. After presenting scale models of Trump Tower to Hoving, the businessman agreed to sell the air rights for $5 million. The two shook on it.
But Hoving then told Trump that he was about to go away and would need to revisit the matter later. “Immediately I started to get nervous,” Trump wrote in his 1987 book Trump: The Art of the Deal, which described the account. He told Hoving, “If for some reason you change your mind while you’re away, I’ll have done a great deal of architectural work and zoning work which I’ll just have to throw out.”
The remark seemed to insult Hoving, Trump wrote. “Young man,” he recalled Hoving saying, “perhaps you didn’t understand. I shook your hand. I made a deal with you. That’s that.”
Until that moment, Trump wrote, he had been used to dealing with people in real estate “with whom you don’t want to waste the effort of a handshake because you know it’s meaningless. I’m talking about the lowlifes, the horror shows with whom nothing counts but a signed contract.” But hearing how seriously Hoving took their handshake, Trump wrote, made him realize he “was dealing with a totally different type—a gentleman who was genuinely shocked at any suggestion that he might renege on a deal.”
From then on in his real estate career, shaking hands became an essential part of closing deals. Later in The Art of the Deal, he wrote about using a handshake to seal a deal with Leonard Kandell, who owned the land under which Trump Tower now sits. By 1985, he was already calling people out on their own handshake etiquette. When a team from Hilton, the hotel company, was backing away from an agreement, Trump wrote, he decided he would try to “shame them” by saying: “How could they shake my hand and then not stand by the commitment?” It worked, according to Trump, and the parties reached a compromise.
Maybe Trump shook too many hands. By the late 1990s, he had developed an aversion to the practice. “One of the curses of American society is the simple act of shaking hands,” he wrote in 1997’s Trump: The Art of the Comeback, “and the more successful and famous one becomes, the worse this terrible custom seems to get.” He added that he was “a clean hands freak” who washed his hands “as much as possible.”
Soon after, in 1999, when Trump was considering running for president on the Reform Party ticket, as New York magazine noted years ago, Stone Phillips of Dateline asked him how he would campaign without shaking hands.
Maybe we’ll change something there. Look, if I have to do it, I do it. I’m not a big fan, that when I’m having dinner, and I’m eating, and I’m ready to pick up a roll or something, and a guy walks out of a bathroom and says, Mr. Trump, I’m a big fan of yours, can I shake your hand? Now the good news is you don’t eat the roll, that’s the good news, OK? Because it’s always positive. But, you know, I am not a big fan of the handshake. I think it’s barbaric. They have medical reports all the time. Shaking hands, you catch colds, you catch the flu, you catch it, you catch all sorts of things. Who knows what you don’t catch?
That same year, Newsweek doubted whether he could ever become president, given that aversion. “It’s a barbaric custom,” he told Newsweek at the time. “I see people coming out of the bathroom, and they want to shake my hand.” He echoed those comments in otherinterviews that year.
The aversion stuck. In his 2004 book Trump: How To Get Rich, Trump wrote, “In politics, you usually have to watch your words. I’m too blunt to be a politician. Then, there’s my long-held aversion to shaking hands.” Later in the book, in an entire chapter (one page) devoted to that distaste, he repeated a version of what he had previously told reporters.
Some business executives believe in a firm handshake. I believe in no handshake. It is a terrible practice. So often, I see someone who is obviously sick, with a bad cold or the flu, who approaches me and says, “Mr. Trump, I would like to shake your hand.” It’s a medical fact that this is how germs are spread. I wish we could follow the Japanese custom of bowing instead.
The worst is having to shake hands during a meal. On one occassion, a man walked out of the restaurant’s bathroom, jiggling his hands as though they were still wet and hadn’t used a towel. He spotted me, walked over to my table, and said, “Mr. Trump, you’re the greatest. Would you please shake my hand?” […] In this case, I decided to shake hands, because I was a little overweight at the time and knew that if I shook his hand I wouldn’t eat my meal—and that would be a good thing.
But by the time he hit the campaign trail after announcing in 2015 that he would run for president, his perspective changed yet again. And after the election, the world took notice. He yanked the hands (and arms) of Vice President Mike Pence and Supreme Court Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch; he held and stroked the hand of adviser Peter Thiel; he clasped Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hand for so long that the foreign official appeared to sigh afterward. In May, Macron, the French president, seemed to want to beat Trump at his own game, resulting in a white-knuckled clutch between the two leaders.
— CNN (@CNN) July 14, 2017
Then on Friday came an even more bizarre handshake between Trump and Macron. It lasted about 29 seconds and involved patting, pulling, walking-while-holding, “bro” grasping and shaking the “bro” grasp side to side. When it seemed as if the clutch couldn’t get weirder, Trump took the hand of Macron’s wife, Brigitte, in his left palm, resulting in a triple-shake.
One can only wonder if all those years ago Trump yanked Hoving’s arm, or if Hoving yanked his.