It was a made-for-TV storyline: A somber-faced Vince McMahon stepped into the wrestling ring and announced that, after agonizing deliberations, he was selling “Monday Night Raw.” The crowd went silent as the new owner beamed in via satellite, promising to present the show without commercials, crowing about his intelligence and even citing President Barack Obama as a reason to take the show in a new direction and “give back.”
“I, Donald Trump, am now the new sole owner of ‘Monday Night Raw,’” he said in 2009. “I’m going to do stuff that’s never been done before, that’s never been seen before.”
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The fake news came with a fake news release but had real consequences. The stock price of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. sharply dropped — more than 6 percent — and WWE had to quickly issue a mea culpa apologizing to investors. Scott Fried, a longtime wrestling journalist, said investors were skeptical of Trump’s ownership because of his bravado and tendency to exaggerate. And they were worried about losing their dividends and a change in ownership after 30 years of steadiness with the McMahon family.
“It said a lot about what investors saw as Donald Trump’s business acumen,” Fried said. “They just freaked out. I don’t think the average fan is an investor.”
Trump has a long relationship with professional wrestling and the McMahon family that dates back to the 1980s, and much of his relationship with the family parallels his surprising rise to the U.S. presidency. Now, Linda McMahon, Vince’s wife, is set to become head of Trump’s Small Business Administration, should she pass her upcoming confirmation hearing in Washington.
One person who knows the family well said Trump “is more of a Vince guy, but he likes Linda.” And while those close to Trump say his love of the professional wrestling world doesn’t spring from one particular place, his ties are extensive and enduring.
When he was looking to build out his communications staff last year, he leaned on the owners of another wrestling and fighting organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and recruited Steven Cheung, a UFC spokesman, as his rapid response director. Trump, turned out in a tux, joined the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013 after decades of appearances.
He still talks to Vince McMahon occasionally and praises the family’s business acumen and market strategy to others. WWE promotes Trump on its website, and its stock price has risen about 11 percent since Election Day. “In November 2016, Trump culminated his campaign against key contender Hillary Clinton and was elected into office as the 45th President of the United States — the first time in history a WWE Hall of Famer would ever hold the distinguishing title of U.S. Commander-in-Chief,” the website reads.
“I would say to him, we’re going to be the WWE of the primary with the smash-mouth adrenaline pumping,” said Sam Nunberg, a former campaign aide who met Trump for the first time at a wrestling match. “He loved the sensationalism, the drama, the fantasy. There are a lot of similarities between Vince McMahon and Trump.”
The relationship began in the 1980s, with Trump as an Atlantic City casino owner and what was then known as the WWF looking to pack tens of thousands of people into a ring for fake drama. The group held WrestleMania 4, part of its biggest series, in Atlantic City, near his hotel called the Trump Plaza, which later went bankrupt.
“Trump was trying to get his casinos on the map,” said Bruce Prichard, a former top WWE executive from 1987 to 2008 who also performed as Brother Love, a smarmy preacher character. “Donald had the space, the McMahons understood promotion, and he knew one hand washes the other.”
Trump soon had two different roles with WWE. He would lease out the space for events, but he would also sometimes appear in the ring, often cast as the hero to McMahon’s villainous character, Prichard said. There was the time he body-slammed McMahon, drawing wild applause, and then shaved McMahon’s head. There was the time “Stone Cold” Steve Austin kicked Trump in the groin before performing his signature move, “the stunner,” on Trump in the ring. There was the time he slammed McMahon over a table, again to the roar of the blue-collar crowd. There was the time hundreds of thousands of dollars fell from the ceiling into the scrambling arms of fans when Trump entered the arena.
“Of course the crowd was going to love him,” Prichard said. “Instead of dropping balloons, he dropped hundred-dollar bills on top of them.” The money came from WWE.
When he entered the WWE Hall of Fame, he strutted into the ceremony in a black bow tie, with two women on his arms wearing blazing-red dresses. “Money, money, money, money” was on the speakers, and dollar bills lit up behind a screen. He crowed about the “Battle of the Billionaires” and said “it has the ratings, and the highest pay-per-view of wrestling of any kind.”
“Next year, I will challenge Vince to a fight, and I will kick his ass if he wants,” Trump said in the Hall of Fame speech. His entire family sat in the front row dressed impeccably and smiling, just like they did during the campaign.
And even though he received some boos from the Madison Square Garden crowd during his induction speech, Trump reveled in the attention.
“Sorry losers and haters, but I LOVED the great energy in Madison Square Garden during my speech. The WWE thought it was incredible – it was!” Trump tweeted the next day at 6:25 a.m.
To blue-collar wrestling fans, he created the persona of the campaign trail. Trump connoted wealth and a no-guff, take-no-prisoners attitude, said Michael Axelrod, a Long Island fan, who added that he remembered few other billionaire-types jousting in the ring.
“People who go to wrestling matches don’t tend to like people who make more in one day than they make in their lifetimes,” Axelrod said. “But he didn’t take sh– from anyone and made his own rules, and people seem to like that in their wrestling characters.”
In wrestling terms, he was known as a “babyface,” or good guy, Axelrod said, adding he’d never seen him booed at a wrestling event. “I don’t think he would have liked getting booed,” Axelrod said.
Prichard said Trump was always happy to come on, and even travel, aware that it brought him publicity among the people who would buy his products and watch “The Apprentice.” Wrestling executives would send him lines and moves for his appearances, but he often changed them last-minute. Many of the guests are prima donnas, Prichard said, but Trump wasn’t. He wouldn’t shake hands because he was a germophobe but generally joked backstage with the performance crew, and Prichard said he would elbow Trump in the gut to make him shake hands.
Frequently, he would closely study the monitors in the production room, trying to read the crowd before he went onstage.
“A lot of people are real a–holes, but he wasn’t. I liked that son of a b–ch,” Prichard said. “He was better than anyone at reading the room. He loved to take the temperature of the room, and he loved the instantaneous feedback. He was really easy to work with.”
Prichard said he has a picture of Trump hanging in his office in Texas and thinks the president-elect would remember him, as they worked backstage together.
Axelrod, the Long Island wrestling fan, said he still thinks about Trump’s wrestling appearances when he sees Trump on TV. “I don’t think he’d be a good president, but he’s a worker,” Axelrod said, using a wrestling term for those who are good at scripted moments. “He is someone who can really manipulate a lot of people.”
During the 2013 ceremony, Trump told the crowd that being in the WWE Hall of Fame was a bigger honor than having the highest ratings in TV, being a best-selling author or getting a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
“I really do love you people,” he told the crowd.