It was January 2004 and Donald Trump was on the “Today Show” to promote a new reality TV series called “The Apprentice.”
Almost immediately after the interview began, Trump started bragging about the unparalleled intellect of the contestants who would compete for a job at one of his companies.
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“These are 16 brilliant people. I mean, they have close to 200 IQs, all of them,” he told Matt Lauer. “And some may be beautiful and some may not be beautiful. But everybody has an incredible brain.”
It wasn’t the first time Trump fixated on IQ as a measure of a person’s worth — or, as is frequently the case, worthlessness. And it wouldn’t be the last. Fifteen years later, Trump, now the president of the United States, still uses IQ as a shorthand for intelligence, dividing the people in his orbit into winners and losers.
In private, according to interviews with a half-dozen people close to him, Trump frequently asserts that people he likes have genius-level IQs. At various points during his presidency, he’s told aides that Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson and Apple CEO Tim Cook are high-IQ individuals, for example, former White House officials said. Trump has also dubbed himself a “very stable genius” on multiple occasions.
And the president is quick to accuse his political enemies of having low IQs, as he did when he repeated North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s criticism of former Vice President Joe Biden, one of his leading Democratic challengers.
“I was actually sticking up for Sleepy Joe Biden while on foreign soil. Kim Jong Un called him a ‘low IQ idiot,’ and many other things, whereas I related the quote of Chairman Kim as a much softer ‘low IQ individual,’” Trump said Tuesday after the Biden campaign criticized him for tweeting during his trip to Japan that he smiled when Kim insulted Biden’s intelligence.
While the exact reason for Trump’s IQ obsession is difficult to nail down, people who know him suspect it stems in part from his desire to project an image of success and competence, despite scattered business failings and repeated allegations from critics that he’s incompetent. Trump is also known for being thin-skinned. He often fires back at anyone who criticizes him with a barrage of insults, while simultaneously building himself up.
“I don’t think you have to put him on the couch to see that someone who has such a consistent need to build himself up and belittle everyone else must have some problems with self-esteem,” said Trump biographer Gwenda Blair, who wrote a book about the Trump family. “It’s a lifelong theme for him.”
“Part of it comes from his insecurities about not being perceived as intelligent,” a former White House official added.
In recent years, Trump has accused Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), actor Robert De Niro, Washington Post staffers, former President George W. Bush, comedian Jon Stewart, Republican strategist Rick Wilson, MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, and Rick Perry, now his energy secretary, of having low IQs.
He once suggested he’d like to compare his IQ to that of then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, adding, “And I can tell you who is going to win.” He privately mocked former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ intelligence, according to a former White House official. All the while, Trump has claimed his Cabinet has the highest IQ of any assembled in history.
“Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault,” Trump tweeted in 2013.
Just last week, the president again referred to himself as an “extremely stable genius,” and he has spent years insisting has a high IQ score, though he has never revealed the exact number. When a Twitter critic challenged him in 2013 to prove his high IQ, Trump responded simply, “The highest, asshole!”
Democrats are increasingly fed up with Trump’s name calling, encouraging journalists to ignore it altogether and arguing it’s a sign that the president isn’t serious about policy or governing.
Trump has been obsessing over IQ and pedigree for decades, long before he moved to the White House. Barbara Res, a former Trump Organization official, recalled that Trump used to brag about one of his executives graduating from Yale Law School at the top of the class, even though Yale Law doesn’t rank its students. Trump later made the same false assertion about Brett Kavanaugh.
“He always used to say that he had a very high IQ,” Res added, recalling her decade-plus working alongside him.
Trump’s black-and-white view of intelligence was formed long before psychologists embraced a more nuanced definition of the term. In 1983, for example, developmental psychologist Howard Gardner put forward his theory of multiple intelligences, which stressed that people learn in many different ways and suggested IQ tests were too narrow.
“Measuring someone’s intelligence is not simply a matter of taking one test with a sharpened No. 2 pencil. Donald Trump came of age before that whole notion, for sure,” Blair said. “He’s still thinking in terms of that No. 2 pencil.”
Recently, however, IQ measurement has found increasing resonance among alt-right and white supremacist groups, who have linked IQ and race to argue for limits on immigration from certain ethnic groups.
Trump, who attended the Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania, has an affinity for people who graduated from prestigious universities.
He warmed up to his former staff secretary, Rob Porter, once he learned that Porter attended Harvard University and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, according to two people familiar with the matter. “This guy is so smart,” he’d sometimes tell other staffers of Porter. “He was a Rhodes Scholar!”
He was similarly impressed with the credentials of his two Supreme Court picks: Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. The president has regularly touted their Ivy League educations in conversations with allies, and White House aides believe attending a top-tier law school is one of Trump’s prerequisites for any future nominee to the high court.
Trump has also frequently mentioned his late uncle, a former physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calling him “a great, brilliant genius,” last year.
But Trump himself has long been reluctant to reveal any details about his own schooling. Trump’s longtime fixer Michael Cohen told lawmakers in February that his boss regularly instructed him to pressure the reality TV star’s alma maters with letters warning of jail time if they released Trump’s grades.
“I’m talking about a man who declares himself brilliant, but directed me to threaten his high school, his colleges and the College Board to never release his grades or SAT scores,” Cohen told the House Oversight Committee.
The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment, nor did it respond to an inquiry about Trump’s IQ score.
The president’s elitism stands in stark contrast to the central messages of his campaign, which promised to upend establishment Washington and sought to appeal to disaffected white working class voters. But Trump’s advisers say the dichotomy works in his favor, arguing that the president’s business experience and lavish lifestyle is one of the things that makes him appealing to his base.
“He’s a populist in a way, but he’s a populist only in terms of his policies,” said another former White House official. “His personal message has always had a real elitist flavor to it.”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this story.