Maureen Dowd: Interview with Mark Cuban, ‘Trump without the crazy’

‘He’s overselling all the time. Donald Trump is not a problem-solver’

Mark Cuban: Steve Bannon reportedly  identified him  as the No 1 threat for 2020 because he could appeal to Republicans and independents. Photograph: George Etheredge/The New York Times

Mark Cuban: Steve Bannon reportedly identified him as the No 1 threat for 2020 because he could appeal to Republicans and independents. Photograph: George Etheredge/The New York Times

 

If you want to know just how surreal things have got, consider this: in 2015, Donald Trump had to decide between playing the president in Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! and running to be the actual president. And it wasn’t an easy choice. A Sharknado producer got tired of waiting for Trump – he was the second choice, after Sarah Palin turned down the gig – to sign his contract. So the role was offered to Mark Cuban and Trump’s lawyer threatened to sue, the producer told the Hollywood Reporter.

Cuban ended up in the cinematic White House with the sharks circling, and Ann Coulter as his veep, and Trump ended up in the real White House with the sharks circling, and Ann Coulter as his frenemy. “I think it’s funny as hell, yeah,” Cuban says with a grin. Maybe deploying a shotgun and grenades to save the White House from a shower of sharks – while simultaneously starring on Shark Tank – gave Cuban the scent of chum in the Potomac. He puts the odds that he will challenge his fellow loud billionaire, master salesman and reality TV star in 2020 at 10 per cent – “maybe 11”. “I’m considering it, yes,” he tells me. “I would put the odds against it right now for family reasons, but there is still plenty of time.” A few weeks after Trump took office, the New York Post reported that Steve Bannon had identified Cuban as the No 1 threat for 2020 because he could appeal to Republicans and independents. “Bannon is a smart man,” smiles Cuban, who has huddled with the strategist.

I met the voluble owner of the Dallas Mavericks at Jean-Georges in the Trump hotel at Columbus Circle, where he keeps an apartment. It seemed a bit dicey to be discussing a possible coup at the same elegant eatery where the president-elect tortured Mitt Romney by dangling the secretary of state job over sauted frogs’ legs.

Jeans and sneakers

But Cuban is nothing if not brazen. He ambles into the three-star Michelin restaurant in his usual jeans and Adidas kicks, wearing a T-shirt someone had sent him that read “Stronger Than Lions.”

When I ask if he would run as an independent, he replies: “Probably, or a Republican. I’m registered as an independent. I mean, I’d rather do it as an independent.”

But running as an independent has not proved successful in modern times. You just become a spoiler like Ross Perot. (Who is Cuban’s neighbour in Dallas, along with W.)

Cuban epitomises a tantalising question: will Trump’s election open the floodgates to celebrities who are thinking, “Wow, if that dude can do it?” and who can titillate the media by delivering what Cuban calls “headline porn”, or will it send voters scurrying back to more traditional pols?

The 59 year old, who got rich with one of the first online streaming companies, has been described as “Trump without the crazy.” He calls Trump batty but has also written that it’s good to have “the edge” when “people think you’re crazy and they are right, but you don’t care what they think”.

He gives free rein to his goofball side. He once bought a six-month supply of toilet paper at a store in Dallas to hedge against inflation. “I order 36 tubes of Theodent toothpaste at a time and they just stack up,” he says. “When I buy razor blades, I buy a load of them because it doesn’t take much space and they’re expensive.”

He also confesses to having been naked in front of his computer, hitting the refresh button, waiting for his stock price to reach the point where he was a billionaire – a moment recreated by Cuban’s mentally unhinged doppelganger on HBO’s Silicon Valley, Russ Hanneman.

Adding value

“Look, there are people who are saying we don’t need another business person,” he says, sipping iced tea. “But it’s about what you do with it, what you learn, what you can contribute and what value you can add. I’d want to come in with proof of an agenda, ‘Here’s a healthcare solution and I’ve already paid my own money to have it scored.’

“They always say that people vote against what they didn’t like about the previous president, right? And I think he’s so ineffective, people will look for somebody who can get something done who’s not a politician. If that’s a celebrity, that’s just an easier platform to work from. The best example is tax reform, right?”

He says he would call the top 5,000 profitable companies and say: if I’m going to give you a 20 per cent corporate tax rate, I’m going to need a commitment from you that you’re going to increase the wages of your lowest-paid workers. “If you did that,” he says, “you’d be a hero.” Asked if he would send the Mavericks’ former player Dennis Rodman to negotiate with Little Rocket Man, he replies, “Why not?”

Trump and Cuban are testosterone twins in some ways. Both savour poking elites and flouting convention. Both have owned sports teams and love making movie and TV cameos. Both say the government has conspired against them, Trump with the Deep State and Cuban when he fended off insider-trading charges filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2008.

But Cuban is more charitable. He recently lent his jet to the Mavericks’ point guard JJ Barea to take emergency supplies to Puerto Rico. He is also fairer in business. Forbes said that on Shark Tank, Cuban had the best record of following through with the terms of a deal. He is more reflective than Trump. In a 2012 blog post, he wrote that he regretted cracking a gay joke in an interview: “I think being the person I want to be includes not blurting out throwaway jokes about sexuality, race, ethnicity, size, disability or other things people have no say in about themselves.”

Empathy for Trump

In 2014 he came under pressure for a comment perceived as racially insensitive, saying while discussing bigotry, “If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it’s late at night, I’m walking to the other side of the street,” and if he sees a white guy who “has tattoos all over his face,” he’d do the same. He apologised to the family of Trayvon Martin.

But Cuban can empathise with Trump. “If you just put on the eyes of a sales guy and an entrepreneur who struggled a lot, that’s Donald Trump,” Cuban says. “He’s overselling all the time. Most people when they sell, they try to solve problems. Donald Trump is not a problem-solver. Never was. Never will be. To Donald Trump, people are fungible. Where’s the list of entrepreneurs who say, ‘He mentored me, he helped me, he invested in me’?” I note that Trump has trolled us both on Twitter, calling me a “neurotic dope” and Cuban an “arrogant, crude, dope” who is “not smart enough to run for president.”

“There are three Donald Trumps,” he says. “Donald Trump, the president. Donald Trump, the salesperson. Donald Trump, the troll. Trolls are going to troll.”

Trump’s Twitter personality, Cuban says, is just like a guy “screaming at a sporting event”. (He himself has paid the NBA hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for screaming courtside.)

Cuban said during the primaries that he would accept a position as Hillary’s running mate or Trump’s. “I wasn’t a Hillary fan, by the way,” he says, but he was less of a Donald fan, so he campaigned for her and sat in the front row for the first debate.

Cuban likes to say whining is underrated, but what did he think of Hillary blaming Comey, Sanders, Obama, Biden, Putin? “They didn’t see it coming at all,” he says of the arrogant Clinton camp. “I remember right before the election, they invited me to the party in Brooklyn. I’m like, are you kidding me? You do not plan the parade before you win the championship.

“In sports, match-ups matter, right? Hillary was prepared to have a policy-against-policy match-up against a politician. She was not prepared to have a match-up against a movement.”

He scoffs: “The Russians had no effect on the election. Look, if you spotted Donald Trump two pieces of bread and behind him was a refrigerator full of ham, he couldn’t collude with the Russians to make a ham sandwich. Right?”

Sexism and racism

Since both he and Trump had shows produced by Mark Burnett, I wonder if Cuban had ever pressed the producer to hand over that alleged compilation tape from The Apprentice with Trump’s sexist and racist comments.

Yes, Cuban says, but Burnett told him he didn’t have such a tape. His friendly relations with Trump frayed amid the campaign trolling. “Last time I talked to him was via email when he asked me why I went negative on him,” Cuban says. “And I sent him an email back saying, ‘At some point, you have to learn the issues.’ Does he really understand the ins and outs of healthcare? No, he mixes health insurance up with life insurance, right?”

He sent Trump a congratulations email after he got elected, but has had no further contact. Still, he says he would serve as a tech adviser to the White House if asked. “If China and Russia are able to advance their AI further than ours,” he says, “they’re going to kick our ass.”

Cuban always says he’s lucky and his anthem is Joe Walsh’s Life’s Been Good. He lives in a Dallas mansion with five wet bars, three kids and his wife, Tiffany, whom he describes as a “smart, funny and beautiful” and “a badass”. His wife lets him live like Tom Hanks in Big. “We’ve got a basketball dribble machine and there is a basketball court in the ballroom,” he says. He did well, I say, with his samba to the I Dream of Jeannie theme on Dancing with the Stars, especially given that he had just had hip-replacement surgery. “I told my wife,” he says, “I don’t want to look back and say I would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.”

Maybe that’s what Cuban is thinking about 2020. – (New York Times)

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