Don King sat at his kitchen table one afternoon, watching CNN on a big screen TV. A panel of talking heads was in rapt debate over Donald Trump’s latest assault on the media: Had his unsavory tweets about Mika Brzezinski gone too far? “Oh, Donald,” King said with a chuckle. “He leaves even me speechless sometimes.” These days, King follows the daily twists and turns of Trump’s presidency here, at his home nestled in the rolling green hills of Amish country outside Cleveland. But he likes his visitors to know he is a player in the action, too. On his phone, he was eager to show me two photos. One was a shot of him and Barron Trump from Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago last year; the other was a black-and-white image of King, flanked by Trump and his father, Fred. “How many people got the daddy and the son?” King says.
King was a colorful and controversial surrogate on the campaign trail with Trump last summer. King, 85, was found guilty of second-degree murder for stomping a man to death in 1966. The charge was reduced to manslaughter, and he was pardoned in 1983. One of the few celebrities who backed Trump, King introduced him at a church in Ohio and famously let the n-word slip. He also praised him vociferously in the African-American newspaper he publishes, the Call & Post (Earlier this year, the paper published a Face-Off style graphic with half of both men’s faces). King very nearly spoke at the Republican National Convention, and since the election he has made multiple visits to Mar-a-Lago, where he has had the ear of the president. King says he and the president still talk regularly.
Few may understand the Trump phenomenon better than King does. He’s been in the Trump orbit for decades, including when the two businessmen brought a series of Mike Tyson fights to Trump’s Atlantic City casinos. Aside from when the two were competing for a piece of Tyson, King has always been one of the most prodigious flatterers of Trump. He once described Trump’s most recent wedding as “a spontaneous combustion of love.”
Several months into Trump’s presidency, I visited King to hear his assessment of his friend’s time in the White House. As we talked, King showed me around his property. There was the tennis court, weeded over and unplayable, that he had built for the Williams sisters when he first heard about the young phenoms. (The Williams sisters never visited.) There also was the boxing glove-shaped swimming pool and a liberty garden, where a ceramic elephant and donkey stood side by side, an homage to King’s self-described “Republicrat” politics.
I met King’s Amish housekeepers (“They’ve heard everything about Don King, the black man, and they still trust me with their women!” he exclaimed), and we discussed Trump’s safety and whether a reported billionaire outsider could tame Washington. Despite his fervent support for Trump, King was wary of the Republican health care bill, as well as figures like Reince Priebus and Jeff Sessions. But he remains confident, sometimes tortured logic aside, that Trump has the potential to be a great unifier.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
POLITICO Magazine: How is Donald Trump doing as president? Is he living up to your expectations?
DON KING: He’s doing an excellent job, but it’s hard to evaluate because they don’t talk about nothing but Russia. … For over a year, without a shred of evidence — and this is what resonates with the lumpen proletariat and the common people. They’ve been hearing from these ingenious organizations of the world — the CIA, the FBI. … Everybody is saying all these things, these brilliant minds … but ain’t nobody come up with no evidence. … The good thing I’ll tell you is this: Because of what they’re doing — in the process of trying to get to Trump —he’s opening it all up. He’s opening the Pandora’s Box to all the rest of them. No exemptions, no exceptions. Like William Cullen Bryant said, “Truth crushed to the earth will rise again!”
POLITICO: What about beyond Russia?
KING: He’s got old-time loyalty, that’s why people like him. … He keeps his promises. … He said he was going to take care of the coal miners and he stayed with the coal miners. … People tell him there’s no coal, he still stuck with them. He’s attuned to them. … The air and the pollution, it’s all there, but he sticks to what he says he’s going to do.
POLITICO: Do you still talk to the president?
KING: I call my connection to him, if I want to get a meeting or whatever it is. But I can talk to him every day through his assistant. And if it’s something that’s got to be of urgency, I can get him.
POLITICO: What do you guys talk about?
KING: I tell him that the establishment will tell their lies. They will try to keep him down. … I tell him, ‘Now Mr. Trump, they’re treating you like a black man.’… I say, ‘Mr. President, you know what it’s like to be a black man. …No matter what you say or do, you are guilty as hell.’
POLITICO: Anything more specific?
KING: Don’t worry about appeasing the establishment. Don’t acquiesce to an alleged power. … Be with the people, not the establishment. … The guy that’s sitting next to you … that’s who you got to beware. Judas was sitting right next to Jesus. … You know, Trump’s a genius. I don’t have to be telling him what to do and how to do it, but I tell him things to stimulate his mind, how to think about things. … We talk as friends, we sit down and talk about the problem of the day or the current events. … I can be like a Tillerson without the portfolio because I’ve been around the world.
POLITICO: What has Trump asked your advice about?
KING: I been to Mar-a-Lago [a few times]. We sat down for one hour [earlier this year]. He wanted to get my estimation of what’s going on. He said, ‘What you think about me firing Flynn?’ I said, ‘With all due respect, Mr. President, Flynn fired himself.’ … Trump’s loyal to a fault. He’ll speak on your behalf because, out on the street, you can stick with a guy and say he did the wrong thing, but he’s basically a good guy. … That’s not crooked, that’s not obstructing justice … That’s friendship.
POLITICO: Anything else you guys talk about?
KING: Before he got elected … I told Trump that they got Kennedy in a limousine in Texas. They got Malcolm X in a ballroom in New York. They got Robert Kennedy in a kitchen in L.A. They got Martin Luther King on a hotel balcony in Memphis. … I told him all these things, I laid it out. Because when you’re a revolutionary like Trump, you got to think about the Kennedy solution. … I worry about that … and I told him that.
POLITICO: What was his reaction?
KING: He didn’t want to hear it. It’s not something he wants to think about. … That’s some scary shit … ut you got to worry about it.
POLITICO: What happened at the Republican National Convention last year? There were discussions of you speaking, but then you didn’t.
KING: Reince Priebus said I was a convicted murderer … He blocked me from speaking.
POLITICO: Is that what you mean by the establishment corrupting Trump?
KING: Trump marches to a different drummer. … ain’t never said nothing other than I love Reince, but he identifies and illustrates the problem we have. … [I think about] the Fusion Party of 1894 — we had black and white together (The Fusion Party was a coalition of white and black politicians from different parties in the late 19th century). They shocked the world of politics. …That’s what I want to see,and that’s what Trump is calling for, to take the power back from Washington, D.C.
POLITICO: Is the Republican health are bill an example of not being with the people? I ask because some analyses of the bill predict about 20 million people could lose coverage — particularly some of the people who voted for Trump.
KING: We’re supposed to be the richest and most powerful nation and we don’t have health care for everybody. … So, yes, he needs to remember where he came from. Reince Priebus is not part of that world. (The health care bill) is not country first. It’s party first, under the guise of I’m protecting my constituency.
POLITICO: You’ve been a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. Has President Trump been the unifier you were hoping for?
KING: Trump has the opportunity to be a Founding Father. You know why? Because … Jeff Sessions comes from Alabama, where the constitution is staunchly racist. … So it’s not whether [Sessions] is racist … but [where he comes from]. Trump can bring him in the mix … and they open up a chance to do what … a freedom fighter … doesn’t … If [Trump can help] change what [Sessions] has been taught all [his] life, [he] can do more for the uplifting of the downtrodden than anyone else.
POLITICO: If Trump were a boxer, who would he be?
KING: He’d be Muhammad Ali. … because he’s going to win. He’s going to run his mouth, he’s going to talk a lot and he’s going to win. And you ain’t going to know which way he’s going. … You had the Louisville Lip, he’d be the New York Lip!
POLITICO: There was a report that Mike Tyson asked New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to talk to the president about a potential pardon. Have you talked to the president or Tyson about any plans to push for a pardon?
KING: We haven’t talked about that. But that may be considered because Trump is going to be here for eight years. I haven’t been a part of that conversation, but forgiveness is a beautiful thing. That’s why I forgive Reince Priebus, that little Greek rascal.
POLITICO: You think President Trump will be reelected?
KING: They will do two years and won’t find nothing on Russia. Allegations and accusations don’t work. The people will see that and it’s automatic reelection. … I’ve been with Carter in Egypt, campaigning for George W. Bush, for Obama … I can pick a winner.
POLITICO: And if the investigations do find that there was collusion with Russia?
KING: Then he’s Judas!
On Tuesday, I called King to ask if his opinions of Trump have changed in light of the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian government lawyer who claimed to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
KING: No, no. It’s the same old propaganda. [The media] is still empowering Russia to make it bigger than it is…The point is that [Donald Trump, Jr.] didn’t get the information from the Russians. It was a false pretense for the meeting…But you got to take the meeting to see what they have to say…Nobody broke the law…It’s about what’s expedient to destroy the Trumps.