Donning an emerald green graduation gown, Donald Trump stood grinning on the stage at Wagner College in Staten Island as a faculty member offered a glowing introduction in May 2004: “A New York original. Everyone knows something about him and everyone has an opinion concerning him,” the faculty member said.
Trump was there to give the commencement address to the class of 2004 and to accept an honorary doctorate of humane letters. He drew laughs from the crowd while describing his transition from real-estate magnate to television celebrity — “I’m a star, and there’s nothing like it.” He took a half-baked stab at self-deprecation, joking that the Guinness Book of World Records “has me down as the greatest personal financial comeback of all time.”
But even then, talk of concrete walls managed to seep its way into Trump’s monologue — only this time, as Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah pointed out Wednesday on “The Daily Show,” the message was a bit different than the one he would preach years later as president.
“I’ll tell you, to me, the second-most important thing after love what you do is never, ever give up,” Trump told the students, motioning his hands and raising his index finger the same way he does at campaign rallies today. “Don’t give up. Don’t allow it to happen. If there’s a concrete wall in front of you, go through it. Go over it. Go around it. But get to the other side of that wall.”
Noah unearthed the 15-year-old commencement speech in his late-night segment about President Trump’s refusal to negotiate with congressional Democrats to end the partial government shutdown during a meeting Wednesday afternoon. Trump reportedly abruptly walked out on negotiations when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, once again said that Democrats would not vote for funding for his border wall. The president has said the wall is the only way to secure the southern border. But, echoing Trump’s message to students in 2004, Noah said that perhaps a wall won’t do much to stop people determined to never give up.
“If there’s one thing we know, it’s that nothing will stop immigrants from trying to come to America,” Noah said. “This is a place that people dream of coming to, because people trying to make a better, safer life for their families will do anything to achieve that dream. And I know Donald Trump understands this — because of this video we found from 15 years ago.”
The year 2004 marked a turning point for Trump, both in his personal life and on the national stage. At the time he accepted his honorary degree from Wagner, he had just gotten engaged to Melania Knauss. (“Always have a prenuptial agreement,” he joked in one bit of advice.) The first season of “The Apprentice” had premiered earlier that year, and his new reality TV celebrity was apparent at the commencement ceremony.
The New York Daily News reported that students and audience members asked him to sign baseballs, books and programs, snapping pictures incessantly. His 1987 book “The Art of the Deal” — mocked Wednesday as Trump ended negotiations with Democratic leaders and then tweeted, “bye-bye, nothing else works!” — earned praise that day in Staten Island.
“[Trump] is a practical, no-nonsense straight-shooting person,” a Wagner faculty member said while introducing Trump. “He believes that the art of the deal, the title of his first and perennially best-selling book, is just that: an art. And he knows that you’re measured not by how much you undertake but by what you finally accomplish.”
Following Trump’s election in 2016, alumni and faculty members were no longer singing the same tune.
In 2017, more than 700 Wagner alumni wrote a letter to the college’s board of trustees urging them to revoke Trump’s degree, saying, “While he holds this undeserved honor, our own degrees — and the academic and personal work we accomplished — are demeaned.” That year, 33 Wagner professors also wrote to their congressman, then-Rep. Daniel Donovan, R-New York, to “strongly condemn” Trump’s policies following Trump’s executive order to ban travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, while others started a Change.org petition to rescind the degree that gathered 1,920 signatures. The efforts were not successful.
The honorary degree from Wagner is one of five that Trump attained between 1988 and 2017 — though he only has kept four of them. In 2015, when Trump was a candidate, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland, revoked the honorary degree it presented him in 2010 following his comments about banning all Muslims from traveling to the United States. Faculty at Lehigh University have also led an unsuccessful bid to rescind Trump’s degree.
Back in 2004, Trump appeared to revel in the recognition. He joked, “I’ve always wanted to be known as a doctor,” and at the end, drew applause when he told the graduates, “You’re hired!” He also told them not to be like him.
“Don’t lose discipline. And don’t live on the edge like I do. You don’t need it,” he said. “You want to have a nice, normal life folks, OK?”
Washington Post writer Timothy Bella contributed to this report.