PHILADELPHIA MAGAZINE: It was, it can be said without fear of exaggeration, a day that will live in infamy. When President Donald Trump emerged from his mysterious one-on-one summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July of 2018, the respective visages and body language of the two world leaders could not have been further apart. The Russian president looked smug and sated, like a vampire with a bellyful of peasant blood; Trump looked like a man who’d just received a painful enema. Or, as grizzled, now-banished White House aide-de-camp Steve Bannon describes it in Siege, Michael Wolff’s decadent and depraved follow-up to 2018’s Trumpworld tell-all Fire And Fury, “like a beaten dog.”
Speculation within Trump’s inner circle was that Putin must have something on Trump. The pee tape? Evidence that Don Jr. tried to buy Hillary’s emails? His tax returns? Nah. As Bannon told Wolff, “nobody gives a fuck” about that stuff. But, he wondered, “What if they have his college transcript?”
Ahh, the college transcript. Trump famously graduated from Penn’s Wharton School in 1968 — a fact he reminds audiences of over and over again. (Per Penn’s student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, he publicly name-dropped Wharton 52 times between June 2015 and January 2018.) But despite all his humblebragging about that Wharton degree, Trump has never allowed his academic performance there to be made public.
“This was a major, major thing with Trump — that people might think he’s stupid,” Michael Wolff told me around the time of Siege’s publication earlier this summer. “The focus of that for Trump is the college transcripts, which are apparently terrible. I’ve spoken to friends of Trump from that time, and this was a guy that was obviously not interested in school and possibly never read a book in his life. For everyone that had known him then and years afterward, the assumption was that he had terrible grades, he was a lackluster student at best.”
In truth, Trump’s Wharton GPA is just one of many mysteries surrounding the 45th president’s relationship with Penn, Philadelphia’s most powerful private institution, which, unwittingly or not, helped unleash Trump on the world. Over the years, there have been rumors about how Trump might have gotten into Penn in the first place, and how much — or how little — he’s donated to the school as an alum. There are tales about Trump’s social life as a Penn undergrad — did he, in fact, have a fling with Candice Bergen? And there are stories — including one particularly juicy one — about the Penn careers of Trump kids Don Jr., Ivanka and Tiffany, all of whom followed in their old man’s red-and-blue footsteps.
Perhaps the biggest reason for this shroud of mystery is Penn itself; the school’s sphinx-like reticence about its most famous alumnus plays at times like a silent scream. For instance, Penn has never had Trump deliver a commencement speech or conferred an honorary degree on him. In the wake of his election, Penn tour guides were discouraged from bringing up the T-word and issued simple instructions for handling questions about Trump’s tenure at Penn: Keep it short and sweet — “Yes, he graduated from Wharton in 1968” — and leave it at that. Tell Penn you’re writing an article about Donald Trump’s time there, and you’ll get the academic version of name, rank and serial number: “Donald J. Trump earned a B.S. in real estate, which was awarded on May 20, 1968,” says Ron Ozio, Penn’s director of media relations, declining my request for an interview. Which is peculiar, given that most universities make a lot of marketing hay out of an alumnus in the White House — and Trump is Penn’s first.
So what is the truth about Trump and Penn? What’s the reality behind all those rumors? Because Philadelphians deserve answers, and because I’ve made a career out of lost causes and thankless jobs, I went on a hunt for the facts. MORE