The Man Who Became Donald Trump

It began as debate prep for Hillary Clinton. It grew into much more than that.

The code name for the operation was “Royal Water,” English for the Latin-named “Aqua Regia” acid, which is powerful enough to dissolve gold.

That was how the small group of Hillary Clinton aides clued in to the top-secret identity of the man who played Donald Trump in debate preparations referred to him and his small team.

And for Philippe Reines—the colorful and famously combative longtime Clinton confidant who stepped into the role of Trump opposite his old boss in tense and testing mock sessions—it was the name of the project that drove him deep into Trump’s mind for three of the most bizarre months of his life.

Clinton’s chief gatekeeper in the Senate and at the State Department, Reines, 46, was a longtime clutch player in Clinton’s tight-knit and clubby inner circle. But until August, when the 2016 Democratic nominee signed off on his star turn as Trump, Reines had been kept at arm’s length from the ultimately doomed campaign, playing no official role. When he was finally handed one, Reines effectively took a three-month leave from his day job and went full method actor, cribbing from the all-in immersion techniques of Hollywood legends like Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro.

Reines purchased four podiums on Amazon, two for his home and two for the secret office the Clinton campaign lent him at the PerkinsCoie law firm in Washington, D.C. He searched eBay for a 2005 Donald J. Trump signature collection watch, which he purchased for $175. He experimented with a self-tanning lotion on his face. Before prep sessions, Reines began suiting up with velcro knee pads (to keep his legs straight), a posture enhancer (to keep his arms back), and dress shoes with three-inch lifts (to match Trump’s 6’1 frame). His longtime tailor fit him for a loose-fitting suit with large cuffs. His goal was not a “Saturday Night Live”-style caricature of Trump, so he didn’t try to replicate Trump’s famous mane. But he wanted to approximate his physicality so that Clinton would grow accustomed to Trump’s looming presence when she saw Reines in her peripheral vision.

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