One morning in the mid-1980s New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean walked into in his office at the Statehouse in Trenton. His secretary said Donald Trump, the casino owner from Atlantic City, was on the phone. Kean figured Trump wanted something from him.
“Donald, I’m very very busy. What can I do for you?” Kean asked.
“Really nothing,” Trump responded. “It’s just a beautiful day today and I wanted to tell you you’re the best governor in the country.”
Kean had been expecting Trump to ask him about some piece of legislation that Trump had interest in. Instead, Trump opted for charm. Kean thought: “He’s not such a bad guy!”
Everybody in New Jersey politics has a Trump story. That’s because for more than a quarter-century, Trump, self-proclaimed political outsider, played the ultimate insider’s game in New Jersey, where political deals require relationships and cash.
Trump golfed and broke bread with every major political power broker in the state. He used sweet talk, like with Kean, but he also deployed attack ads, like with former Gov. Christie Todd Whitman. He spent millions on New Jersey lobbyists, lawyers, spokespeople and political operatives, many of whom then contributed money to important politicians. This is how he survived his many failures, and how he caught a lot of breaks.
Trump built his name-brand off his New Jersey casinos, all of which went bankrupt. He bought a professional football team, the New Jersey Generals, which lasted just two years. And he opened three golf courses, which pay little in taxes. All along the way, Trump took a hands-on approach to politics.
He had to.
“The others sort of went with the pack but he was different — he did things differently,” Kean said. “He would sort of come to see you separately. And it was evident to me from day one that he was very, very smart. And very, very tactful.”
Trump buttonholed legislators in Trenton to lobby for tax breaks for his casinos. He turned one senator’s office into his temporary headquarters, so he could use the phone in between lobbying legislators. And the state Attorney General — the person in charge of regulating his casinos — once let him use his helipad to fly into Trenton for a meeting. Trump and Attorney General David Samson then went to a local steakhouse to talk about changes Samson wanted at the casinos.
Days later Trump sent a thank you note to Samson that included a picture of Trump’s then-girlfriend, whom he had bragged about during lunch.
“You couldn’t be in public office in New Jersey in the 80s and 90s and not have frequent encounters with Donald Trump,” said Bob Torricelli, a former New Jersey congressman and U.S. Senator who was, until recently, a member of Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. “He was as much a fixture in the state as the Turnpike or the Shore.”
Trump worked politicians at all levels. When he was opposing the construction of a state-funded tunnel to a rival casino project, Trump sent tapes of his own “60 Minutes” interview to legislators. He personally invited Atlantic City council members to dinner to push them against the project (which prompted the state Division of Gaming Enforcement to investigate how Trump may have tried to influence the politicians). And he even had his lobbyists make phone calls to county officials 100 miles away — the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders — because it was holding a non-binding vote on the tunnel.
“It’s been incredible,” Chris Christie, then a freeholder, told the local press. “These guys are playing for keeps.”
Trump’s efforts worked. The board came out against the tunnel. (Though the tunnel was later built.)
Years later, to get an unusual approval from the local planning board in Bedminster to build a mausoleum for himself on Trump National Golf Club, Trump simply hired a former head of the planning board to lobby for him. Ed Russo assured the board that the private cemetery that Trump would create would only be for 10 family family members — the “good Trumps,” Russo explained.
Trump got his mausoleum and cemetery approved. But Trump’s greatest success came with New Jersey casino regulators, who repeatedly gave him the green light to borrow more money and build more casinos — even as investigators probed his ties to the mob, and even as his businesses were going bankrupt.
Hillary Clinton is now highlighting this part of Trump’s career on the campaign trail. “He could bankrupt America like he’s bankrupted his companies,” Clinton said. “I mean, ask yourself, how can anybody lose money running a casino?”
Better question: How can anybody lose money running a casino and continue to, well, run casinos? Short answer: Casino regulators in New Jersey were notoriously forgiving when it came to Trump. Two regulators who approved Trump casino licenses even as his business was crashing were, months later, appointed to highly coveted judgeships.
That raised eyebrows. But the governors who appointed the casino regulators — and the judges — were eager to satisfy Trump, who was one of the largest employers in the state, with businesses that filled state tax coffers.
Yet Trump didn’t win such powerful friends the normal way — by making political donations. He couldn’t. As a casino owner, Trump was barred by state law from contributing to campaigns.
Instead, says David Cay Johnston, a journalist who covered Trump at the time and has written about the free pass that Trump got from regulators, politicos got other perks. “There were favored seats at boxing matches or concerts, there were deeply discounted bills for people who had parties or weddings at casinos, there were limo rides to go to events, there are all sorts of things that Trump was in a position to do,” Johnston said.
Once, Trump’s attorney threw a birthday party for the wife of a pro-Trump mayor of Atlantic City on his yacht, the Trump Princess.
“Donald was in a position to dazzle people,” Johnston said. “And given his celebrity status, just to get a picture shot with him or to be able to say you were his guest at a party had value.”
More recently Trump pursued a plan, ultimately unsuccessful, to turn a contaminated site at the Meadowlands in North Jersey into golf courses and houses. To push the deal through he showed up to a meeting at the Department of Environmental Protection in Trenton with his make-up on from a filming of his reality TV show, “The Apprentice.”
“He had this star status so it was an interesting dynamic watching people around the table and seeing them react to this TV star,” former New Jersey Meadowlands Commission executive director Robert Ceberio told The Bergen Record. “He told us the show was number one in its time slot.”
Before he could use his fame Trump found other ways of influencing politicians. In 1982, when Trump needed a string of Atlantic City zoning approvals for his first casino, contributions from contractors who worked for him accounted for nearly half of the winning mayoral candidate’s campaign war chest, according to journalist Wayne Barrett’s sweetheart tax deal for Trump through the legislature. Years later, George Norcross’s brother, U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, received a $10,400 campaign contribution from Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.
Behind the scenes Norcross and Trump golfed together, of course, and Norcross was an invited guest to Trump’s third wedding. And when Norcross bought a home near Trump’s Florida Mar-a-lago resort, he brought Trump over to check out the new digs.
In 2006 Trump filed a libel suit against Tim O’Brien, author of the book once said. “I wish I had that kind of power.”