In 1978, when then–Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett requested several thousand pages of records from the State Urban Development Corporation, the staff there set him up in a conference room so he could review them on site. He sat down alone, at a long table with stacks of papers, and began plowing through them.
Barrett was only 33 years old at the time. He’d been on staff at the Voice for less than a year, but the story he was chasing, about a series of multimillion-dollar real estate transactions, was a big one. Some of the city’s most prominent power brokers were involved — including former New York mayor Abe Beame — and at the center was a brash young developer named Donald Trump.
As Barrett was sitting alone at the table doing his research, he was surprised when a nearby phone began to ring.
“I didn’t know whether to pick it up or not,” Barrett says today. He couldn’t imagine who might be on the other end; no one but a few government employees could have possibly known he was even in that office. But after a few rings he lifted the receiver and heard an unfamiliar voice.
“ ‘Wayne!’ ” Barrett says, his voice booming, taking on Trump’s now unmistakable accent. “ ‘It’s Donald! I hear you’re doing a story on me!’ I’d never talked to the guy in my life.”
Though he’d been working on the story for several months, he hadn’t yet approached Trump. He was “circling,” as he puts it today, determined to have his ducks in a row by the time he sat down with his subject.
It was Trump’s way of letting him know he was keeping an eye on him, Barrett says. After all, the story he was working on, which would land Trump on our cover in January of 1979, wearing a sneer and a mop of brown hair, was the first detailed examination of Trump’s business practices to appear in the press. And the results weren’t pretty.
Nearly 40 years on, Trump — the right wing’s preening, bombastic id — is running for president. His campaign, once covered by the media mostly as a joke, is showing no signs of slowing down: At press time he was leading in most major polls of likely G.O.P. primary voters, much to the chagrin of the party establishment. And despite lurching from one crisis to another — the disparaging comments about Mexican immigrants, the insistence that Senator John McCain was not a war hero — his fledgling campaign has not yet fallen apart. In fact, he seems to be gaining support.
Trump’s continued success seems to have caught everyone by surprise, including Barrett. No one knows Trump quite like the longtime investigative reporter for the Voice, who spent 30 years as a thorn in the side of New York’s political establishment before leaving the paper in 2011. Barrett’s reporting from 1979, which would end up as a two-part series, a portion of which is reprinted in this issue, was just the beginning. Barrett, now 70, would go on to cover Trump regularly over the next decade, ultimately publishing a thoroughly unauthorized biography of The Donald in 1991.
But despite the deep knowledgehe has accrued about Trump the man, Barrett says he’s not quite sure what to make of Trump the candidate. “No one could have predicted,” Barrett says, that he would be polling better than former Florida governor Jeb Bush, seen only weeks ago as a shoo-in for the Republican nomination.
Actually, in Barrett’s view, the campaign’s success may have even caught Trump himself off guard. What began as a branding exercise seems to have morphed into something different.
“What is his game?” Barrett asks. “What is this about? Well, it seems to me that it’s very possible the game has changed. Right now he must be seriously thinking that he has a shot at the nomination. But I think the original concept was ‘Get yourself in, make a big splash.’
“Then suddenly it became a real campaign.”
As a real estate mogul, Trump used to do “real development,” Barrett says. But as he wrote in a Daily Beast article in 2011, for the past decade Trump has done little actual building. Instead he’s mostly made money as a reality TV star, and by licensing his name for other people’s projects. The Daily Beast piece detailed a series of projects with shady overseas investors looking to slap the Trump name on their properties. Aside from peddling his reputation, Trump was otherwise not much involved.
“Everything is branding to Donald,” Barrett continues. “He doesn’t really own much anymore. A couple of golf courses here and there, a building that he built 30 years ago. [But] he doesn’t own a great deal. What he does is market his name.”
When Barrett began his series for the Voice, Trump was already something of a topic in the New York press, owing mostly to his developer father, Fred Trump. But he was also the architect of some high-profile deals in Manhattan in the mid-1970s. Even so, most of the attention that Trump the Younger had received by that point focused mostly on his outlandish personality and the sheer amount of money he’d been throwing around, which was remarkable in a city that was, by many accounts, on its last financial legs.
By contrast, Barrett’s series was the first to take a fine-tooth comb to Trump’s business practices. The reporter focused on two prominent development projects — the Hyatt Hotel in midtown and a proposed convention center on the West Side — and plumbed them in meticulous detail.
The two projects, now 40 years in the past, may seem like ancient history. But they were, in many ways, the deals that made Trump who he is today. He cited these same projects when he announced his candidacy back in June, recounting that “after four or five years in Brooklyn, I ventured into Manhattan and did a lot of great deals — the Grand Hyatt Hotel. I was responsible for the convention center on the West Side. I did a lot of great deals, and I did them early and young.
“I made it the old-fashioned way,” Trump said of his fortune.
But Barrett’s reporting paints a picture of Trump’s background that’s somewhat at odds with the one he paints for himself. Far from that of a self-made billionaire, the image of Trump that emerges from Barrett’s reporting is that of a scion of a wealthy family who got ahead, in large part, thanks to family connections — many of them political. Far from an independent capitalist, Barrett showed, Trump was a businessman who relied heavily on government largesse. “This is a guy whose wealth has been created by political connections,” Barrett says today. And at the time the story was published, even Trump’s political connections came secondhand, through his father. The idea that Trump is a business-world antidote to the world of political entanglement, as he often implies, is “ludicrous,” as Barrett puts it.
The articles described how then-mayor Beame and others at the top of the political establishment bent over backward for Trump to help him develop a property owned by the Penn Central Transportation Company into what was to be a multimillion-dollar convention center. Through hefty tax incentives and guaranteed loans, the city offered the young developer a chance to leverage public risk for his own private profit — without putting up a dollar of his own.
Over the course of Barrett’s reporting, Trump tried to influence the process in various creative ways. He threatened to sue Barrett, of course. But Trump also apparently tried to bribe him, subtly hinting that he could get Barrett a nice apartment in midtown and move him and his wife out of the Brownsville home where they lived. As if they’d somehow arrived there by accident.
“It was the poorest neighborhood in the city,” Barrett says of Brownsville. “But both of us were young radicals. We were doing all kinds of organizing there. We published a paper called The People’s Voice. We were doing it as a political thing. But of course, that was completely beyond his comprehension. He had checked this out. I certainly hadn’t said anything. And he says to me, in the interview, ‘You know, Wayne, you don’t have to live in Brownsville. I can get you an apartment.’ So he had the bribery and the threat thing flowing full scale.”
Trump refused to return Barrett’s calls “for years” after the stories ran, including even when Barrett began working on his full-length biography. By that time, Trump was “on the balls of his butt” financially, Barrett says. It was in 1991, the year the biography was published, that Trump filed for corporate bankruptcy for the first time (he has done so three more times since). “He was, as you can imagine, extremely aware of me,” Barrett says.
So aware, he says, that the two actually did have one last run-in.
In 1991, Barrett and his research assistant at the time, Timothy O’Brien, later an editor at the New York Times and Huffington Post, decided they should try to attend Trump’s birthday bash at the Trump Castle Casino in Atlantic City.
While O’Brien waltzed right past the police officers guarding the door, Barrett was stopped. “They were letting everybody in,” Barrett says. “Because they wanted to make it look like Donald was the king. Everybody was allowed in but me.”
Barrett, undeterred, found a circuitous route, through a series of back staircases, onto the balcony of the ballroom where the main celebration was going on.
“I’m not there five minutes and they slap the handcuffs on me,” Barrett says. “Defiant trespass, I was charged with. Not just trespass, man, I was charged with defiant trespass.
“That’s a good representation of how Donald felt about me.”
— Jon Campbell
Editor’s Note: Below is the first of a two-part series, published in the January 15, 1979, issue of the Voice. This is a reprint of that cover story.
* * *
“Like Father, Like Son: Anatomy of a Young Power Broker,” by Wayne Barrett
This is the first of a two-part series on Donald Trump and the real estate empire he and his father built. Wayne Barrett spent two months researching the story. He read thousands of pages of court documents in Philadelphia and New York and campaign contribution filings in Albany. He spent fifteen hours interviewing Donald Trump.
Donald Trump. A 32-year-old self-proclaimed real-estate colossus price tagged at $200 million. The brash, streetwise son of Brooklyn’s largest apartment building, transplanted from his father’s boxlike office at the Avenue Z tip of the borough to a Fifth Avenue penthouse bounded on both sides by his own stunning Manhattan ventures. The New York Times puffs him as the city’s “number-one real-estate promoter of the mid-seventies…the William Zeckendorf of hard times.”
But the most accurate description of Trump’s real-estate genius was contained in a deposition from a four-year-old Philadelphia bankruptcy-court file. When a Penn Central representative was asked why he’d contacted Trump alone out of lists of developers interested in building publicly aided housing on the bankrupt company’s West Side railyards, the witness replied: “The estate was putting its property in the hands of a developer. It was uppermost in our minds that…the developer…be very high in his political position. Trump is doing what, in our judgment, if anyone can do, he can do.”
• A no-money-down exclusive option to purchase the two largest tracts of undeveloped land left in Manhattan: 144 acres of unused railroad tracks along the Hudson River, from 30th to 39th streets, and from 59th to 72nd streets;
• His transformation of the 30th Street yards from a long-rejected convention-center site into an acceptable $400 million project that Trump used to call his Miracle City Center;
• His vision of a Co-op City–sized development on the 60th Street yards, now pared down by community pressure to a Manhattan version of his father’s 4,000-unit Brooklyn project — Trump Village. The new project is to be surrounded by lucrative commercial space as his father had done before him;
• His packaging of the most extraordinary structure of city and state tax breaks ever arranged, camouflaged as an $80 million hotel, and now rising — one politically negotiated pane at a time — as the glass-enclosed Hyatt replacement for the Commodore at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue.
Trump’s problem is not so much what he’s done, but how he’s done it. I decided at the start that I wanted to profile him by describing his deals — not his lifestyle or his personality. After getting to know him, I realized that his deals are his life. He once told me: “I won’t make a deal just to make a profit. It has to have flair.” Another Manhattan developer said it differently: “Trump won’t do a deal unless there’s something extra — a kind of moral larceny — in it. He’s not satisfied with a profit. He has to take something more. Otherwise, there’s no thrill.”
In this, the first of a two-part series, I’ll examine the character and history of Trump’s Brooklyn base. In the second, I’ll trace the details that led to his extraordinary acquisitions of the three Manhattan properties — and the government negotiations that are turning them into personal windfalls. Each history — the Brooklyn empire, the Manhattan purchases, and the government contracts — is a tale of overreaching and abuse of power. Like his father, Donald Trump has pushed each deal to the limit, taking from it whatever he can get, turning political connections into private profits at public expense. (Editor’s Note: Read Part 2 of the series.)
Abe Beame, whose municipal largesse to the Brooklyn organization that spawned him was cut short by the city’s fiscal collapse, has left the Trump penetration of Manhattan as the only tangible sign of his administration’s Brooklyn base.
Beame had known Trump’s family for 30 years. They’d eaten the same clubhouse dinners at the same annual dances given by the borough’s regulars. Like Beame — and most other pols who came up through the local machines — Fred Trump owed his biggest breaks to the country’s party organization. In the beginning, Donald Trump used Beame’s closest political associates — publicist Howard Rubinstein; lobbyist, lawyer, and fund raiser Abraham “Bunny” Lindenbaum; and Bunny’s son Sandy — now part of a large Manhattan law firm — as the major political brokers on his Manhattan projects.
But the Trumps were too shrewd to rely only on the power of the Beame brokers. There were contributions, too. Beame’s recollections of the Trump firm’s donations were hazy, but the former mayor did say: “I don’t know if he [Trump] gave and when he gave, but he’s a friend of mine. I know he tried to help every time.”
What does seem clear is that Donald’s success in acquiring and developing the Commodore, the convention-center site, and, to a lesser degree, the 60th Street yards, was, in part, due to Beame’s support. “It was the Brooklyn crowd at work,” said one top city official.
Hugh Carey, another product of Brooklyn politics, has virtually turned a state agency — the Urban Development Corporation — into a temporary Trump subsidiary. UDC is developing Trump’s hotel, convention center, and some new projects, including a multi-million-dollar renovation of Grand Central Terminal. But as Carey has done for Trump, so Trump has done for the governor — to the tune of nearly $125,000 in campaign contributions from the family and their companies: $35,000 in 1974, $66,500 in 1978 plus a $23,000 share of a loan totaling $300,000 — a group venture with an inner circle of other Carey financiers including lawyer Bill Shea, MTA chairman Harold Fisher, realtor Sylvan Lawrence, and ILA [International Longshoremen’s Association] leader Anthony Scotto. The only individual to have exceeded Trump’s election-year generosity was the governor’s oil-rich brother.
In case the donations weren’t enough, Trump retained chief Carey fundraiser Louise M. Sunshine as his “director of special projects” and registered her as his Albany lobbyist for the convention-center plan. Additionally, Sunshine accompanies Trump to meetings at various government agencies throughout the state. When asked what she does on such trips, one official remarked: “She just hangs around…gets a document if it’s needed…calls the governor…” During the three years she’s worked for Trump, Sunshine has directed Carey’s campaign finances — first , paying off the governor’s substantial 1974 debt and then serving as his executive director of finance for the 1978 campaign. She was rewarded with a $17,000-a-year, one-meeting-a-month job as vice-chairman of the State Thruway Authority and a position with the Job Development Authority. Although the latter post carries no salary, it does provide up to $5,000 in expenses — and $34 million worth of industrial loans to administer.
For Trump, the donations are the glue that holds together the public/private relationships.
The developer sees his companies’ political contributions as part of the cost of doing government business — for tax purposes, most of the money is supplied as corporate contributions. For Trump, the donations are the glue that holds together the public/private relationships.
Although Trump says he joined the 1974 Carey campaign early because, “I knew he was a winner,” he hedged his bets pretty carefully. Ken Auletta, then campaign manager for Carey’s primary opponent, Howard Samuels, recalls; “I got a call from Trump. He said he wanted me — as a Samuels staff person — to know that he’d contributed $10,000 to Samuels. Just so I’d know who he was if he ever called. I usually kept far away from the finance end of it, but I checked this donation — and he’d made it.”
Besides the $125,000 donated to Carey, Trump-owned firms have recently contributed an additional $34,000 to city and state candidates in positions to affect his Manhattan projects — $10,500 to [Ed] Koch, after Beame lost; $5,500 to Beame; $4,000 to Mario Cuomo; $10,000 to State Senator Manfred Ohrenstein’s personal or Democratic Senate campaign committees; $2,000 to city comptroller Harrison Goldin; $2,000 to City Council president Carol Bellamy; and $200 to City Planning Commissioner Robert Wagner, Jr.
After Manhattan councilman Henry Stern led the opposition to his Commodore tax-abatement scheme, Trump called and offered Stern a contribution. “I declined,” said the councilman. Few others have.
Finally, Trump has retained Roy Cohn as advisor on each of his major deals, on a host of legal actions, and as a conduit to the upper reaches of power — public and private. In recent years, Cohn and Sunshine have replaced the Lindenbaums and Rubinstein as young Trump’s primary resources and agents. The Manhattan hard sell has supplanted the friendly, shrewd, understated style of the old Brooklyn days.
The Brooklyn Base
Abe Beame met Fred Trump in the 1940s, when Trump tried to sell him a single-family home he’d built on Remsen Avenue in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The middleman on the transaction, predictably, was Bunny Lindenbaum, Fred Trump’s lawyer and Beame’s oldest and closest friend. Beame and Lindenbaum had begun their political careers together, as captains in Brooklyn’s Madison Club — also the political base of two Assembly speakers, Irwin and Stanley Steingut.
Beame, who worked in the city’s budget office from 1945 until 1961, said he continued to see Trump over the years at political and social events, including the annual dinner dances of the Brooklyn Democratic organization and the fundraising functions of various Brooklyn clubhouses. Lindenbaum told me: “That relationship developed because both of them were close friends of mine. I’ve represented Trump for 40 years.”
The relationship, ultimately, meant money for Fred Trump. In 1960, both Beame and Lindenbaum participated in the Board of Estimate decision that shaped Trump’s largest real-estate project — the development of Trump Village. That year the nonprofit United Housing Foundation had received City Planning Commission (CPC) approval for a tax abatement to build a major housing cooperative off Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. Publicly, Trump attacked the abatement as a “giveaway”: “The taxpayers of the borough of Brooklyn should not be asked to subsidize more luxurious housing than they themselves enjoy.” Not long afterward, he reversed himself and applied for the abatement. According to Lindenbaum: “I went to see Wagner, and talked to him. Then I took [Brooklyn Borough President John] Cashmore out to Trump’s buildings and persuaded him it [the UHF project] was a giveaway. He supported us.” Trump’s proposal also won the support of the then budget director, Abe Beame.
Lindenbaum recalls that the man who finally settled the dispute was Robert Moses — though he’d already resigned from the CPC and had no official connection with the issue. “He sat and listened to both sides,” said Lindenbaum. “Then he suggested the split.” Trump wound up with two-thirds of the site, UHF the rest. Though, years later UHF, Trump, Lindenbaum, and others would testify at a State Investigations Commission hearing on the Trump project, no one ever mentioned Moses’s role. Two months after Trump got his site, Wagner appointed Lindenbaum to Moses’s seat on the CPC.
Lindenbaum remembers the senior Trump as a guest at one famous political luncheon — the 1961 fundraiser at Skakele’s Restaurant on Montague Street in Brooklyn — where Lindenbaum gathered 43 builders and landlords who did business with the city. Each pledged campaign contributions for the honored guest, Mayor Wagner, and Trump’s $2,500 contribution was among the largest. The resulting front-page flap cost Lindenbaum his Planning Commission post and became a major issue in the 1961 mayoral campaign. Nonetheless, Wagner was reelected and, with him, Abe Beame became comptroller.
In 1966 the Fred Trump/Bunny Lindenbaum relationship became a major city scandal. The State Investigations Commission, after extensive public and private hearings, issued a report on the handling of Trump Village’s $60 million Mitchell-Lama mortgage and prompted the commission chairman, Jacob Grumet, to publicly assail Trump, Lindenbaum, et al. as “grasping and greedy individuals” and ask housing finance officials: “Is there any way of preventing a man who does business in that way from getting another contract with the state?” The main findings of the investigation were:
• Trump retained MacNeil Mitchell, the East Side senator who’d written the Mitchell-Lama legislation. The developer paid Mitchell $128,000 in legal fees.
• Trump also retained Lindenbaum on the project and tried to pay him a $520,000 legal fee out of the mortgage funds. State housing officials who testified at the hearings characterized the fee as “unconscionable” and “outrageous.” When pressed, Lindenbaum’s firm claimed it had spent 4,500 hours in court at condemnation trials. But an assistant corporation counsel swore in an affidavit that his office had handled every condemnation on the Trump site. The transcript contains the following exchange:
Commissioner: “When you said you were engaged in the trial of a condemnation proceeding, it’s my impression that you were trying the case.”
Lindenbaum: “Oh, no, I’m sorry. I was an observer.”
Commissioner: “You sat there?”
Lindenbaum: “I sat there.”
Then Lindenbaum submitted a 60-page list of tenants and claimed that his firm had handled their dispossessments, evictions, and relocations. But the representative of a private relocation firm testified that Lindenbaum had simply copied the list from his records; that a blanket dispossess notice for all tenants had been handled by his office; that no tenants were evicted; and that his office had handled all relocation.
• Trump overestimated his costs on the project by almost $8 million. Eventually, he was forced to return his $1.2 million overestimate on the land — but not until he’d used part of the money to buy the site for a nearby shopping center, avoiding the expenditure of a nickel of his own money. Moreover, since the builder’s fee is based on his estimated — not real — costs, Trump took what the State Commission called a “windfall” $600,00 profit on top of his already handsome $3.2 million fee.
• Trump created an equipment-rental company for the job, failed to disclose his ownership of the corporation, and then billed the state at rates far in excess of normal fees. For example, he charged $21,000 rent on a dump truck only valued at $3,600. He billed the housing companies another $8,280 for two tile scrapers, which, together, were valued at $1,000, $9,600 for a $3,500 truck, and so on.
Further, field reports demonstrated that much of this same equipment was being used to build Fred Trump’s nearby shopping center and was being falsely billed to the housing companies. The investigations commission cited this as an example of Fred Trump’s “talent for getting every ounce of profit out of his housing project.” It is a talent that he has passed on to his son. Fred Trump, irritated at being questioned about the rentals, characterized them as “peanuts.”
As a result of the investigation, part of Trump’s and Lindenbaum’s payments were withheld. But years later, arbitrators awarded full payment to both. Trump even won a claim for the interest he’d lost in the interval. Though Lindenbaum was paid through the city, then-comptroller Beame can’t recall having ever audited the controversial claim.
I asked Donald Trump about the issues raised by the commission. “I stand by everything we did on that job,” he said. “Trump Village is the most successful Mitchell-Lama job ever. There’s never been a vacant apartment or a tenant protest. It’s the highest voting district in the State of New York.”
Trump Village was the last project Fred Trump built. In 1965 he acquired Coney Island’s Steeplechase site, sought to redevelop it as a housing project, and ran up against the Lindsay administration’s interest in creating an amusement park there. In 1969 the city took the land from Trump in a condemnation proceeding. This time Bunny Lindenbaum did not “just sit.” He got a $3.8 million price on land Trump had purchased for $2.5 million only four years before. The city’s never done anything with the site.
“We stopped building and started acquiring then,” explains Donald Trump. Trump the building become Trump the management firm. It is clear that while the company’s properties are surely vast, they are exceeded by those of other landlords. The assessed value of the Trump holdings has varied considerably. Today, Donald hints at a figure well in excess of the $200 million estimate he offered the Times in 1976. He says the firm has acquired highly profitable land in Las Vegas and southern California. But Business Week quoted an independent valuation of $100 million. And the financial institutions backing Donald’s Hyatt deal — with Fred as guarantor of the loans — took 18 months to decide that the Trumps were an acceptable risk (indeed, Fred Trump started Trump Village as a private job in 1960 and, though he’d been in the business 20 years, he couldn’t get private financing).
In his interviews with me, Donald Trump repeatedly suggested that the firm was an awesome force in the industry. He also claimed that his convention center and hotel would be the largest in the country. They will not be. Real-estate entrepreneurs do their own advertising, and Trump has a way of doubling or shaving every number when it suits him. In interviews, Donald Trump has laid claim to 22,000 units in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey. But his testimony in federal court put the total figure around 12,000 units actually owned and managed. Whatever the size or exact dollar value, however, there is no question about the racial, economic, and sexual character of the Trump holdings. Tenants are mostly white. People receiving welfare do not live in Trump-owned apartments. Households with substantial male incomes do.
The Race Case
Under the federal Fair Housing Act, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division brought a landmark complaint against the Trump organization in 1973. The suit charged that the Trumps refused to rent to blacks. After a year and a half of furious legal and rhetorical combat, the Trumps, in 1975, agreed to a consent decree described by the head of the housing division as “one of the most far-reaching ever negotiated.” It required Trump to advertise vacancies in minority papers, promote minorities to professional jobs, and list vacancies on a preferential basis with the Open Housing Center of the Urban League.
Last March the Justice Department complained that Trump was in contempt of the consent decree and filed pending motions in Brooklyn federal court to compel compliance. The new complaint charges that “racially discriminatory conduct by Trump agents has occurred with such frequency that it has created a substantial impediment to the full enjoyment of equal opportunity.”
The evidence for the original charge against Trump was largely obtained through Urban League testers — white and black — who sought apartments in various Trump-owned complexes. Whites got them; blacks didn’t. The case was also based on a series of individual complaints to Eleanor Holmes Norton, then chairperson of the city’s Human Rights Commission. Norton resolved a half-dozen individual cases by compelling Trump to admit black complainants. She asked the federal government to look for a pattern. But perhaps the most compelling evidence came from Trump employees and former employees.
According to court records, four superintendents or rental agents confirmed that applications sent to the central office for acceptance or rejection were coded by race. Three doormen were told to discourage blacks who came seeking apartments when the manager was out, either by claiming no vacancies or hiking up the rents. A super said he was instructed to send black applicants to the central office but to accept white applications on site. Another rental agent said that Fred Trump had instructed him not to rent to blacks. Further, the agent said Trump wanted “to decrease the number of black tenants” already in the development “by encouraging them to locate housing elsewhere.”
Donald Trump charged in the press that the suit was part of a “nationwide drive to force owners of moderate and luxury apartments to rent to welfare recipients.”
“We are not going to be forced by anyone to put people…in our buildings to the detriment of tenants who have, for many years, lived in these buildings, raised families in them, and who plan to continue to live there. That would be reverse discrimination,” he said. “The government is not going to experiment with our buildings to the detriment of ourselves and the thousands who live in them now.”
Trump’s attorney, Roy Cohn, filed an equally shrill affidavit with the court, charging that the government sought “the capitulation of the defendants and the substitution of the Welfare Department for the management corporation!”
In March 1974, Donald Trump testified as president of many of the Trump housing companies. He assumed a color-blind posture throughout much of the questioning, claiming he “had no idea of the racial composition” of his tenants or employees (he lapsed when he described “an all-black job in Washington,” and conceded that the company owned projects that were 100 percent white).
He was, he continued, “unfamiliar” with the Fair Housing Act of 1969, and said that the company had made no changes in its rental policies since the law’s passage. He claimed that the only test of tenant eligibility was that the tenant’s rent should not exceed 25 percent of his income. He testified twice that “we don’t generally include the wife’s income; we like to see it for the male in the family.” Then he changed his testimony the next day, to try to include some assessment of the wife’s income.
Cohn explained the Trump policy of only advertising apartment vacancies in the Times: “We think the Times is geared to minorities. It supported a Puerto Rican for mayor against a Jew…”
In October 1974, Cohn filed a motion to dismiss the case and charged — in an ironic reversal of his earlier McCarthy days — that federal agents were engaging in “gestapo-like tactics” against his client. Cohn’s affidavit described the agents as “stormtroopers.” In court he said the Trumps were being subjected to “undercover agents going in and out of their buildings, lying as to who they are and where they are from…trying to trap somebody into saying or doing something.”
The judge found Cohn’s charges “utterly without foundation” and said, “This is the first time anyone’s charged FBI agents in a civil matter with…gestapo-type conduct.” Cohn, who fundraises for the J. Edgar Hoover Foundation, suddenly switched: “I have never brought a charge against the FBI in my life. I have personal reasons why I haven’t and I never would. My relationship is much too close.”
The disastrous failure of the dismissal motion — which may have been prompted more by what the agents were finding than how they were looking — was the last Trump offensive in the case. A few months later, the firm settled the decree. Trump’s press statement at the settlement was an unreconstructed version of the release the company sent out when the case began. It said the agreement satisfied the firm because it did not contain “any requirements that would compel the Trump organization to accept persons on welfare as tenants.” I asked Donald Trump why he’d stopped advertising vacancies in the Amsterdam News when the two-year court mandate had expired. “It’s a neighborhood paper for Harlem,” he said.
I’ve interviewed a couple of dozen people about Trump — in and out of government. Many had vague awareness of the charges against him; but no one seemed to think that the Trump race record should affect what the company gets from the city or state. In fact, no one had bothered to ask the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which is handling the case for the Justice Department, just what the facts are. Trump has proposed housing on the West Side — perhaps the most integrated neighborhood in the city. He’s justified the city’s largesse in the Commodore deal partially by pointing to the long-term jobs it will generate. Trump’s 1974 deposition in this case was 100 pages of uncontained contempt for the whole issue. Cohn said it for him: “this is a spit in the ocean.” I got the sense when I interviewed him that Trump has mellowed into a low-keyed indifference to the suit and the issue. It has nothing to do with profits or what he calls commercial “creativity.” It is not part of his real world. Neither is it for the people in government who keep making deals with him.
Early in the reporting of this story I was at the State’s Urban Development Corporation, reading records on Trump’s Commodore deal in a conference room. No one knew I was there but some UDC officials, and I hadn’t intended to talk to Trump until I’d learned what I could about him from documents. The phone in the office where I was working rang and the secretary said it was for me. It was Trump, buoyant over his surprise call: “I hear you’ve been going around town, asking a lot of negative questions about me. When are you going to talk to me?” he asked. “I’m circling,” I said.
I met him three times after the call — twice in his Manhattan apartment and once, at my insistence, in his Avenue Z office, still the base of the Trump organization but not where Trump likes to entertain reporters.
“Donald is embarrassed by his Brooklyn roots,” one of his business associates told me. “He uses Manhattan as his business address to put distance between himself and Avenue Z.” When I asked Bunny Lindenbaum what he thought of Donald’s — and his own son’s — preoccupation with Manhattan, his voice rose:
“They want to do their work in Manhattan. I was born in Brooklyn, I always practiced in Brooklyn. I still live in Brooklyn. I still have my offices in Brooklyn. They can’t take Brooklyn out of me.”
Wealth is supposed to convey an enviable status. I rode with Trump through Manhattan in his double-car-length silver chauffeured Cadillac with its DJT plates while he talked about how hard New York is on a developer, how communities fight him, how other cities want him. Through 30 blocks of slow Manhattan traffic, not a single New Yorker peered into the back of the carpeted limo.
The West Side groups who’d challenged him on his grandiose housing plans for the 60th Street yard had placed demands on his wealth and were not impressed with the symbols of it that he rushed to accumulate. Why lurch through Manhattan streets in an expensive advertisement of one’s wealth if no one even notices?
Until the last couple of weeks — when he became uneasy about what I’d been doing — Trump would call me for progress reports on my story: “Tell me,” he’d say, “you finding out what we’ve been doing is good for the city? What do people say about me? Do they say I’m loyal? Do they say I work hard?” But at the last interview, before I began my questions, he went through a prepared speech about his reputation: “I really value my reputation and I don’t hesitate to sue. I’ve sued twice for libel. Roy Cohn’s been my attorney both times. I’ve won once and the other case is pending. It’s cost me $100,000, but it’s worth it. I’ve broken one writer. You and I’ve been friends and all, but if your story damages my reputation, I want you to know I’ll sue.” Then, back to the smile — “but everything’ll be all right. We’re going to get together after the story.”
He’d been working gentler versions of this carrot-and-stick approach since the first interview. When I arrived at his apartment the first time, he opened with: “The Voice? That’s owned by Murdoch, right? Don Kummerfeld is running Murdoch’s operations, right? You know the former deputy mayor? He’s a good friend of mine.” At our very first meeting, he’d even begun talking about someone he’d threatened with a slander suit over a harmless comment.
When he found out I lived in the battered Brownsville section of Brooklyn, he called to say: “I could get you an apartment, you know. That must be an awfully tough neighborhood.” I told him I’d lived there for ten years and worked as a community organizer, so he shifted to another form of identification. “So we do the same thing,” he said. “We’re both rebuilding neighborhoods.” And again: “We’re going to have to really get to know each other after this article.”
Trump was testing me, to see what would work — convinced that either fear or the suggestion that I could have some undefined future relationship with his wealth or his influence could help shape the story. He only had to figure out what I wanted. Every relationship is a transaction.
He told me that he’d had to move from a prior Manhattan apartment because a reporter had printed his address. The rich are supposed to insist on privacy, right? But the Times had photographed him in the living room of one prior address, and he’d used the other at the top of his business letterhead. The next time I saw him he said he’d moved because he’d lived across from Gucci and that was no place to raise his new son. Now he lives across from Central Park.
His tendency to view things to his own advantage was made clear to me when I asked him about campaign contributions. He told me he had not contributed to Beame’s 1977 campaign. To do so, he said, would have been a conflict because of the Commodore and convention-center deals. But I found $5,000 in Trump-company contributions to the Beame deficit filed at the Board of Elections in 1978.
He angrily denied that he’d ever given a dime to Ohrenstein individually or to his campaign for Senate majority and threatened to sue anyone who said he did. The Trump organization was among the largest contributors to Ohrenstein individually one year and helped bankroll his campaign for Senate majority. Does he lapse into his fiercest denial when he just doesn’t know? When I confronted him on the Beame and Ohrenstein contributions, he said the donations must have come from his father.
Similarly, in his deposition in the federal discrimination case, Trump refused to acknowledge responsibility for accepting or rejecting individual tenants. Those statements were a material part of his testimony since they went to the heart of the case — Trump’s ability to control the discriminatory practices of his companies.
Shortly after he’d given his deposition, he was interviewed by a field investigator for the secretary of state. The interview had nothing to do with the federal case; the investigator was trying to determine if Trump met the experience requirement for a real-estate broker’s license. The report states: “Mr. Trump further stated that he supervises and controls the renting of all apartments owned by the Trump organization…During my interview with applicant he showed me hundreds of files…Each contained numerous leases both for commercial and residential tenants…and rental records, all of which contained applicant’s signature and handwriting.” Trump’s lawyer, Mathew Tosti, also claimed in a letter to the secretary of state that Trump had “negotiated numerous leases for apartments.”
Yet he’d testified in federal court:
Government: “Do you ever have anything to do with rental decisions in individual cases?
Trump: “No, I really don’t.”
Donald Trump is a user of other users. The politician and his moneychanger feed on each other. The moneychanger trades private dollars for access to public ones. Trump, Sunshine, Lindenbaum, and their counterparts Carey and Beame are classic expressions of this relationship. The transactions that result are contained in the father’s story of Trump Village and in next week’s account of Trump’s Manhattan conquests.
You can read the second part of this story, from the January 22, 1979, issue, here.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 20, 2015