One morning in the mid-1980s, New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean walked into his office at the State House 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, a self-proclaimed political outsider, played the ultimate insider's game in New Jersey, where political deals require relationships and cash. With the state's presidential primary on June 7, New Jersey voters will get their first opportunity to vote for a man who has long played an outsize role in state politics.
Trump golfed and broke bread with nearly every major political power broker in the state. He used sweet talk, like he did with Kean, but he also deployed attack ads, like with former Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. He spent millions on New Jersey lobbyists, lawyers, spokesmen and political operatives, many of whom then contributed money to important politicians. This is how he survived business failures in state — and how he caught a lot of breaks.
Casinos, Football, Golf And The Statehouse
Trump built his 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 1 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 New Jersey 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, about whom he had bragged 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 U.S. representative and 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 nonbinding 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 it 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 Trump would create would only be for 10 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.
Fame And Power
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, in exchange for the free pass 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 on his yacht, the Trump Princess, for the wife of a pro-Trump Atlantic City mayor.
"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 makeup 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 No. 1 in its time slot."
The Art Of Connections
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 biography of Trump.
Trump also hired those who were connected. One of Trump's top lawyers was his brother-in-law, John Barry, who worked at a firm founded by a state attorney general who oversaw his casinos. Former state regulators ended up working at the same firm.
The amount of money that Trump spent on lawyers isn't public record — but his lobbying records are. In 1998 alone, Trump Casinos and Hotels paid $443,912 to outside lobbyists, the second most of any entity in the state. State records show he kept several lobbyists on retainer at a time. By hiring away the top lobbyists, one source said, they couldn't work for his opponents.
Lobbyists traffic in relationships. They introduced Trump to the people that matter — often on the golf course.
"The only substitute for making contributions to form relationships is to spend the time to get to know people and convincing them on the merits," said Torricelli, the former senator. "And he did. And he was good at it."
Bill Pascrell III, the son of a Democratic congressman, was one of Trump's casino lobbyists in the late 1990s. "He's certainly not my cup of tea, but he's a very smart guy, and he was always good at working with our team in terms of interaction with politicians," Pascrell said. "Most who met him I think enjoyed the experience."
Pascrell saw Trump play golf in New Jersey with not just the leaders of the state Legislature but also John Boehner, the former speaker of the House. (Boehner beat him and won about five bucks, Pascrell says, which infuriated Trump.) Several politicos said Trump was simply pleasant to be around, even if some former lobbyists and attorneys griped that he didn't always pay them on time, if at all.
One of Trump's executives from the early 1990s, New Jersey developer Billy Procida, said he learned the art of politics and deal-making from watching Trump. "You try to be friendly with as many people as you can be friendly with, within the constraints of the law," he said. "Frankly I did learn a lot from Donald in that regard, in that it wasn't tit for tat. It wasn't direct. ... When you get up into the stratosphere, everybody's friends. You need as many friends in life as in business."
Trump operated in New Jersey with no partisan leanings.
"Donald did not content himself with simply speaking with governors or senators," Torricelli said. "He actually built relationships in political organizations and through the political hierarchy."
For much of Trump's time in New Jersey, a Democratic insurance executive named George Norcross was at the top of that political hierarchy. He has tremendous sway over who gets on the ballot and which way legislators vote. Trump became friends with Norcross, and Norcross' firm landed insurance contracts at Trump's casinos.
In 2003, Trump's rivals in the casino industry and a Republican state senator complained that Norcross strongarmed a sweetheart tax deal for Trump through the Legislature. Years later, Norcross' 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 invited 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, which was later dismissed, against Tim O'Brien, author of the book Trump Nation. But he didn't file in New York, where O'Brien worked as a reporter, nor in North Jersey, where O'Brien lived. Trump sued in South Jersey, specifically, in Camden County, Norcross' power center. The year before, Norcross had been caught on tape as part of a criminal investigation boasting of his control over the appointment of judges. Norcross was never charged with a crime, but now O'Brien was sitting in a Camden County courtroom — and Trump was represented by Norcross' top lawyer, Bill Tambussi.
"We always believed that the reason they wanted the venue in Southern New Jersey was that Donald thought he could leverage political connections he had down there by virtue of the operations he also had in Atlantic City to get favorable treatment in the courts," O'Brien said.
In New Jersey, Trump saddled up to Democrats, the majority party, time and again.
In 2000, when Trump briefly toyed with running for president on the Reform Party ticket, one of Norcross' top political consultants — a friend of Trump ally Roger Stone — worked for him. Today, that consultant, Steve Ayscue, is the second-in-command for Hillary Clinton's campaign in New Jersey.
Through a spokesman, Norcross declined to comment about anything related to the election. He is a Democratic superdelegate but has yet to publicly declare his support for a candidate. Ayscue did not return requests for comment, nor did Tambussi, the attorney.
"Yes, George is a friend of mine, but George is friendly with a lot of people in Atlantic City," Trump once said. "I wish I had that kind of power."