Authors: Mary L. Trump;
Stacks of documents covered Irwin's desk. He sat in his chair behind them and began to explain what, exactly, we were about to sign. Before we got very far, Fritz interrupted him and said, “Mary and I talked about this earlier, and first we need to make sure that Mom will be taken care of.”
“Of course,” Irwin said. Then over the next two hours he methodically went through every piece of paper. The actual amount of money my father had left wasn't clear to me. The trusts were complex financial arrangements (at least to a sixteen-year-old), and there was what seemed to be a huge tax burden. After explaining each document's significance, Irwin pushed it across the desk for us to sign.
When he finished, he asked if we had any questions.
“No,” Fritz said.
I shook my head. I hadn't understood a thing Irwin had said.
ARY TRUMP MUGGED
” the New York tabloids, subtle as ever, blared in 100-point font the day after Halloween 1991. Even though I already knew what had happened, it was jarring to see the headlines as I passed news kiosks on my way to the subway.
My grandmother hadn't just been mugged, though. The kid who'd grabbed her purse in the grocery store parking lot as she loaded shopping bags into her Rolls-Royce had slammed her head against the car with such force that her brain had hemorrhaged, and she had lost some sight and hearing. When she hit the pavement, her pelvis fractured in several places and ribs broke, injuries that were no doubt more dangerous than they might have been if she hadn't had severe osteoporosis. By the time she arrived at Booth Memorial Hospital, her condition was grave, and we weren't sure if she was going to make it.
It wasn't until she was moved out of the intensive care unit and into a private room that her progress became visible, and it was weeks more before her pain became bearable. When her appetite started to come back, I took her whatever she wanted. One day she was drinking the butterscotch milkshake I'd picked up on the way when Donald showed up.
He said hello to us both and kissed her quickly. “Mom, you look great.”
“She's doing much better,” I said. He sat in a chair next to the bed and put a foot up on the edge of the bed frame.
“Mary's been visiting me every day,” Gam said, smiling at me.
He turned to me. “Must be nice to have so much free time.”
I looked at Gam. She rolled her eyes, and I tried not to laugh.
“How are you, sweetheart?” Gam asked him.
“Don't ask.” He seemed annoyed.
Gam asked him about his kids, if anything was new with him and Ivana. He didn't have much to say; clearly bored, he left after ten minutes or so. Gam glanced at the door to make sure he was gone. “Somebody's cranky.”
Now I did laugh. “To be fair, he's having a tough time,” I said. In the last twelve months, the Taj Mahal, his favorite Atlantic City casino, had declared bankruptcy just a little over a year after it had opened; his marriage was a disaster, thanks in part to his very public affair with Marla Maples; the banks had put him on an allowance; and the paperback version of his second book,
Surviving at the Top
, had been published under the title
The Art of Survival
. Despite the fact that he'd brought it all on himself, he seemed put upon rather than humbled or humiliated.
“Poor Donald,” Gam mocked. She seemed almost giddy, and I thought the hospital staff might need to cut back on her pain meds. “He was always like this. I shouldn't say it, but when he went to the Military Academy, I was so relieved. He didn't listen to anyone, especially me, and he tormented Robert. And, oh, Mary! He was such a slob. At school he got medals for neatness, then when he came home, he was still a slob!”
“What did you do?”
“What could I do? He never listened to me. And your grandfather didn't care.” She shook her head. “Donald got away with murder.”
That surprised me. I had always assumed my grandfather was a taskmaster. “That doesn't sound like him.”
At the time, my grandfather was at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan getting a hip replacement. I think he had only ever been in the hospital once, when he'd had a tumor on his neck near his right ear removed in 1989. I don't know if the timing of his hip surgery was a
coincidence or if it had been scheduled after Gam was admitted so she wouldn't have to deal with him while she recovered. His mental state had been deteriorating for some time and while he was in the hospital had definitely taken a turn for the worse. A few times, late at night, the nurses found him trying to leave wearing only boxer shorts. He told them he was going to find Mrs. Trump. Gam seemed pretty happy not to be found.
Donald's perceived success with the Grand Hyatt in 1980 had paved the way for Trump Tower, which had opened to great fanfare in 1983. From his reportedly abysmal treatment of the undocumented workers who built it to the alleged Mob involvement, the project was steeped in controversy. The affronts culminated in the destruction of the beautiful Art Deco limestone reliefs on the facade of the Bonwit Teller building, which he razed to make room for his. Donald had promised those historically significant artifacts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Realizing that removing them in one piece would cost money and slow down construction, he instead ordered that they be destroyed. When confronted with that breach of trust and taste, he shrugged it off, declaring the sculptures to be “without artistic merit,” as if he knew better than the considered assessment of experts. Over time that attitudeâthat he knew betterâwould become even more entrenched: as his knowledge base has decreased (particularly in areas of governing), his claims to know everything have increased in direct proportion to his insecurity, which is where we are now.
The real reason Donald's first two projects were acquired and developed relatively smoothly was in large part because of Fred's expertise as a developer and dealmaker. Neither would have been possible without his contacts, influence, approval, money, knowledge, and, maybe most important, endorsement of Donald.
Before that point, Donald had relied entirely on Fred's money and influenceâalthough he never acknowledged it and publicly credited his own wealth and savvy for his success. The media were more than
happy to go along without question, and the banks followed suit when Donald started to pursue the idea of becoming a casino operator in New Jersey, which in 1977 had legalized gambling in Atlantic City in an effort to save the flailing seaside resort town. If my grandfather's opinion had carried any weight with him, Donald would never have invested in Atlantic City. Manhattan was worth the risk, as far as Fred was concerned, but in Atlantic City he would have nothing except money and advice to offerâno political clout or knowledge of the industry to draw on. By then Fred's influence over him was waning, and in 1982 Donald applied for his gaming license.
While her brother was casting about for investment opportunities, Maryanne, who had been an assistant district attorney in New Jersey since the mid-1970s, asked Donald if he would ask Roy Cohn to do him a favor. Cohn had enough clout with the Reagan administration that he was given access to AZT, an experimental AIDS treatment, as well as influence over judicial appointments. Conveniently, a seat was open in the US District Court for the District of New Jersey. Maryanne thought it would be a great fit, and Donald thought it might be useful to have a close relative on the bench in a state in which he planned to do a lot of business. Cohn gave Attorney General Ed Meese a call, and Maryanne was nominated in September and confirmed in October.
In yet another sign of Fred's waning influence, Donald had purchased a $300 millionâplus casino that would become Trump's Castle sight unseen in 1985, only a year after he had bought Harrah's, which became Trump Plaza. For Donald, too much of a good thing was a better thing; Atlantic City had unlimited potential, he believed, so two casinos were better than one. By then Donald's ventures already carried billions of dollars of debt (by 1990, his personal obligation would balloon to $975 million). Even so, that same year he bought Mar-a-Lago for $8 million. In 1988, he'd bought a yacht for $29 million and then, in 1989, the Eastern Air Lines Shuttle for $365 million. In 1990, he'd had to issue almost $700 million in junk bonds, carrying a 14 percent
interest rate, just to finish construction on his third casino, the Taj Mahal. It seemed as if the sheer volume of purchases, the price tags of the acquisitions, and the audacity of the transactions kept everybody, including the banks, from paying attention to his fast-accumulating debt and questionable business acumen.
Back then, Donald's favorite color scheme was red, black, and gold, so Atlantic City's cheap glitz appealed to him almost as much as the allure of easy money. The house always wins, after all, and it was a good bet that anybody who could afford the buy-in would do well there. Atlantic City was completely outside of Fred's purview, which also appealed to Donald. Setting aside the massive monetary investments made by Fred and others, operating a casino, unlike the Grand Hyatt and Trump Tower, which were development projects that were ultimately managed by other entities, would be an ongoing business. As such, it would have been Donald's first opportunity to succeed independently of his father.
Having his own casino provided Donald an outsize canvas; he could tailor that entire world to his specifications. And if one casino was good, two would be better and three even better than that. Of course, his casinos were competing with one another and eventually would be cannibalizing one another's profits. As absurd as it was, there was a certain logic to his wanting moreâafter all, it had worked for his father. But Donald didn't understand, and refused to learn, that owning and running casinos were vastly different from owning and running rental properties in Brooklyn, from the business model and the market to the customer base and the calculus involved. Because he couldn't see that glaring distinction, it was easy for him to believe that more was better in Atlantic City, just as it had been for my grandfather in New York's outer boroughs. If one casino was a cash cow, three would be a herd of them. He would do with casinos what Fred had done with his apartment buildings.
The only part of the scenario that defies explanation is the fact that the banks and investors in his first two casinos didn't object more
strenuously to his opening a third, which would cut into their own bottom lines. It made even less sense that he could find anybody interested in investing in it. Even a casual glance at the numbersânot least, the debt serviceâshould have scared the most reckless lender away. In the late 1980s, nobody said no to Donald, thereby legitimizing another misguided project that had the ancillary benefit of bolstering the ego of a man who had no way of making it succeed.
In August of that year,
Surviving at the Top
was published, and within weeks it would become clear that the book's subject matter and timing were bad enough to qualify as parody.
In June 1990, Donald missed a $43 million payment for Trump's Castle. Six months later, my grandfather sent his chauffeur with more than $3 million in cash to purchase chips at the Castle. In other words, he bought the chips with no intention of gambling with them; his driver simply put them in a briefcase and left the casino. Even that wasn't enough. The next day, my grandfather wired another $150,000 to the Castle, presumably for more chips. Although those maneuvers helped temporarily, they resulted in my grandfather's having to pay a $30,000 fine for violating a gaming commission rule prohibiting unauthorized financial sources from lending money to casinos. If he wanted to continue lending Donald money to keep his casinos afloat (which he did), he would also be required to get a gaming license in New Jersey. But it was too late. Donald might have controlled 30 percent of Atlantic City's market share, but the Taj was making it impossible for his two other casinos to make money (the Plaza and Castle lost a combined $58 million the year the Taj opened), the three properties carried $94 million in annual debt, and the Taj alone needed to pull in
more than $1 million a day
to break even.
The banks were bleeding money. Just as the Taj was opening, Donald and his lenders were meeting to try to figure out how to rein in and manage his spending. The possibility of more defaults and bankruptcies still loomed, and a solution had to be found that would protect Donald's image, which, in turn, would protect the banks' money.
Without the veneer of success and confidence he projected (and had projected for him), the bankers feared that his properties, already in trouble, would lose even more value. His last name was the draw: without the name there would be no new gamblers or tenants or people willing to buy bonds and hence no new revenue.
In addition to fronting Donald the money to cover his businesses' operating expenses, the banks reached an agreement with him in May 1990 to put him on a $450,000-a-month allowanceâthat is, almost $5.5 million a year for having failed miserably. That money was just for personal expenses: the Trump Tower triplex apartment, the private jet, the mortgage on Mar-a-Lago. In order to sell his image, Donald needed to be able to continue living the lifestyle that bolstered it.
In order for the banks to keep tabs on him, Donald had to meet with them every Friday to report on his expenditures as well as progress he'd made selling assets such as the yacht. In May 1990, there was no denying how dire the situation was. As much as Donald complained to Robert that the banks were “killing” him, the truth was that he was beholden to them in a way he had never been to his father: he had never been on a leash before, let alone a short one, and it chafed. He was legally obligated to pay the banks back, and if he didn't, there would be consequences. At least there should have been.
Despite the restrictions, Donald continued spending cash he didn't have, including $250,000 for Marla's engagement ring and $10 million to Ivana as part of their divorce settlement. I don't think it ever occurred to him that he couldn't spend whatever he wanted no matter what the circumstances. The banks admonished him for betraying their agreement, but they never took any action against him, which just reinforced his belief that he could do whatever he wanted, as he almost always had.
In a way, you can't really blame Donald. In Atlantic City, he had become unmoored from his need for his father's approval or permission. He no longer needed to talk himself up; his exaggerated assessment of himself was simultaneously fueled and validated by banks that were
throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at him and a media that lavished him with attention and unwarranted praise. The two combined rendered him blind to how dire his situation was. My grandfather's myths about Donald were now being reinforced by the world at large.