How a Young Donald Trump Forced His Way From Avenue Z to Manhattan
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.
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"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;
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• 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.
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.
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.