I made my bones as the first reporter to nail Donald Trump on the facts. In 1988, I proved that Trump Tower apartments had been terrible real estate buys -- most of the re-sales since opening day in 1983 lost money for the sellers.1
This was before Donald's hair entered the Twilight Zone. Since then, the American media has apparently joined it.
What other explanation can there be for taking his presidential "candidacy" seriously? Not to talk out of school, but this is a marketing thing, people: Donald Trump is in the franchising business, and his candidacy looks suspiciously about getting free advertising to me. When Glenn Beck thinks you're too weird, you're too weird.
The amazing thing to me is that people have been taking Donald seriously for so long. After all, Trump Tower is why people think putting your money where Donald's mouth is is a money maker, and what my reporting showed was that in 1980s New York real estate, there was nothing to that.
In fact, at a time when comparable New York apartments were getting returns of 27.4% a year, people who bought and then sold Trump Tower apartments between 1983 and 1988 were getting 4.34% a year overall. This was because of the 71 that were re-sold, 27 sold at a loss -- three of them lost more than $500,000 -- and of the remainder, 21 had relatively small profits -- under $150,000. This doesn't look so horrible today, but was scandalous in 1988.
And if you added in the probable renovation costs, the numbers reversed -- 20 profits and 50 losses.
This didn't take into consideration the fact that most brokers couldn't dragoon their customers into showing them Trump Tower apartments. Aside from being on a busy commercial street, over a store -- the Mall at Trump Tower -- the very pricey apartments had ordinary floors and layouts. Worst of all, every room had a big forced air register smack in the middle of a wall.
That combination did no favors for people who bought Trump Tower apartments hoping to make a killing, although in fairness, some people did -- especially if they flipped them fast.
But that was no help for Johnny Carson, the long-time host of the Tonight Show, who bought two apartments in 1983 for $3 million, spent at least $250,000 turning it into a duplex fit for a star, and sold it in 1987 for $2.75 million. And Carson's apartment sat on the market for years; according to real estate gossip at the time, the only way Carson sold it was by telling Trump he'd start ridiculing him on TV if Trump didn't find him a buyer.
The real mystery isn't why people thought buying at Trump Tower was a good deal. It was how Donald had gotten it built in the first place.
Donald Trump's demolition contractor used non-union labor when he cleared the Trump Tower site, and in the Manhattan construction business in the 1980s, this was just not done. Then as today, unions control everything in Manhattan construction and, more to the point, nothing gets built in Manhattan without the Teamsters.
This is because there's no room at any Manhattan construction site to store anything. The day's construction materials are trucked in from New Jersey on a very tight, orchestrated schedule, and any delay at this chokepoint -- a slowdown, for instance -- can cost the developer millions in interest. So the question is: How did Donald Trump get the Teamsters to ignore what his contractor was doing?
Well, nobody built anything in Manhattan in the 1980s without the Mafia's say-so -- specifically, the Genovese family's say-so. Building in Manhattan in those days didn't mean you were a mobster -- just that anybody with a $150 million construction loan is either a realist or bankrupt. Specifically, it doesn't mean Donald Trump -- or any developer -- is a gangster.
But here's what TIME Magazine said about Donald Trump, the Mob, and building Trump Tower:
You can bet there was a wise guy somewhere in the background," says an FBI specialist on the Genovese family. Says labor consultant Daniel Sullivan, an FBI source on the Mob who has testified in the case: "It's a classic Mob relationship. Trump or his people had to have a deal to get such a sweetheart contract.
And here's what happened lo those many years ago.
According to the court papers, Donald's demolition contractor used about 200 non-union Polish workers called "The Polish Brigade" in the demolition job for Trump Tower. These workers actually lived on the site, and for awhile, Trump's company not only paid the contractor's payroll, but also what the court papers call fees to Housing Wrecker's Union Local 95 to prevent a strike. Donald denied he knew anything about this when he testified at the trial.
In those days, the Genovese family controlled the Housewrecker's union outright, and it also controlled the Manhattan concrete business through one Tony Salerno, who owned the only concrete factory in Manhattan, W&S Concrete -- and, according to many sources, controlled the Teamsters.
As it happens, Trump Tower is a poured concrete building. Sixty-eight stories of it.
Again, I'm not accusing Donald Trump of being a gangster. You do what you have to do.
But sometimes in business, you do what you can do. Take, for instance, this story.
My business is a lot like any other; at a meeting you chit-chat, you do business, then chit-chat on the way out.
And this was what it was like at my first sit-down with Donald Trump; we talked about real estate -- in the 1980s a lot of people in the business said I was the best real estate reporter in New York -- then I heard him out about why Trump Tower was the greatest real estate investment of all time, and then we talked about boxing.
I reported the story in the summer of 1988. Mike Tyson was world heavyweight champion at the time, going through a disastrous and very public divorce and just as publicly being wooed from the people who'd made him champ by Don King .
King is widely blamed for how Tyson turned out after he left the circle of Cus D'Amato, who'd taken Tyson out of Brooklyn and more or less raised him. Many of the gossip columns about Tyson at the time mentioned an association with Donald Trump.
Mike Tyson was one of boxing's great champions. His life hasn't lacked for drama, and not all of that's worked out for him; but when he stepped into the ring in his prime, there was only Tyson, and the guy who was going to take a beating.
What Mike Tyson wasn't at the time was a really sophisticated guy when it came to the finer points of alley-fighting in $3,000 suits. And anybody who was reading the papers that summer knew Tyson was surrounded by sharks who weren't very worried about his best interests.
So being on the subject of boxing as we walked to his office door, I said to Donald Trump that I knew he was friendly with Mike Tyson, that Tyson was surrounded by sharks, and that I hoped that he, Donald Trump, would take care of Tyson.
"Yeah," said Trump. "Somebody really ought to take care of Tyson." And he winked at me.
A week later the news was that Tyson had signed a "slave contract" with Don King, the gossip at the time having been that Trump had done the deed, in return for exclusive rights to hold Tyson's fights in Atlantic City.
And now Donald Trump says he's running for president.
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