In the introduction to this book Wayne Barrett recounts a phone conversation with Donald Trump's press agent, who urged the author to drop the word "downfall" from the subtitle. Trump "will make a comeback," he advised, in words that probably seem not just prophetic but an understatement today.
It is because of that comeback that I read this book. Today Trump is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for the presidency of the United States of America. His claim to the office rests in large part about his declared abilities as a businessman. Seeking to learn more about his career in business, I sought out a copy of Barrett's book, which was published in 1992 in the aftermath of Trump's initial declaration of bankruptcy. While this precludes consideration of last twenty-four years of his activities, Barrett's book opens up much about Trump's early years based on interviews with both Trump's contemporaries (associates and adversaries) and those of his father, Fred Trump. The result is a book that is impossible to write about today, given now many have passed on since then.
The portrait Barrett paints is not a flattering one. He traces the origins of the family's business empire to Donald Trump's grandfather, Fred Trump, Sr., who had accumulated several properties and mortgages before his early death from pneumonia. These his son Fred Jr. -- Donald's father -- transformed into a successful career as a developer, building homes and apartments in Queens and Brooklyn from the 1930s to the 1950s, Barrett emphasizes the role of connections in the development of the younger Fred Trump's business, seeing his ties with the Democratic machines in both boroughs as integral to his business activities.
Federal investigations in the 1950s brought an end to Fred Trump's activities as a developer, as he focused instead on managing his existing properties. Yet Donald exploited both his father's name and the network of contacts he developed to break into the Manhattan real estate market in the 1970s. Barrett goes into considerable detail about the evolution of each of Donald's deals, from his first major project in renovating the old Commodore Hotel to his long-term pursuit of the development opportunities available in the disused 60th Street railyards. Much of the profits gained from these projects were due to the extremely favorable terms Donald wrung from the city, thanks not just to his inherited connections but those of Roy Cohn as well, as the infamously corrupt attorney dealmaker emerges as a surrogate father to the young man.
While Donald's early successes established him as a major figure in the New York region, it was Trump's involvement with the defunct United States Football League which brought him to the national stage for the first time. While Barrett probably overemphasizes Trump's role in bringing about the demise of the league, he makes it clear about how Trump's goal in using the USFL as a means of forcing himself into the more expensive National Football League did the struggling young league no favors. It was during this period in the mid-1980s that Trump also became involved in the casino industry in Atlantic City, where he sought to build up an entertainment empire far larger than could be viably supported by the market there.
Barrett also addresses Trump's emerging national image during this period, as it becomes key to his initial downfall. As he followed his father's career trajectory from development to ownership, he received tens of millions of dollars in loans from banks that he used to go on a massive buying spree. These loans were offered without even a cursory examination of Trump's underlying finances, as bankers were drawn less to a careful assessment of his assets and liabilities than a submission to the power of his personality and the glamour of his public image. The result was that by the end of the 1980s Trump was overleveraged, and Donald entered the new decade facing both the implosion of his heavily indebted empire and an embarrassing and costly divorce from his first wife Ivana.
Overall Barrett's book is a damming autopsy of Trump as a person and as a businessman. While the author's biases occasionally shine through, the sheer amount of detail he uses, based on an examination of the enormous amount of filings, financial records, and lawsuits produced over the course of his subject's activities, makes it difficult to disagree with the substance of his assessments. It is a book that should be read by everyone interested in learning about Trump's early career in business, one that offers some food for thought in considering what he might do should he win the highest office in the land.