The period from 2011-2012 seems to be a pivotal one as we look at the Spygate saga for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is the rumblings from a certain billionaire real estate developer named Donald Trump. Who was Donald Trump before he was President and was he the bad person many people made him to be?
Donald Trump inherited the company his grandmother formed and his father expanded. In 1968, having graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in economics, Donald, joined the company. By 1971, he was president of the company, although his father was still involved in its operations.
In 1973, the company became embroiled in a controversy. Under the federal Fair Housing Act, the US Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division initiated proceedings accusing Trump’s company of refusing to rent apartments to black applicants. There was a series of courtroom and rhetorical battles between the Trumps and the government. The Trumps hired Roy Cohn, known for at one time representing mobsters. The case eventually ended in a consent decree in 1975 with no admission of wrongdoing.
It is easy to sit here and rail against the business practices of the past. One has to consider the New York real estate market through a business lens, not with a moral compass. This is one of the most ethnically diverse, highly populated cities on earth occupying a finite amount of real estate. The simple laws of supply and demand dictate that any real estate venture or development in any of New York’s five boroughs is going to be an expensive proposition.
Anywhere there is money to be made, there will be organized crime and New York is the epicenter of the mafia. One would be surprised if Trump did not have some organized crime associates in his business career. If one is looking for a strictly clean company of this nature in New York, you have to look long and hard.
By 1979, Donald Trump had become the new face of American capitalism- young, brash, ruthless. The name Donald Trump first made the headlines of the New York Times on page 1 under the fold in 1973 in relation to the housing discrimination case. In 1975, Variety- an entertainment publication- ran their first story about him.
Trump had entered into the New York real estate market when the city was in the midst of a severe financial crisis. The city teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and a serial killer was stalking the streets. As New York edged towards the 1980s, the crime rate soared in the city and a group called the Guardian Angels were starting to patrol the streets. At the lowest point in the city’s history, Trump took advantage of the city’s anxieties and uncertainties to help secure tax breaks and take his career to the next level.
Why Trump would appeal to more conservative rural voters in 2016 since he was a creation of the ultimate big city? Part of it is his upbringing which was not on the mean and grimy streets of the city, but in about as suburban as you can get in the city- Jamaica Estates in Queens. But whereas his father was happy to develop properties in Queens and Brooklyn, Donald Trump set his eyes on Manhattan.
Instead of living in Queens, he moved to Manhattan. Seeking the acceptance of the Manhattan elite, they thought him too brash and bold. He was considered an outer-borough outsider propped up by his wealthy and politically-connected father. He wanted to be considered a serious real estate mogul, but seldom was. His loose lips and in-your-face style appealed to the blue collar workforce in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, but not to the powers of Manhattan. To some, according to those familiar with Trump in those days, he was actually considered “repulsive.”
We could, at this point, rehash all of Trump’s business dealings and failures, but to what effect and for what purpose? We know about his past dealings with shady characters like Felix Sater, his attempts to break into the Russian real estate market, tenuous ties to organized crime figures, bankruptcies, and deals that did not turn out so artful. Numerous books have been written about Trump and not all of them are flattering.
Instead, we have to look at Trump from a more global aspect against the backdrop of the Obama administration. What was happening? The Arab Spring nonsense had broken out by 2012 and later that year the Benghazi debacle occurs. Obama was running for reelection and there were questions about who would emerge as a challenger. From a foreign policy standpoint, the Obama administration was singularly focused on working out a deal with Iran over their nuclear ambitions and forging what would eventually become the JCPOA. His administration was going after leakers and journalists with zeal.
Most people overlooked the fact that Trump had considered the possibility of a presidential run in 2012. He started a stealth campaign but was faced with a major decision- whether to continue on his popular reality television show- The Apprentice- or seek the Presidency? When he announced his intentions back in 2012, modesty was not a trademark. He declared that if he had decided to run, he would have been the nominee and would have defeated Barack Obama. He also declared that business, not seeking political office, was his passion. What may have convinced Trump against a run versus Obama was the birther issue left over from 2008.
In 2011-2012, a poll conducted by George Washington University showed that Trump had only a 29% chance of defeating Obama. For a little while, Trump acted as if he was actually campaigning giving speeches in New Hampshire, but many within the GOP viewed him more as an irritant than a legitimate candidate, especially over the birther issue. Despite the irritation at Trump expressed by the GOP and skepticism among political pundits, Trump managed to draw huge crowds at his “campaign” stops and rallies. When Huckabee decided against a run and Trump was riding high in the polls, Trump was still hesitant in giving up his show.
Still, Trump was cagey with responses to questions in 2011 and 2012. He railed against countries like China and their growing economic presence, and being beholden to OPEC for energy. He said the first two things he would do, if he decided to run and did defeat Obama, was to negotiate a trade deal with China and take OPEC head on and make the country energy independent.
What people most remember about Trump in this political climate was his harping on Obama’s citizenship. Trump did not start the birther issue- that had come about at some point in the 2008 campaign most likely originating among Hillary supporters and, if one were a betting person, one should look to Hillary confidante Sidney Blumenthal. But it was Trump in 2011 who resurrected the controversy.
In March 2011, on The View he was asking why Obama did not produce his birth certificate. Just five days later he expressed his reservations regarding Obama’s citizenship on Fox News. A few days later he told Laura Ingraham that Obama might be Muslim. By early April, he was suggesting that Obama pulled off a con on the American public. The constant barrage of comments by Trump was put to rest when Obama produced the long form of his birth certificate which Trump took credit. Even though Trump did not run in 2012, the birther issue became a topic when Trump endorsed Romney and the nominee was asked about the issue.
Perhaps the biggest impetus for Trump to reconsider a run for the presidency in 2012 was the Washington White House Correspondents dinner, an annual rite of mirth and laughter. Obama addressed that confab with Trump in attendance in May 2011. Obama seriously mocked Trump likening the birther issue to other “pressing matters” like the moon landing, Roswell and who killed Tupac and Biggie Smalls. He mocked The Apprentice. The host, Seth Myers, questioned Trump’s alleged racism in the past. In short, Trump may have overplayed the birther issue and questionable business transactions in the past likely converged to convince Trump that a White House run was not in the cards in 2012.
So what changed in the intervening four years? First, 2016 was an open election and there would be no Obama with which to contend. Second, there is a tendency in American politics to change the political party in the White House every 8-12 years. Third, there was a rash of populist victories in Europe, especially in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia punctuated by the Brexit movement. Finally, immigration became a flashpoint of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals and Trump entered the political fray with all guns ablaze on this front.
Next: The 2016 Campaign
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