The FRONTLINE Interview: Jack O’Donnell
Hired in 1987 as Vice President of Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City, Jack O’Donnell would become a critic of Donald Trump. He says he became particularly disillusioned with his boss after a helicopter crash in 1989 killed two casino executives. Business soon soured for Trump in Atlantic City. O’Donnell says Trump began “blaming these problems on two people that had died while working for him.” Though he was president of Trump Plaza and liked his job, O’Donnell left in 1990, wrote a critical book, “Trumped!” and says he moved on, rarely discussing his experience with his former boss.
In his interview, O’Donnell discusses why he thinks Trump failed in Atlantic City, why he declined interviews about Donald Trump for 25 years, and why he is speaking out now.
This is the transcript of a conversation with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk held on June 25, 2016. It has been edited for clarity and length.
When the buzz starts that Donald Trump from New York City might be thinking about heading to Atlantic City , what did you think of him? What was the image of the Donald Trump that might be coming?
I didn’t have a huge image. I knew him as a developer in New York, of course, and someone [who] had exclusively kept his development to the city, and that’s how I viewed him. But I also knew that he was a very brash personality. … There was a natural curiosity about him, and I think that there was a heightened awareness about who he was and what he could do in the town. There was all that talk: could this town handle two personalities, Trump and Wynn?
It really was a clash of the titans, wasn’t it? My sense from your book is Wynn is a showman, and Trump has the kind of bravado adventurer spirit, but not a showman in the way that Wynn was.
[Steve] Wynn really was a showman, but Wynn was also a brilliant guy, and I think at the time people viewed Trump as the same. For whatever his style was compared to Wynn, I think there was a perception that he was a very bright guy, that he had done well with what he had in New York.
Eventually you find yourself working at Trump Plaza, and your first interaction with Donald Trump is when he comes to your office. Take me there, will you?
… I’m just getting settled in my office. You report to work your first day at a new place and you’re getting settled, and suddenly he is standing in the doorway, knowing exactly who I was, and me knowing who he was, of course. There was a natural nervousness at first. I was a young guy. But I was excited. I was genuinely excited to meet Donald Trump. I was genuinely excited to be part of this team. And I really did believe that this was going to be the best job in the world and working for him in particular. And so I was excited about the meeting.
He says to you, “I’m going to be a good boss. You can trust me. I like winners” or whatever it was he said.
This is classic Donald Trump, “I’m the best. You’ve made the best decision. And I’m a great guy to work for,” the kind of things that he says today. And it was really pretty simple. It wasn’t an in-depth conversation about the business. It turned very quickly into a gossip session, and I found that interesting at the time.
He didn’t want to know about the nuts and bolts; he wanted to know about Steve Wynn.
That was the main focus of the first time that I met him. We just kind of talked about my background, and then it was, “Tell me about Steve Wynn.”
Do you remember your reaction?
I was disappointed, for sure, and I do remember shaking my head going, “Wow, that was Donald Trump,” because I had a great comparison in terms of a real operator. I had just come from Wynn, and for the hundreds if not thousands of times that I spent talking to Steve Wynn, I learned something from him every single time I was with him. So it was disappointing, that first meeting.
What was the disappointment about?
I was expecting a little more. Believe it or not, I was expecting a little bit more strategic talk, you know, “What are you going to do?” I wanted him to pick my mind. I was used to somebody picking my mind, saying, “Tell me what you think about this. Tell me what you think about that,” because that’s Wynn. Wynn believes in the minds of other people, and so he is constantly trying to get into your brain to see if he can learn something new, but there was none of that conversation with Trump. Maybe that was not a great expectation, maybe it had to be just a quick meeting, but it was certainly disappointing.
It’s that time in America, the go, go ‘80s or the late ‘70s, and there is a lot of money sloshing around in the world. It’s the very beginning of junk bonds. There is a lot of capital looking for a place to go. And it’s probably the right time for Donald Trump to land in Atlantic City.
I think it was. He certainly had access to the capital, and there was clearly going to be a void in the city. … He was stepping in at a time when Steve Wynn was leaving, and so I think there was that great anticipation that this was going to be a very, very good thing, because Atlantic City was still a tough place and didn’t have the reputation or the panache of Las Vegas.
And didn’t have an airport, didn’t have warm weather all year round. It really sounds like sort of deficits that maybe he did and maybe he didn’t understand.
Yeah. Well, Atlantic City has always been and will always be dependent on really what we call grind business, the low to midlevel customer, and coming in very high volume individuals. So, Trump did represent the upper class, so to speak, like Wynn did, at least in anticipation, that maybe Trump could do what Wynn was doing with the high end business. And I think that there was also an anticipation with a guy like Trump that there might be opportunities even internationally, the way he spoke and the things that he said he wanted to do.
He is not a management guy. Certainly you got that from the very beginning, this is not a guy who says, “Alright, I want to know about how many buses do we have to bring these people.” He is not that guy.
…That was a fundamental difference between where I had been. Steve Wynn would want to know exactly how many people were coming in on a Saturday and from what markets in particular, and if you’re bringing in eight buses midweek from Orange, New Jersey, as an example, are you doing that on Saturday night and what is, what does the mix of the players look like on the floor at any particular time. I mean Steve Wynn got into that kind of detail, and that conversation never happened in the time that I was there with Donald, and I grew not to expect it, because it just wasn’t his interest.
What do you figure he was doing there?
The casino industry, you can say a lot of things about it, [but] it crunches out a lot of cash, and I think Donald knew that.
He did that.
I think that he had a vision for Trump Gaming, that it could be a force beyond Atlantic City. He liked it because it was still regional, he could get there quickly. But I think he in his heart was hoping that it would be a launching pad to something bigger in Nevada one day.
He wisely hires Steve Hyde and Mark Etess. How are they crucial to what Donald Trump wants to do?
Steve Hyde becomes very crucial because he is a people person above everything. He is a smart guy. He has got an accounting background, so he knows the numbers, he can talk the numbers, but Steve Hyde was a people person. If there was a void in the Trump organization [it’s] that it’s a pretty cold place.
What do you mean?
Generally if you’re around Donald Trump you realize that people are commodities, they’re there to do a job, and that’s it. It’s that basic. How do you help or serve? Yes, I’m going to pay you for it, but how do you help me? And that’s kind of it. And the gaming industry is one in which it’s all about personal relationships, it’s all about people liking people, greeting people with a smile, making people feel welcome, and Steve Hyde knew that that was a critical piece to being successful in gambling. And so that filled a huge void for Trump. Steve Hyde made it a good place to work for people, where Donald could not have done that on his own.
How do you run a casino when you’re a celebrity like Donald Trump? You would think he would be feeding off the energy, but you describe many times when he is walking along, his head is down, or there is a party for high rollers and he is standing in the corner, he doesn’t want anything to do with any of them.
That was part of Donald Trump at the time. He never really related to the business. The business is all about making people feel great. There is nothing tangible to gambling, and that’s what a lot of people don’t understand and so you have to fill that void. It’s not like [when] you go into Nordstrom’s and you buy this beautiful jacket and you go home and you put it on in the mirror and you look and you go, “God this is great. I love this jacket.” That’s not gambling. People come in and very often they leave with nothing, so you’ve got to bring some piece to it of satisfaction. And the only way you make people feel good is if you’re nice to them. And yes at the high end you’re giving them nice suites, and you’re giving them great restaurants and all that, but it’s all about that personal experience.
The issues for Donald were that he had trouble doing that with the high end, so he certainly had trouble doing it with the lower end as well, and, quite frankly, that’s the key to success in Atlantic City.
In your book you say that part of your job was keep Donald away from the staff.
… [Donald] had an aggravating little habit of talking to anybody but always asking questions not about the operation but about one of the bosses. So you might have Donald walking through the casino floor and he might grab a dealer and say, “What kind of job do you think Steve Hyde is doing? What kind of job do you think Jack O’Donnell is doing?” And of course if that employee just happens to have had a bad day, got a write up or something, the employee is saying something negative. We had 3,000 people there, so not everybody is happy every day. And Donald liked to stir the pot that way. It was not uncommon for him to say, “I hear so-and-so is not doing a very good job. They’re not worth what we pay them.” And you would be like, “Well where did you hear that?” And then we would find out that he had spoken to a waiter in the restaurant or something.
In your book you write about Ivana at Trump Castle versus Steve and Mark and you at Trump Plaza. [Two casino hotels both owned by Donald Trump] Why does he impose that?
… Shortly after I arrived at Trump Plaza I realized that there was a real competition between the Plaza and the Castle, and I realized that it was something that Donald really had set up to be this way. He liked that rivalry between Steve and Ivana.
Quite frankly I had at times a great deal of respect for her, because she did step into a business that she had really no knowledge of and was managing it. Now, did she do a lot of things right, no she didn’t, but she was gutsy enough to go in and try to run this business, and she was gutsy enough to make a run at what Steve Hyde was there for to be in charge of all the properties.
It was pretty weird of Donald to put his wife over at Castle and foster competition between this completely inexperienced woman and three pros at the Plaza. Why did he do that?
I think that’s who he is. You’re going to hear those stories about him even today that he loves great competition between individuals.
Winners and losers.
That’s all there is is winners and losers. Things are black and white. There is not gray. I can’t answer the whys. People speculated, of course … but I think he thought Ivana was a pretty smart woman.
Talk about the hypnotic effect of Donald on Atlantic City, the Gaming Commission, the banks, everybody around that time as he is starting to have this what you call a monstrous appetite to grab more. Take me there. Explain what you mean by that.
Donald has a larger than life persona. He did back then. He does today, whether it’s a persona you can identify with or not, it’s large. And I think that that was always an underlying goal — as much as he didn’t want to be involved, he wanted to make sure that it was a property that reflected his personality, that reflected his wealth, that reflected his success, and that winds up becoming a piece of our strategy going forward. Our marketing strategy is how do we sell this, because it was selling Donald Trump and the glamor of Donald Trump. And I think if you were to go back and look at some of the ads that we did, they were all about Donald Trump, and that’s what we were selling.
The way I read the balance sheets for ’85, ’86, ’87, it’s rocking and rolling in cash.
… We were churning out some cash, 70 to 80 million dollars in cash a year, we were just spitting it out by the time I left. And unfortunately it wasn’t enough. It was enough for Trump Plaza, but it wasn’t enough to really service beyond [that], what he needed. Trump Plaza became, as they say, a cash cow. I mean it was a very good business for him and it became a big focus. And that’s why I talk about the last year that I was there as there were signs of his world beginning to unravel financially. There was tremendous pressure, weekly pressure to generate cash, what are we going to generate this month.
What is a guy like Trump doing with the cash?
… We always got the feeling that we were supporting other Trump entities with our success. And that was troubling to me only in the sense that in the casino industry you have to constantly plow cash back into the infrastructure, you have to stay one step ahead, so you’re constantly upgraded suites, you’re constantly changing restaurants or adding restaurants, it’s all about amenities, and so if you pull the cash out for something else by the time you get to the next year you’re not really planning for those big improvements; you wind up planning for things just to keep the place going.
We’ve got to get a hundred new slot machines every year, because that is kind of a given, right. You’ve got to make sure certain other things are standard to keep the place looking good. But the worry was that we weren’t going to keep it fresh, and as time went on that became exactly the case. Even after I left I can remember somebody calling me 10 years after I left Trump Plaza, and they were saying, “If you walk through this building, Jack, you would see nothing has changed. You might even see the same carpet in some areas, just really worn.” He stopped putting cash back into the business.
One of the innovations that is fun to think about is the idea of the fights and how much he loved them and how much of a metaphor for Trump himself the fights were. And how the fights were as a business thing.
… Boxing was always an attraction in the gambling industry, [we] certainly had seen that in Las Vegas and we would even do smaller fights in the ballrooms at the casinos at the Golden Nugget or Bally, so we knew boxing was a good component, but Mark [Etess] really stepped into Trump Plaza when he was hired and said, “Let’s make a mark with this,” because Trump Plaza was in the center of that boardwalk, and we were actually attached to the Convention Center. So we had a 17,000 seat arena sitting right next to us that we were connected to. You could walk from Trump Plaza into the Convention. And so we had a unique situation, and of course Mark recognized that and said, “Hey, we don’t have to do 1500 seat boxing matches here. We can do the big stuff.” And so he really sold Trump on that, and of course Trump loved it, because it’s high profile.
So the fight business, Donald loved it? You tell the story in the book about sitting with him one time, and it seemed to you this guy was made for this scene.
Boxing press conferences historically have been dramatic, boxers talking to each other face to face, a lot of drama, and I think that that was perfect for Donald. And boxing got a lot of national attention. You could hold a press conference for a big fight and you could have 200, 300 reporters with 50 cameras in a room, and so it was great for a guy like Donald. It was perfect.
Donald would always try to take the star power of somebody else and make it about him, and he was never going to miss an opportunity. And this isn’t a boxing story, but the Rolling Stones story is the classic of Donald Trump saying, “No, I’m going to make this about me.” We were lucky and I worked very hard to keep that deal together, The Rolling Stones concert, the first Pay-Per-View Rock and Roll concert in America. And the Stones were very unhappy that they were associated with a casino and in particular Donald Trump, and there was actually a clause in the contract that said that he would not show up at any of their press conferences, and so they did not want to be seen with him. And lo and behold, the night of the biggest concert in the history of Rock and Roll, Donald shows up at the press conference, because he was going to make it about himself one way or the other, hedging the bet that the Rolling Stones weren’t going to walk away at the last minute.
And in the end he doesn’t get to do the press conference, and he walks away mad.
There was a lot of press there. Everybody sees this and everybody saw Donald walk in. The stage was set. And so he got out of it what he wanted. He got a little drama. I think he would have liked to have said a little bit more. And as it is, I don’t think the press conferences for rock concerts were the same as boxing. It really was certainly not covered the way sports are.
It’s like Trump trying to outmaneuver Don King who is, you talk about a guy who is used to getting the mics and saying the things. And Trump is in there, he wants to get Mike Tyson. It’s glamorous. It’s got a press conference at the beginning. It’s got a moment of drama at the end. He makes a lot of money. It’s the perfect environment.
Yeah, but Donald also wound up being very difficult even in those situations. As you can imagine, negotiating contracts with a Don King or any of the people in the boxing world, it’s tedious work. It’s hours of sitting down. It might sound trivial to somebody, but when you start to talk about how many rooms a fighter gets, how many rooms the other fighter gets … Our primary goal is to make money in the casino, and we’re looking at how many beds are we going to have that night of the fight and the night before that fight, and it’s all important, because a bed might be worth $50,000 dollars. So when we’re talking about giving somebody 50 rooms that’s a lot. … So we would get these contracts done with guys like Don King and then Donald would get on the phone with Don King and say, “Oh yeah, I’ll give you 20 more rooms.” And the place would go into chaos. We have booked customers and then Don King shows up two weeks before saying, “No, I’ve got 20 more rooms than this. Donald said I could have them.”
Donald Trump goes to Russia and he comes back, and he and Roger Stone write up some newspaper ads that run in The Times and a few other papers. You talk about it in the book. What was up with that?
That was a time when there was this talk about him possibly running for president. There was this background talk. And, quite frankly, I never took it serious back then, at least initially, and so —
What did you think it was?
I thought anything that Donald Trump did was strictly about publicity. I mean that’s just the way I viewed him. It was all about keeping his face in the press any way that he possibly could. He obviously believed it then, he believes it today, that press, good or bad, is okay. And that’s how I viewed this. He was doing this stuff, starting to talk politically, starting to talk about, I don’t know if it was global economics or whatever, but he wanted this image that he might do this, that he might actually run. I just thought it was a joke. I couldn’t conceive it then. I almost can’t conceive it today, but it’s happening.
He lands in Portsmouth, New Hampshire with the Trump helicopter, and The New York Times and lots of other people are waiting for him. Another publicity stunt?
I couldn’t comprehend at the time that he either had the qualifications or the American public would be interested in having a president particularly in the gambling industry back then. Yes, he was a developer, but he was also full blown in the gambling industry. So I didn’t see the two as compatible for Americans, and so I just thought, “This is just a story.” I honestly believe that he would go to great lengths with the story to see what kind of publicity could he get out of this before he had to pull out, and so how far could he take it, because I don’t think he was ever going to do it back then.
Did he think it was good for business down in Atlantic City?
Absolutely. I think the more his name was out there, however his name was out there, he thought it was good for business. And it’s not that he would think that his name on anything would be good for business, but certainly talking, floating the idea that you might run for president, that’s pretty high profile. And that’s why the boxing was good too, because it was the big fights, that’s what he was interested in. When we did the Tour de Trump people would say, “Wow, a bicycle race. How did you guys talk Donald Trump into a bicycle race with his name on it?” Well, it was the Tour de Trump, okay, and there is only one other great bicycle race in the world, called the Tour de France, right? But that was the appeal because it was at that scale, and that’s why it was something that he loved.
At exactly this time young, vibrant, vivacious Marla Maples arrives on the scene. More publicity or something else?
I think maybe personal publicity in terms of wanting the image of running with a young starlet, but there was obviously a sensitivity, because he was married. I’m going to say he wanted to keep it a secret, but I always kind of chuckled that we had 3,000 employees at the place, and I had 3,000 people that knew exactly who she was, so very difficult secret to keep.
I don’t think that that was about publicity, no. He had a genuine interest in her.
There is a high water moment for Donald. A third of the gaming industry is in Atlantic City. He is about to buy the Plaza. He is about to buy or maybe already bought Eastern Airlines. He has the big yacht. He has Marla. He has a lot going on. Where is Donald Trump at that moment, do you think?
He is a train wreck waiting to happen both on the business side and the personal side. On the personal side you can’t have really what winds up being a high profile romance with another woman when you’re married to somebody else. Even a discrete one I would say 99 percent of the time the spouse finds out about it, right, so that was just a train wreck waiting to happen. And then from a business standpoint … there was plenty of publicity that he was setting himself up for a business that generally wasn’t going to succeed, because it couldn’t support the debt. … This is a wreck that is going to happen eventually. Eventually he is not going to be able to support all this debt and eventually he is going to not be able to have the wife and a girlfriend. Something is going to give on both sides, and so they were two things running down a parallel path.
He is also in this death struggle with Merv Griffin about the Taj, a lot of things are happening right there that are more or less in your field of vision. Walk me back through that, will you?
… This Merv Griffin thing, all of a sudden here comes a very legitimate celebrity to town … as much if not more worldwide recognition, and Donald needed to beat him. His ego, he needed to beat Merv Griffin, and that’s why he made such a big deal about, as he put it, he wished he had a Merv Griffin every day to do a deal with.
… there was a great setup from a business standpoint that was taking place that was very frustrating, and it was you couldn’t make sense of it, what was going on between the Castle and the Plaza, and then the impending Taj Mahal and how these three properties were going to survive together without a real strategy … It would have made it a heck of a lot easier if he had dumped one of the properties, sold one of them. Certainly wasn’t going to sell the Plaza. I mean that was his centerpiece. But it would have made a lot of sense to get rid of the Castle. I’m sure he could have used the cash. And it would have made it a lot easier for us strategically to then shift and say, “Okay, we’re going to let the Plaza really go after this segment of the market. We’re going to give up some of this high end business to the Taj Mahal …” But of course we never got there.
This isn’t Vegas, the pool is the pool and it’s finite, so the fear of course is if you’ve got three businesses feeding off of this finite pool one of them is going to die or maybe all three of them are going to die.
That was where Donald’s particular lack of understanding or wanting to understand, it went far beyond just these three properties, it really was the market itself. The market itself had limitations. On an annual basis it was only going to grow so much and you could only get new business from so many places. … In Atlantic City as properties opened the market grew, because there was more capacity for people to come in, but once it got to this amount it is sitting there, and so you’re not going to get huge, huge growth. And so the only way you can get that growth individually is to take it from somebody else.
When you tried to explain this to Donald Trump or anybody tried to explain it to him how did he react?
That’s the fundamental problem with Donald. He doesn’t listen to people. I don’t think he has the capacity to listen. I really don’t. And that’s one of the frightening things for me about him is I do not believe he has the capacity to listen to other people.
He has in his mind what he wants to be in his mind. It’s very difficult to say to him, “This is a great plan. We’ve been working on this for three months. We’ve analyzed the market. We’ve analyzed what we’re going to do different next year. Here’s how we think we’re going to get to here.” Very strategic. Very detailed. Just to have a Donald Trump say, “Well, that’s great, but you’re really going to get to here.” And there would be no logical way you could get there. It just couldn’t happen. You would have had to have another casino close, which in those days wasn’t happening. Or you were going to take a disproportional amount of the growth in the marketplace, which would be unheard of.
Frustration is probably the greatest feeling that you would have in dealing with Trump.
You have instances in the book that are just absolutely amazing. I guess it was the Japanese high roller who, you warned Donald, you’ve got to let the big guy play. Eventually the house is always going to win, just be patient. He wasn’t listening to you.
First off, if you’re going to look at success or failure of an event, in Donald’s mind they’re either going to be successful because of him or they’re going to fail because of somebody else. [laughter] You know, that’s his mentality … Caesar’s had dominated that business for years and years and years. And they particularly dominated in Las Vegas. And it was very difficult to compete with Las Vegas on the international level … [Trump] wanted that international business. That was a big deal … The hard part is that, if we know gambling, you don’t always win. …
My impression is Donald, who believes “you’re a winner or you’re a loser,” wanted a winner or loser every hour, not over a four-day span or something like that. Didn’t have the patience? Didn’t have the attention span? What is it?
I do think that that’s part of the issue. I don’t think he has the attention span for anything. And it’s a concept that he doesn’t like. He just wants to win all the time. And convincing him that it was okay, that it was a good thing when the customers won was very difficult. [laughter] We’d be like, that’s okay! In the gambling industry we would want to be the place where somebody hit the big progressive jackpot, you know? We would be excited about that. Somebody just won a million dollars at a slot machine, for gosh sakes. That’s like a great thing.
That was not a great thing to Donald. What a lot of people don’t realize is that money’s all accrued. So it’s already off the books, you know? It’s not going to affect anything. Because you’re accruing for those jackpots every single day. But you couldn’t even get him to understand that: Donald, this has no financial impact on you. We accrue that money every day. Somebody hits a big million-dollar jackpot, it’s just great publicity. You didn’t just lose a million dollars, you know. [laughter]
But he sees it as his money.
“You’re taking my money.”
You said in the book that he was not nice to gamblers who would come up and say “I love playing in your place.” And he’d say, “You take money from me, why would I be nice to you?”
That winds up being some very embarrassing conversations with customers .. he would leave and customers would look at me and go, “Does this guy get it? You know, he’s mad at me because I won? Doesn’t he know I lost two million dollars here last year?” [laughter]
Let’s talk about some of the Donald Trump foibles. This’ll hit you kind of hard: he thinks baldness is a sign of weakness.
Yeah. [laughter] I’m so wounded. [laughter] He made that very clear. He first voiced this opinion to Mark Etess, who had a full head of hair. And I was the guy losing it. [laughter] And so, Mark came into me, I’ll never forget, he goes, “You need this stuff.” He goes, “He [Trump] gave me this stuff for my hair. I’m not going bald, you are.” And I think that’s why he’s got this crazy hairdo today. He did not like the thought of going bald, and he did associate it with weakness.
The word there is trait. Weakness would be a trait to him. If you take that to the next step, and what I saw in the time that I was with them, with Donald, is he did associate traits with people. He did stereotype. He did put people into categories, deservedly or not.
Let’s talk about the death of Stephen, Mark and Jon in the helicopter. Tell me the story to whatever level of detail you’re comfortable talking about.
I’ve experienced a lot of death. I lost both my parents when I was young; my father, eight, my mother when I was 12. I’ve lost two sisters. I’ve lost a niece. I’ve lost many people in my life. I will tell you that that day that those three guys died was the hardest day of my life, it really was. It was unexpected. And I was so close to all three of those guys. I had asked one of those individuals to go in my place to that press conference … That’s one of the traumas of my life that I struggle with.
… I had gotten into the Iron Man in Hawaii; I qualified for that race. And the night before I was to leave … I had called Jon [Benanav] into my office and I said, “Hey, I got something for you. I want you to introduce the fighters at the press conference Monday.” Hector Macho Camacho and Vinny Pazienza were the fighters. And Jon was just over the moon; he was ecstatic … I said, “Just be at the helicopter by seven o’clock, or whatever the time was. Steve and Mark, they know you’re coming, I already told them.” [Usually] the three of us did it. We would fly up to New York, do a press conference, we’d fly back that same day. And then the next day we’d do a press conference in Atlantic City.
And that was the routine. And we did a lot of fights. I did 33 world championship fights in the short time I was there. So we did a lot of fights.
… I’d gotten to Hawaii on Sunday and I got up Monday morning and I was out on the bike course. I hadn’t done Iron Man in Hawaii, so I went out on the bike course to check [the course] out. I’d hit the turnaround point, and I was heading back to the hotel. And my wife pulls up in a van, she’s in the passenger seat, and she’s got this look of horror on her face.
And my daughter was going to join us for the race, but she wasn’t there yet, and so the first thing in my mind, I thought, god, something happened to my daughter. I says, “Is Laura okay?” And she said, “Laura’s fine, but Steve, Mark and Jon.” And I said, “They’re at a press conference in New York. What? Can’t be anything, what?” And she said, “The helicopter crashed on the way back.”
I just sat down in the street, on the Queen K Highway in Hawaii. It was beyond belief.
… I drove back to the hotel, and of course the first thing I did is call Donald. He was just like, “When can you get back here, you know, you gotta get back here.” I said, “Well, I’m going to get back as soon as I can.” And he said, “Well, we’re going to send a jet for you, you gotta get back here.” … And then [Donald] said, “I was supposed to be on that helicopter.” And I just went, “Really?” I was like, what? That would have been so unusual. It never had happened, so I was a little puzzled.
… It was a very difficult time. I had 3,000 employees at the time. I had the brother of one of the individuals that died working there. The fiancée of one of the executives worked there for us. I was very close to Steve’s wife and his family and the [other] families. And it was —
There’s that amazing story of Mitchell, Mark’s brother, at the eulogy where he really, he kind of loses it and then Donald has a —
I have trouble even talking about this because I wound up having to apologize to Mitchell for that part of the book. And he accepted my apology, but I mean, it would be hard for any brother to stand up and do that. You know? I’ve had to do it. I’ve done it for a sister. And I lost it. I think anybody would.
But Donald’s reaction to it was, I guess now what you would think. He puts himself first. He tried to envision himself doing that … It’s that winners-and-losers thing, you know? If you’re weak, you’re a loser. And there’s that perception that if you break down, even at the most emotional time in your life, that that’s a bad thing, to Donald Trump.
What did he say, do you remember?
That he just can’t imagine, he’d be so embarrassed to lose his emotion in front of people. In front of all of those people, to lose your emotion. He is just, not something he would ever want to do. I don’t think he could comprehend himself doing that, quite frankly.
What do you figure the loss of Mark, Jon and Steve, what was the impact of that on the Atlantic City Trump empire?
It was devastating. I don’t know if Steve could have prevented Donald’s problems in Atlantic City. But I sure think that he would have given him a lot of advice that he wound up not getting from others. [Donald’s] odds of success went down greatly when Steve was gone.
I think it was 1990 budget where you go up to New York to present the budget. Walk me into that meeting. Give me a little of what you’re prepared to talk about. What’s his office like. Narrate the story for me, will you?
The office, it’s funny because I’ve seen a lot of interviews and it looks like it hasn’t changed in 25 years. [laughter] There’s still the big picture window behind his desk looking out onto the skyline and the street below. And there’s not an inch of wall space, because there’s a picture of Donald in every inch of the wall space. It is a monument to himself.
That obviously strikes you the second you walk in. And we all put things up in our office, right, I got this award or that, you know. But he’s wall to wall.
What’s the goal there? Intimidation?
No, I think it’s just Donald. He’s got to be surrounded by himself … the annual budgets and planning were a big deal. I mean, big, leather-bound book with the plan. He had had it in advance. You send it up to the organization in advance. And then you come up and you kind of walk him through it. But not in the normal sense. [laughter] Like a normal board, it would be a real presentation where you would walk people through with a PowerPoint and you’d talk about your strategic objectives and tactically how you’re going to get there, and make sure people really understood.
It wasn’t like that. This was a one-on-one, what are the high numbers, what’s your revenue going to be? … What kind of income we gonna we have, what kind of cash are you going to spit out? And it might be a little bit about marketing in terms of, what are we forecasting in terms of big fights, big events, maybe that kind of conversation …just kind of scratch the surface kind of conversation about what you’re going to do. It was really just about the numbers.
You get there for that conversation and there’s great anticipation, and you obviously want the organization to buy off on your plan, you know. We’ve been working on it for the better part of three months. We put a lot of thought into it. It becomes very clear that that’s not going to meet the needs of the organization. You know that there’s something [else] going on in the business. I had a feeling that if somebody says, whatever the numbers were, you know, we’re going to do $70 million in income next year, and somebody says, No, we need it to be 90. I can’t make rationale to make it 90.
When you walk in, there he is. What’s he like right at that moment when you come in? Do you know you’re in for it?
No. Donald would be a gentleman. He would welcome you to his office. He would welcome you to New York. He wouldn’t have his mean out, so to speak, yet, if it was going to be there that day … With Donald, just very matter of fact. Because it’s so black and white; you knew he’s either going to say okay, or he’s going to say, no, this is no good. And there wasn’t going to be a rationale for why it was bad, and there wasn’t going to be a rationale for why you needed more. You said we could do $64 million income and he says he wants more, you know. There’s no rationale to get from 64 to where he wants you to be, right? But it was just going to be that simple. And at the end of the day, it was just going to be, change the numbers. End of the story.
One of the things that’s going on is he’s thinking about going public. He’s thinking about the bond world. He’s thinking about making the numbers look pretty positive across the board so that he can sell shares in his Trump enterprises.
He’s already out on a limb with junk bonds all over the place that he can’t support. So the public vehicle winds up being very attractive to him. Knowing that you’re going to be facing default on certain debt, negotiating that debt down and bringing in public money and so forth, it was all part of a puzzle.
… Donald will tell you that he’s made a lot of money off of debt. And you borrow money, if it doesn’t go well, you negotiate a new price and you go on.
… And what’s lost in a lot of this is that a lot of small people, smalltime investors lost a lot of money. When I wrote this book, I had hundreds of letters from smalltime bondholders, people that invested in this image of Trump. It was not just the image for the casino; people were buying in as an investment because of this image, quite frankly that we created. These people were getting hurt as the years went on. It was their debt that was getting renegotiated and they were taking haircuts … It wasn’t just the big banks that were getting hurt.
Do you think Trump cared about that?
No, oh, gosh, no. No. It’s just part of business to him, you know. My experience is that there’s no compassion. And that’s the scary part. No, I don’t think he cared at all.
What happened to the stock people bought in Donald Trump?
The public entities, I don’t even know. I just know that a lot of bondholders got hurt. And you know, there’s a lot of smalltime investors that got hurt really big. But I don’t know exactly how everything became unwound. When I walked away from Atlantic City, I tried to just walk away. And it’s an interesting thing for me, because over the years I would get, in an average year I’d get four or five people call me and ask me to comment on something that was going on in his world. And I’m talking for the last 25 years this would happen.
And my pat answer was: no, you know, I really am not going to comment on what’s going on in Donald Trump’s world, why he said this, why he didn’t say this, because in the last 25 years, I’ve grown as a person, I’ve changed. And so, I’m going to give him credit that maybe he’s changed, too. And so it would be unfair for me to comment.
Of course, the day that he announced he was running for President, I watched that speech and I said to myself, oh, my god, this guy hasn’t changed at all. He’s exactly the person that he was 26 years ago, or whatever it was. Hasn’t changed at all. And that was frightening to me.
What did you see that told you that?
It’s very simple for me. He categorizes people. And he did it back then. And he does it today. When he used the word Mexicans and rapists, together, I went, this is his bigotry at its finest. This is really Donald Trump. Because in 26 years, it hasn’t changed.
There’s a lot of reporting that starts to happen, financial reporting. Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Forbes, Fortune. And Marvin Roffman. What happens?
It’s just classic denial. If you’re an expert and you agree with Donald Trump, you’re a genius; but if you’re an expert and you don’t agree with him, you’re a loser. That was Donald back then, that’s Donald today. You know, a guy like Marvin Roffman, straight numbers guy. And I knew Marvin well, because he was the kind of guy that would call. He’d call the president of a property all the time. Obviously we could talk about some things, couldn’t talk about other things … But he knew. He had his pulse on Atlantic City; he knew exactly what was going on. He knew exactly what Trump was putting on these properties, what he was doing behind the scenes, probably more than I did. Because I was an operator.
It’s just a complete disregard for that professional opinion if it’s not the same as Donald’s. A guy like Marvin Roffman suffered the consequence of Donald. It’s a well-documented story about what happened to him.
He was very critical during the Taj Mahal period and didn’t understand, and was very vocal about how Donald could survive this. The numbers just didn’t match up. Too much debt. How was he going to pay this off? The market wasn’t big enough. Some of the basic nuts and bolts. Market’s only this big. You’re going to have to take a disproportionate of business from all these other casinos and that’s not going to happen. So how are you going to service this debt?
And Marvin made it very clear that this is what he believed. And Donald went after him. He went after the firm that Marvin worked for. And he got him to shut up. I don’t know the details of it, but he certainly tried to tarnish Marvin’s name.
Marvin got fired.
Yeah. And Marvin did come back and sue and they made a settlement. [laughter] I think as time went on, Marvin became the smart guy in the deal. He understood what was going to happen.
The grand opening of the Taj keeps moving. Every weekend Trump isn’t open costs him $4 million or something. And this place is sitting there semi-closed. You get an urgent phone call from him while they’re trying to open. And what ensues?
I was just trying to keep my head down that week. I was very focused on my business, and I had my team very focused on our business. It’s a sister property opening, but we don’t have anything to do with it. I just kept telling people, we don’t have anything to do with that. Don’t worry about it. Don’t talk about it. Just keep doing our business.
But you knew there was trouble over there?
Well, no, I really didn’t know there was trouble until they called me. Because what the commission did in those days is they would let you open up for a test run, so they’d let you open for a shift, as an example, eight hours. And they wanted to see how you opened the casino and how you closed it, because back in those days it wasn’t 24 hours a day. So opening and closing the casino was a real test for how you counted everything down and how you processed during the down time.
That was the test. After they opened for the shift and they were in the closing process, they realized that they couldn’t reconcile the cash on the casino floor. And so unbeknownst to me, I’m just sitting there doing my job and there’s this several hours of chaos going on. The commission’s watching them doing reports, and they’re realizing they can’t reconcile the casino floor. They can’t figure it out.
They can’t figure it out and they call you to come over. How was Donald acting as you arrive at the place?
Donald was, I’m going to use a simplistic term, but he was freaked out. I don’t think he anticipated that this could happen. He was beside himself. I mean, he was frantic. You could see the panic on his face, that this place might not open. I think he was concerned about saving face, as much as anything, you know? “Oh, we lost a couple million dollars? Maybe I can deal with that, but I can’t deal with not opening. I can’t deal with the grand opening not taking place.”
The embarrassment of it.
That was very clear. And he was in a full-blown blame mode, you know. I mean, it was, “this guy is that, this guy is this, this guy is that.” I mean, he had made up his mind how everybody had messed this up.
Oh, yeah, I mean, that’s the mode he was in.
Blaming somebody. Accountability. Somebody had to be accountable for this. It was the most chaos I’ve ever seen in a day in the casino life. I’d never really seen anything like that. It was 24 hours; I was up 24 hours. I crawled into bed for a couple hours at one point, but we were basically up two days straight just to get the commission to say, Okay, we’re going to let you open up for, and I forget what the percentages were, but part of your machines can open. And it wound up being weeks and weeks and weeks before they allowed them to fully open that casino. And I don’t remember, but I believe it was close to two months before they finally got 100 percent of that casino open.
A few days later when it opens, there’s 11 camera crews following Donald around wherever he goes. To the world it looks like everything’s hunky-dory. It’s classic Donald.
That was the goal … We’re not going to say that we’re not going to open all these machines, right? He pulled it off. Or we pulled it off for him, getting this thing opened. But then he was just in the Donald Trump mode. And maybe there was no reason to tell the truth to the world, what had happened. But most people knew.
What is Donald Trump mode? What does that mean?
Promotion. Things are great. In the face of adversity, you just say something else. You just say what you think people want to hear. “Everything’s good, it’s great.”
What does it tell us about his fitness for presidency?
It’s a frightening prospect for me, because a corporate leader has to have patience. A corporate leader has to be able to listen to ideas. They have to be able to thoughtfully digest what somebody’s saying. They have to listen to multiple people sometimes to get an idea for what’s going on. And then participate in the decision in some way.
My experience shows that he’s not capable of that. I don’t know that it’s an attention issue for him or whether it’s a true intellectual issue for him. But I don’t think he has the capability to listen to other people. Because he wants to hear what he wants to hear.
I’m not a politician, I’m not a Washington insider, but you certainly see pictures in the media when there’s a crisis going on and you see the president and the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State, and all these people sitting in a room watching some event unfold, and you realize all these people have had input into this, and I can’t comprehend him being in that position. I don’t think he has the capability to decipher information at that level and at that frequency and participate in a meaningful way to a solution. I just don’t.
Trump says you’re just a disgruntled former employee. Answer the allegations.
I think it’s how you would define the word disgruntled. I was clearly upset when I left that organization. I was disgruntled from the perspective that I didn’t like the things he was saying about my friends. Specifically he blamed some of these impending problems, whether it was the debt or the Taj Mahal opening or whatever, he was blaming these problems on two people [Steve Hyde and Mark Etess] that had died while working for him.
It is ultimately what broke Donald and I apart, is that I couldn’t handle that anymore. So I was very disgruntled at his behavior. I didn’t like what he was saying about my friends. I didn’t like that they couldn’t defend themselves because they had died while working for him … And that’s why I wrote the book, is to just set the record straight. And that’s why after I wrote the book, I did my publicity and then I walked away from it, until 26 years later.
So yeah, I was upset. But I loved working there. It was a great job.
… I don’t know if this is even appropriate for this, but I think one of the greatest things that I ever read about Donald Trump is he did an interview for Playboy, and he was on the cover of Playboy. And in this interview they asked him about me. And he said, “Everything that Jack O’Donnell wrote about me in that book is probably true. But he’s a loser.” I can’t help myself, I feel complimented! [laughter]
… One last thing. This idea of how he sells the Atlantic City experience now, as a grand success, that he walked away at the right moment, he made smart business decisions, the bankruptcies are not really anything to be looked askance upon; it was good business. How do you view this chapter in his business life and the way he now defines it?
I don’t think there’s anybody, whether it’s the regulators or any of the other executives in this industry that would agree that his experience with gambling is successful. It was nothing but failure. Because he personally was able to take a lot of cash out of these businesses, that’s how he is defining success. He’s not defining success at a corporate level. The businesses failed. He was able to take a lot of cash out of these business. And to some extent, played a major role in the decline of these businesses.
So if you’re looking at it as a case study, it’s a monumental failure. But he doesn’t look at things that way. He can probably look back at his books and say, “Well, no, over this time I took out $20 million for myself. That’s pretty darn good.” And to him, that’s success.