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Donald Trump Still Earned Millions As His Atlantic City Casinos Went Bankrupt

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ATLANTIC CITY

“Trump crawled his way to the top on the back of little guys, one of them being my father,” said Ms. Rosser, who runs Triad today. “He had no regard for thousands of men and women who worked on those projects. He says he’ll make America great again, but his past shows the complete opposite of that.”

ATLANTIC CITY — The Trump Plaza Casino and Hotel is now closed, its windows clouded over by sea salt. Only a faint outline of the gold letters spelling out T-R-U-M-P remains visible on the exterior of what was once this city’s premier casino.

Not far away, the long-failing Trump Marina Hotel Casino was sold at a major loss five years ago and is now known as the Golden Nugget.

At the nearly deserted eastern end of the boardwalk, the Trump Taj Mahal, now under new ownership, is all that remains of the casino empire Donald J. Trump assembled here more than a quarter-century ago. Years of neglect show: The carpets are frayed and dust-coated chandeliers dangle above the few customers there to play the penny slot machines.

On the presidential campaign trail, Mr. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, often boasts of his success in Atlantic City, of how he outwitted the Wall Street firms that financed his casinos and rode the value of his name to riches. A central argument of his candidacy is that he would bring the same business prowess to the Oval Office, doing for America what he did for his companies.

“Atlantic City fueled a lot of growth for me,” Mr. Trump said in an interview in May, summing up his 25-year history here. “The money I took out of there was incredible.”

His audacious personality and opulent properties brought attention — and countless players — to Atlantic City as it sought to overtake Las Vegas as the country’s gambling capital. But a close examination of regulatory reviews, court records and security filings by The New York Times leaves little doubt that Mr. Trump’s casino business was a protracted failure. Though he now says his casinos were overtaken by the same tidal wave that eventually slammed this seaside city’s gambling industry, in reality he was failing in Atlantic City long before Atlantic City itself was failing.

But even as his companies did poorly, Mr. Trump did well. He put up little of his own money, shifted personal debts to the casinos and collected millions of dollars in salary, bonuses and other payments. The burden of his failures fell on investors and others who had bet on his business acumen.

In three interviews with The Times since late April, Mr. Trump acknowledged in general terms that high debt and lagging revenues had plagued his casinos. He did not recall details about some issues, but did not question The Times’ findings. He repeatedly emphasized that what really mattered about his time in Atlantic City was that he had made a lot of money there.

Mr. Trump assembled his casino empire by borrowing money at such high interest rates — after telling regulators he would not — that the businesses had almost no chance to succeed.
His casino companies made four trips to bankruptcy court, each time persuading bondholders to accept less money rather than be wiped out. But the companies repeatedly added more expensive debt and returned to the court for protection from lenders.

After narrowly escaping financial ruin in the early 1990s by delaying payments on his debts, Mr. Trump avoided a second potential crisis by taking his casinos public and shifting the risk to stockholders.

And he never was able to draw in enough gamblers to support all of the borrowing. During a decade when other casinos here thrived, Mr. Trump’s lagged, posting huge losses year after year. Stock and bondholders lost more than $1.5 billion.

All the while, Mr. Trump received copious amounts for himself, with the help of a compliant board. In one instance, The Times found, Mr. Trump pulled more than $1 million from his failing public company, describing the transaction in securities filings in ways that may have been illegal, according to legal experts.

Mr. Trump now says that he left Atlantic City at the perfect time. The record, however, shows that he struggled to hang on to his casinos years after the city had peaked, and failed only because his investors no longer wanted him in a management role.

There are those here who fondly remember Mr. Trump’s showmanship, the thousands he employed in a struggling city, and the tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue his casinos generated.

“He was a great person for the company,” said Scott C. Butera, the president of Mr. Trump’s company at the time of its 2004 bankruptcy. “With his oversight, his brand and marketing, he’s really adept.”

Many others were glad to see him go.

“He put a number of local contractors and suppliers out of business when he didn’t pay them,” said Steven P. Perskie, who was New Jersey’s top casino regulator in the early 1990s. “So when he left Atlantic City, it wasn’t, ‘Sorry to see you go.’ It was, ‘How fast can you get the hell out of here?’”

In an August 1990 report, New Jersey regulators noted the “sheer volume of debt” on Mr. Trump’s holdings: $3.4 billion, including $1.3 billion on the casinos and $832.5 million in loans personally guaranteed by Mr. Trump. Regulators warned then that “the possibility of a complete financial collapse of the Trump Organization was not out of the question.”

The Taj Mahal missed its November debt payment. The Castle was also late.

By December 1990, when Mr. Trump needed to make an $18.4 million interest payment, his father, Fred C. Trump, sent a lawyer to the Castle to buy $3.3 million in chips, to provide him with an infusion of cash. The younger Mr. Trump made the payment, but the Casino Control Commission fined the Castle $65,000 for what had amounted to an illegal loan.

As all of his ventures neared collapse, Mr. Trump’s lenders insisted that he submit a business plan, appoint a chief financial officer for the Trump Organization and sell, among other things, the Trump Shuttle airline, his yacht and his stake in New York City’s Plaza Hotel, which also filed for bankruptcy protection. They also put him on a $450,000-a-month budget for personal and household expenses.

Just over a year after it opened, the Taj Mahal was in bankruptcy court, followed in 1992 by both the Plaza and the Castle. In the plan that was worked out, Mr. Trump ceded to the lenders a 50 percent stake in the businesses in return for lower interest rates. The lenders agreed to defer certain principal and interest payments and hold off on personal claims against Mr. Trump for five years. But there was little or no reduction in the enormous debts that would plague his gambling empire far into the future.

Mr. Trump now says he looks back on the period as his golden era in the casino business.

“Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do,” he said in a recent interview. “Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.”

Others were hurt.

“He helped expand Atlantic City, but he just did not put the equity into the projects he should have to keep them solvent,” said H. Steven Norton, a casino consultant and a former casino executive at Resorts International. “When he went bankrupt, he not only cost bondholders money, but he hurt a lot of small businesses that helped him construct the Taj Mahal.”

Beth Rosser of West Chester, Pa., is still bitter over what happened to her father, whose company Triad Building Specialties nearly collapsed when Mr. Trump took the Taj into bankruptcy. It took three years to recover any money owed for his work on the casino, she said, and her father received only 30 cents on the dollar.

“Trump crawled his way to the top on the back of little guys, one of them being my father,” said Ms. Rosser, who runs Triad today. “He had no regard for thousands of men and women who worked on those projects. He says he’ll make America great again, but his past shows the complete opposite of that.” 

According to RUSS BUETTNER and CHARLES V. BAGLI 2016 stated that in an August 1990 report, New Jersey regulators noted the “sheer volume of debt” on Mr. Trump’s holdings: $3.4 billion, including $1.3 billion on the casinos and $832.5 million in loans personally guaranteed by Mr. Trump. Regulators warned then that “the possibility of a complete financial collapse of the Trump Organization was not out of the question.”

The Taj Mahal missed its November debt payment. The Castle was also late.

By December 1990, when Mr. Trump needed to make an $18.4 million interest payment, his father, Fred C. Trump, sent a lawyer to the Castle to buy $3.3 million in chips, to provide him with an infusion of cash. The younger Mr. Trump made the payment, but the Casino Control Commission fined the Castle $65,000 for what had amounted to an illegal loan.

As all of his ventures neared collapse, Mr. Trump’s lenders insisted that he submit a business plan, appoint a chief financial officer for the Trump Organization and sell, among other things, the Trump Shuttle airline, his yacht and his stake in New York City’s Plaza Hotel, which also filed for bankruptcy protection. They also put him on a $450,000-a-month budget for personal and household expenses.

Just over a year after it opened, the Taj Mahal was in bankruptcy court, followed in 1992 by both the Plaza and the Castle. In the plan that was worked out, Mr. Trump ceded to the lenders a 50 percent stake in the businesses in return for lower interest rates. The lenders agreed to defer certain principal and interest payments and hold off on personal claims against Mr. Trump for five years. But there was little or no reduction in the enormous debts that would plague his gambling empire far into the future.

Mr. Trump now says he looks back on the period as his golden era in the casino business.

“Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financing’s and the things we do,” he said in a recent interview. “Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.”

Others were hurt.

“He helped expand Atlantic City, but he just did not put the equity into the projects he should have to keep them solvent,” said H. Steven Norton, a casino consultant and a former casino executive at Resorts International. “When he went bankrupt, he not only cost bondholders money, but he hurt a lot of small businesses that helped him construct the Taj Mahal.”

Beth Rosser of West Chester, Pa., is still bitter over what happened to her father, whose company Triad Building Specialties nearly collapsed when Mr. Trump took the Taj into bankruptcy. It took three years to recover any money owed for his work on the casino, she said, and her father received only 30 cents on the dollar.

“Trump crawled his way to the top on the back of little guys, one of them being my father,” said Ms. Rosser, who runs Triad today. “He had no regard for thousands of men and women who worked on those projects. He says he’ll make America great again, but his past shows the complete opposite of that.”

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