Since the FBI emerged from Mar-a-Lago last month with box after box of documents, some of them highly sensitive and classified, questions have floated about the criminal investigation: Why did former President Donald Trump s sneaked in with the hideout to begin with? with? Why did he keep it when he was asked to return it? And what did he intend to do with it, if anything?
It’s true that Trump likes to collect shiny objects, like the framed cover of Time magazine that has been stowed, according to the US Department of Justice, alongside documents marked top secret. It’s true, as The Associated Press reported, that Trump has a “penchant for collecting” items that demonstrate his connection to famous people, like Shaquille O’Neal’s giant shoe, which he kept in his office in Trump Tower in New York.
But I’ve covered Trump and his company for decades, and there’s something else people around him have told me again and again: Trump knows the value of hoarding sensitive and secret information and using it regularly and precisely for its own purposes. The 76-year-old former ‘The Apprentice’ host appeared in the New York tabloid world, where business gossip was the currency of the kingdom. Admittedly, sometimes he just wanted to show that he knew things about important people. But he has also used compromising information to pressure elected officials, seek commercial advantage or blunt accountability and oversight.
A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Take a little-known episode where Trump tried to pressure former New Jersey Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman.
In 1997, Trump, then the owner of a major casino in Atlantic City, was furious with New Jersey elected officials for backing a $330 million tunnel project. The tunnel would run from the Atlantic City Freeway almost to the doorstep of a casino run by then-rival Steve Wynn. “Trump didn’t want Wynn in Atlantic City,” Whitman told me recently. Trump “wanted to control the game there.”
As a casino owner, Trump has been unable to donate in New Jersey’s legislative races, with contributions being one of his favorite methods of trying to exert control over government decisions. But Trump could run caustic ads and sue, which he did. When none of that worked out and the tunnel was in the final stages of approval, Whitman said, Trump called her.
A few years before the tunnel vote, Whitman’s son Taylor, who was in high school at the time, had gotten drunk from a private dance at Trump’s Plaza Hotel near New York’s Central Park and had to be taken to the hospital. It’s something high school kids do stupidly, and Whitman told me she was glad Taylor was sick “to teach her a lesson.” But on the call, Trump suddenly brought up the episode. He said it would be “a pity” if the press found out about his son’s drunken antics.
“He made the threat during the tunnel deliberations,” Whitman said, and it “blindsided” her because the high school dance was private and Taylor’s behavior was a family affair. She had no idea how Trump found out, she said, but the episode made it clear to her that people were collecting and providing sensitive information to Trump about what happened. in its properties. She did not pander to Trump and he never followed through on her threat.
Many people who have found themselves, for better or worse, in Trump’s orbit over the decades – people with far less power than Whitman – told me it was obvious that Trump was collecting information about people, even rejoiced. And he did not hesitate to deploy it. “There was always someone watching,” a former high-level Trump Organization employee told me. “What Donald would do is he would let the person he knows know, in his roundabout way. He let the person know he was big and he knew what was going on. Like most other former employees, this person didn’t want to speak out publicly for fear that Trump would come after him again all these years later.
It was helpful for Trump to let people know he was collecting information about other people’s less-than-stellar moments as potential ammunition down the road. A former New Jersey lawmaker told me he was warned to behave on his best behavior when he travels to Atlantic City because Trump is keeping tabs on the important people. Even as a rumor, it empowered Trump.
In an infamous case involving a journalist, Trump exercised his knowledge of behavior in Casino City.
In 1990, Neil Barsky, then a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, came across a scoop. A banker told him that “Donald Trump is going 100 miles per hour towards a brick wall and he has no brakes” in Atlantic City. Four major banks had hundreds of millions of dollars in debt at stake. Trump was divorcing his first wife, Ivana, and desperately trying to keep his finances away from her and the tabloids. Unfortunately for him, Barsky continued to write about Trump’s financial struggles.
In early 1991, one of Trump’s top executives offered Barsky free tickets to a company-sponsored boxing match in Atlantic City. His editor encouraged him to accept a post for himself to cultivate the sources of the Trump Organization. In what he later called “an act of bad judgment”, Barsky also accepted tickets for his father and brother. Writing about the episode in 2016, Barsky said he later learned that after the game Trump called the New York Post, asking, “How would you like to destroy the career of a Wall Street Journal reporter ?” The story that followed conjured up an image of a malevolent Barsky, extorting the tickets in exchange for keeping bad stories out of his diary.
After its release, publishers moved Barsky off the beat and Trump no longer faced his rigorous financial scrutiny.
A decade later, Trump attempted the same thing with another reporter, New York Times real estate reporter Charles V. Bagli. For years, Trump had offered Bagli tickets to the US Open. One year, Bagli finally agreed to advance his reporting on a story. Trump had tried to ingratiate himself with an important beat writer – but now he had potentially incriminating information.
Finally the time has come. After Bagli penned a fact-checking story for the opening credits of “The Apprentice,” writing that Trump “isn’t the biggest developer in New York, nor does he own Trump International Hotel and Tower,” Trump surged. His lawyer sent a letter to The Times threatening legal action and saying Bagli tried to shake Trump over the tickets and wrote the article when Trump refused. The charge was false, and the Times backed its reporter.
While people’s gambling and hotel habits can be valuable, top secret information has the potential to be even more so. Since he was back in his casino heyday, just knowing that Trump may have compromising secrets and could use them confers continued power.
The New Jersey tunnel that Trump fought so hard against was finally approved, although Wynn, and then Trump, left Atlantic City. But Trump and Whitman never reconciled. In 2016, she declined to support him in the Republican presidential primary. Displeased, Trump passed her a letter, Whitman recalled, which again referenced his son’s drunken incident at the school dance. At that time, her son, who now works in healthcare financing, was an adult. As Whitman remembered, on the letter were these words scribbled with a Sharpie: “Too bad you don’t remember the good old days.”