NEW YORK – On an autumn day in 2013, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg traveled to the Bronx to hail the transformation of a massive garbage dump into a world-class golf course. Donald Trump stood nearby, beaming as Bloomberg said the course would be operated by “the great Trump Organization.”
“If there is anybody who has changed this city, it is Donald Trump,” Bloomberg said. “He really has done an amazing thing, and this is another part of it.”
Trump turned to Bloomberg, gushing: “You have been a great mayor. You really have. I mean, this guy is fantastic.”
For more than a decade, the two New York billionaires appeared together at charity golf events, ribbon cuttings and even on Trump’s reality television shows, a relationship of political and business convenience if not genuine friendship.
The alliance imploded the moment Trump in 2015 launched his bid for the White House, exposing raw differences of policy and personality that have become only more stark as President Donald Trump has carried out a series of measures that are politically anathema to Bloomberg, such as withdrawing from a global warming deal.
Trump, in an interview this week with The Washington Post, said, “I really liked Michael and I think he liked me, but it went really strangely haywire once I ran for office.” He said Bloomberg did not care about his political views when he was merely a New York City developer, but now “he probably doesn’t like my policies. I’m for guns, he’s against guns . . . A developer is a lot different than as a candidate.”
Trump used the golf course deal as a cudgel against Bloomberg, saying during the campaign the city was unable to get the course finished until he took it over – a claim that infuriated Bloomberg’s associates, who said the city did most of the work.
Now Bloomberg’s dark view of Trump’s performance as president may be the deciding factor in whether the former mayor decides to run for the White House. Bloomberg has expressed doubt that a “short, Jewish, divorced billionaire” such as himself could be elected president. Trump’s performance, however, has led him to seriously consider using part of his fortune to seek the Democratic nomination.
Bloomberg, in a brief interview this week during a visit to the first-primary state of New Hampshire, said, “My objection to Donald Trump is the way he’s filling his current role, in terms of representing the country, in terms of representing the public. There’s an attitude, and a style, and lack of civility that I think is bad for the country, and I find offensive.”
On the surface, Bloomberg and Trump have much in common: Both have named their businesses after themselves; both have become billionaires in New York City; both unexpectedly won their respective political offices; both have switched their party registrations repeatedly.
But they come from very different backgrounds. Bloomberg was raised in working-class Massachusetts while Trump benefited from his father’s fortune. Bloomberg made his fortune selling Wall Street-related data, and he veered left on a variety of issues, including the environment and gun control, as he rose in New York City politics. Trump, who once was a classically liberal New Yorker, moved right as he sought a national audience, recasting himself as a conservative Republican. Bloomberg calls himself a nonpartisan manager and engineer who delegates authority; Trump is a defiantly partisan president who says he, alone, can fix things.
While both are among the wealthiest Americans, Bloomberg is much richer. Bloomberg ranks tenth on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, with $52 billion, compared to Trump, ranked 259th with $3.1 billion.
U.S. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who was reelected last year with fundraising help from Bloomberg even though he continues to support Trump, said the battle of billionaires has gotten deeply personal.
“I would think, without getting into psychoanalysis, that one New York billionaire can think he is better than another New York billionaire,” King said. “I can see Mike resenting the fact he is not getting the same recognition Donald Trump gets. Each guy thinks he is smarter than the other.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has spent many hours with both men, said Trump’s self-image relies greatly on his coming from Queens and never feeling accepted by the Manhattan elite, even after building Trump Tower.
Trump “is an outsider, and the guys like Bloomberg, in style and substance, are the people he felt always rejected him, which would unnerve him if [Bloomberg] ran against him,” Sharpton said. If the two face each other, he said, “I’d want a ringside seat.”
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The two did not know each until Bloomberg ran for mayor in 2001 as a Republican. Trump focused on the Democratic primary, first supporting Fernando Ferrer, who lost the primary to Mark Green. Trump then contributed $4,500 to Green during the general election race against Bloomberg, whose campaign was self-funded. Once Bloomberg was elected, Trump said, he became an avid supporter.
For years, Trump had lavished attention on New York City mayors, whose support he needed for real estate projects. By the time Bloomberg was elected, however, Trump had mostly switched from developing new properties in New York City to selling his brand around the world and starring in his reality television show.
In October 2004, Trump invited Bloomberg to appear on “The Apprentice,” and the mayor met contestants at the official mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion. Trump hyped the appearance, telling contestants they would be meeting a “great leader.”
Four years later, Bloomberg appeared on “The Celebrity Apprentice” in an episode centered on which stars could sell the most hot dogs on the streets of New York City. Bloomberg was shown walking down a busy Manhattan street with Trump as the two prepared to inspect the work of contestants such as Gene Simmons of the rock band Kiss and the “Apprentice” star Omarosa Manigault Newman.
While Trump beamed and dramatic music played, Bloomberg delivered a series of corny lines, such as: “As the No. 1 ‘Frank-o-phile’ in the city, I’m supposed to see whether you guys can cut the mustard.”
Manigault Newman, who worked in the office of public liaison in the Trump White House, said in an interview the pair’s relationship was a case study in how they used each other in “symbiotic exploitation.”
“Doing official business, Bloomberg came across uptight. In our episode, I remember he came across as down to earth and relatable,” she said. As for Trump, “It gave him quite a bit of legitimacy, to flex his connections and his access to powerful people.”
During the filming, Bloomberg and Trump rode the subway together. As Bloomberg recalled the incident last week, Trump “said he took the subway all the time, but I did note he didn’t know which end of the MetroCard to put in.”
Trump, asked about the ride, said Bloomberg’s description was untrue. He said the subway was opened for dozens of crew, “and I never had a MetroCard when I rode the subway with him.”
After two terms as mayor, Bloomberg was prohibited under the law from seeking a third. The business community rallied around the idea of overturning the term limit, and Trump became a leading backer. The term limit was dropped, and Bloomberg won reelection. That, in turn, led to the high point of the Trump-Bloomberg relationship.
Bloomberg had promised he would oversee the transformation of a trash dump in the Bronx into a world-class golf course. The project had faltered for decades because of the high cost of cleaning up the landfill and meeting environmental rules. The Bloomberg administration hoped a developer such as Trump would agree to pay for the clean up and build the course, but no one bid.
Eager to keep his campaign promise, Bloomberg eventually decided city taxpayers would pay the bill. The project had started under a prior mayor and reached $164 million to build the course, and millions more for environmental measures, according to the city-run Independent Budget Office. The Bloomberg administration then sent out bids for a company to finish the course by planting seed and some other measures and constructing a clubhouse.
Trump said Bloomberg asked him to get involved “because he was getting killed on this project. He had it for 12 years. I said, ‘Michael, I’m going to make you look good.’ ” As Trump told the story, Bloomberg was grateful for the golf course work and turned against him only after both men pondered running for the presidency.
Trump’s son, Eric, said in an interview he participated in two conversations about the project that included his father and Bloomberg, one by phone and a second in person.
“I remember this conversation vividly,” Eric Trump said. “Mike called up and said [to Donald Trump], ‘We need your help because this is an embarrassment to the city of New York and my administration. You are the only person who can do it.’ We went in there and we did the job.” Trump was one of three bidders and won the contract in 2013. Eric Trump said his father and Bloomberg “were friends a lot closer aligned than people would think.”
Bloomberg declined to respond or to discuss the golf course project, but his spokesman, Howard Wolfson, said: “Unsurprisingly, given their well documented relationship with the truth, the Trumps are lying. None of these conversations occurred.” Told of this denial, Eric Trump stood by his comments.
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By April 2015, as Trump began seriously considering a presidential bid, the relationship turned rivalrous.
Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, wrote on her blog that her father “acquired this amazing redevelopment project after it had floundered around with the City of New York for more than two decades. Shortly after he was announced as the developer, my father went out to the construction site, where he saw a bunch of guys literally moving sand from one end of the course to the other. He essentially looked at them and said, ‘You guys have made a lot of money pushing sand around for the last 20 years, but that stops with me. It’s time to get this done.’ And they did.”
Adrian Benepe, Bloomberg’s former parks commissioner, said such descriptions exaggerated Trump’s role. “That is when the lying began, that Trump had come in to bail out the incompetent city. Despite the myth, Trump did not build that golf course. The city built it, the city did all the heavy lifting, dealt with all the environmental issues.”
Ivanka Trump deferred to her father’s comments, a spokeswoman said. Jack Nicklaus, who designed the course before Trump took over and now is a Trump supporter, said in an interview, “We might have been there another 30 years if Donald Trump hadn’t been there.”
After the city built the public course, the Trump Organization made the improvements and built a clubhouse that cost $10 million. Under the contract, Trump collects course and concession fees. The course is open to the public. at an 18-hole weekend fee of $185.
Three months after Ivanka Trump’s blog entry, Donald Trump launched his bid for the presidency, and he frequently cited completing the golf course as an example of his ability to get things done. In a January 2016 appearance on CNN, for example, Trump said, “I took it over for one year, knocked it up, and now it’s a tremendous success. Michael asked me if I’d get involved with it, and I’m the one that got it done, and did a great job.”
Bloomberg decided two months later not to seek the presidency, even as he said Trump ran “the most divisive and demagogic presidential campaign I can remember, preying on people’s prejudices and fears.” He then attacked Trump at the Democratic National Convention, calling him a “risky, reckless and radical choice.” Trump, who said he was stunned by Bloomberg’s words, tweeted in response: ” ‘Little’ Michael Bloomberg, who never had the guts to run for president, knows nothing about me. His last term as Mayor was a disaster!”
Shortly after he won the presidency, Trump talked on the phone with Bloomberg about how to run the White House but he said he did not offer a job. Bloomberg told The Post last year that he told the president-elect: “You could have a good presidency if you get good people and you depend on them, and you delegate authority to go along with responsibility.” Bloomberg said that is “what he did not do.”
The two have not talked since.