the Skyscraper Where
Trump Is Already King
By Max Abelson, Jesse Drucker and Zachary R. Mider
October 25, 2016
If Donald Trump loses next month, he’ll come home to a building 11 times bigger than the White House. If he wins, anyone who wonders how the political rookie might lead the U.S. has to look no further than the domain he already rules.
Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue is where Trump made his mark in New York, filmed his reality TV show, works at a desk surrounded by pictures of himself and lives in a marbled triplex penthouse. It’s where he launched his presidential campaign and where he retreated after his boasts about grabbing women were leaked. The shiny skyscraper, 10 stories shorter than Trump claims, is a monument to the man’s bronzed and exaggerated style.
His firm manages the tower that gangsters, gamblers, celebrities and billionaires have called home. And he helped search for and screen some of his neighbors. A directory assembled by Bloomberg News from hundreds of records and more than two dozen interviews provides a map to Trump’s life. Michael Jackson, Johnny Carson and Liberace all lived in the building. Trump SoHo co-developer Felix Sater worked on the 24th floor after going to prison a decade earlier for stabbing a man in the face with a broken margarita glass. Joseph Weichselbaum, whose helicopter company flew high rollers to Trump casinos, lived here after serving time for cocaine trafficking. Paul Manafort, who quit as Trump’s campaign chairman amid controversy over his work for Ukraine’s ousted president, owns a condo on the 43rd floor.
“To me this is the center of New York City, and New York City is the center of the world,” Guido Lombardi, a real estate investor who calls himself an Italian count and backs Trump, said in his 63rd-floor apartment last month. Hounds were attacking a fox in a portrait nearby, Central Park stretched out in the window behind him and the candidate’s latest book sat at Lombardi’s side. “There’s no central place other than this.”
The building is certainly the center of the billionaire’s universe. Inside its zigzagging façade are condos that sit atop offices over a retail mall, as if everything he could possibly want were squeezed under one roof. There’s a Trump Grill, a Trump Café and a Trump Bar. A liveried doorman greets tourists who step into a lobby with so much peachy-pink Italian marble that a mountain was demolished for it, his first wife, Ivana, told GQ in 1984, a year after the building opened. At the other end is a 60-foot waterfall. The residents, who include not just boldface names but the kinds of lawyers and businessmen found up and down Fifth Avenue, have their own side entrance where they’re taken up in elevators by men in tails who push buttons for them.
Chuck Blazer, who lived and worked in Trump Tower, could have used either door. The former soccer official, who pleaded guilty to racketeering and wire fraud in 2013, ran an international soccer federation on the 17th floor, where he kept a blue and yellow macaw named Max. Cats made a mess in one of his residential units, said Jill Fracisco, an executive in his office. Another former soccer official, Jose Maria Marin, is living in Trump Tower under house arrest after pleading not guilty last year to bribery charges stemming from the same investigation.
Steven Hoffenberg, who worked in a 15th-floor suite, remembers his landlord’s tolerance. Trump leased space in 1993 to the debt-collection executive and one-time New York Post suitor months after he was sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission for running what was then one of the biggest Ponzi schemes ever.
“He’s very objective,” said Hoffenberg, who was indicted, went to prison for 18 years and was released in 2013. “Renting space has nothing to do with color or race – or indictment. It has to do with if you can pay the rent.” Hoffenberg, a born-again Christian, promised a $50 million marketing campaign this year when he started a pro-Trump super-PAC, Get Our Jobs Back Inc. So far, that money hasn’t materialized.
“I am very proud of Trump Tower,” Trump said in an e-mail without responding to questions about the building. “It has been both a financial and aesthetic success from day one.”
Trump has boasted about his standards, saying he rejected Ivan Boesky, who asked about renting office space before pleading guilty in 1987 to a charge tied to insider trading. “I got a funny feeling about his character, or rather his lack of it, and I told him that I was sorry," he wrote in Surviving at the Top. “I’ve always been blessed with a kind of intuition about people that allows me to sense who the sleazy guys are, and I stay far away.”
That intuition doesn’t always work. Weichselbaum, the helicopter executive, rented an apartment in another Trump building after he was indicted for cocaine trafficking in 1985. He pleaded guilty, and Trump called him “a credit to the community” in a letter on his behalf before sentencing. While Weichselbaum was behind bars, his girlfriend bought two units in Trump Tower, where he lived for about five years after prison. “It was fine, other than parking issues,” Weichselbaum said about the building. “And try getting a bagel or a container of milk.”
Mel Cooper, convicted of racketeering in 1985 for what prosecutors called mob-tied loan-sharking, bought his first of two apartments in the building a decade later. The condo board complained in a 2007 court filing about dogs named Cookie and Cookie Jr. barking “hysterically as people pass by.” Cooper, who sold his units by 2013, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Art dealer Helly Nahmad bought all the units on the 51st floor for more than $18.4 million. He went to prison for about five months in 2014 for leading a high-stakes gambling network. Prosecutors said his Trump Tower neighbor Vadim Trincher ran a connected ring for Russian oligarchs from his $5 million apartment. Trincher, whose wife still lives in the building, was sentenced to five years in 2014. He didn’t respond to a letter about Trump Tower sent to him in prison. Nahmad didn’t answer questions about the apartment.
Robert Hopkins, accused of ordering a member of a rival gambling ring killed, was arrested in his 59th-floor duplex in 1986. Murder charges were thrown out a year later, around the time David Bogatin on the 53rd floor pleaded guilty to tax evasion. Bogatin was a Russian mobster, according to a colleague’s congressional testimony. He no longer owns the unit and couldn’t be reached. A lawyer for Hopkins said he declined to comment.
Trump sold another apartment to a Panamanian company called Lasa Trade and Finance, a cover for former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, according to a 1986 lawsuit filed in the U.S. by his country’s government. The condo was purchased for about $1.6 million through the family decorator, the suit said.
Richard Nixon toured unfinished units and tripped three times, according to former Trump Organization executive Barbara Res, who was in charge of the building’s construction. He didn’t buy, but Johnny Carson did. His apartment later belonged to Bruce Willis, who sold it in 2005 for $13 million to the Hunter Roberts Construction Group, a company that paid more than half that in penalties and restitution when it admitted last year to cheating clients with fraudulent bills.
Andrew Lloyd Webber is listed on a 2005 deed as Lord Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton. Fay Wray, star of the 1933 movie King Kong, once lived in the building. Her neighbor, artist Ranan Lurie, asked her to rate a leading man she had dated. “Eh," she said with a shrug, Lurie recalled in a phone call from his bathtub in a new condo nearby.
The skyscraper houses entrepreneurs, too. An apartment that belonged to singer Paul Anka is now owned by Danny Damaghi, whose family founded an adult-incontinence and disposable-wipes company. Direct-marketing veterans Roy and Helene Schwedelson own a unit. So does Ernie Garcia, chairman of used-car dealer DriveTime, who pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 1990 in connection with the collapse of Charles Keating’s Lincoln Savings & Loan and was sentenced to probation.
Before his tower went up, Trump could be seen around town in a chauffeured Cadillac with his initials on the plates, or inside Studio 54 and Le Club. He got a boost from his father, Fred, an outer-borough real estate mogul whose political connections helped the young Trump get tax breaks when he redeveloped the decrepit Commodore Hotel next to Grand Central Terminal into a glassy Grand Hyatt.
His next big project was tearing down the limestone Bonwit Teller department store to make way for Trump Tower. He wanted more tax breaks, but to get them he had to prove the building was functionally obsolete. The city turned him down.
Anthony Gliedman, then housing commissioner, got a call one night in March 1981. “I am a very rich and powerful person in this town and there is a reason I got that way,” Trump told him, according to a memo the commissioner wrote to Mayor Ed Koch. “I will never forget what you did.” Trump got his tax break, and eventually Gliedman went to work for him.
The demolition didn’t go smoothly. Trump’s contractor hired Polish immigrants who worked off the books, didn’t all wear hard hats and often weren’t paid. They sued and settled years later. The Metropolitan Museum asked for Bonwit Teller’s Art Deco sculptures, but Trump has said he tore them down because it was cheaper than saving them.
Trump has said he traveled to find buyers and bragged that the building lacks a co-op board to screen them. Wealthy foreigners didn’t have to worry about “the scrutiny of a bunch of prying strangers,” he wrote in The Art of the Deal.
Some are from countries he has mocked as a candidate. Mexican businessman Carlos Peralta sold his apartment in 2013 for $14.3 million. His broker said interest came from South Americans, Russians and Eastern Europeans who appreciated the condo’s quilted walls, gold finishes and bedroom Jacuzzi. Mexican billionaire Juan Beckmann Vidal, head of the family that controls Jose Cuervo, owns three units.
Residents don’t have to worry about prying staff. “My favorite part of the building is the people working here,” said Susetta Mion, who has been accused by a niece of stealing $15 million in cash, jewelry and furs from her Italian fashion family before fleeing to New York. She called the whole thing a family quarrel that’s being resolved.
Mion was smoking Marlboros in her living room at Trump Tower on a September afternoon after lunching with Ivana Trump. Her blouse matched a black bow with shiny dots on her Maltese, Bella. “They are so polite they don’t talk about anything,” she said about the staff. “Here I don’t need to close the door.”
The residential manager in the 1990s was George Gjieli, who got hired after serving a prison sentence for trying to bribe a government agent into freeing a triple murderer. He declined to comment.
Trump’s company owns and leases its commercial floors, where several tenants have connections to him. Stewart Rahr, a friend and pharmaceutical billionaire, rents space for his foundation. Police came to the building in 2012 and confiscated a gun from Rahr, who calls himself “Stewie Rah Rah,” after an encounter with an elevator man. He wasn’t charged and backed Trump’s fundraiser for veterans in January. Rahr didn’t respond to messages.
The European School of Economics, which branded itself as “The School for Gods,” was on the 19th floor. Its foundation honored Trump at its dynasty-themed 2012 gala. By then, the New York State Education Department had told the program to stop calling itself a college. That same floor now houses the related Legacy Business School, where Kardashian matriarch Kris Jenner was briefly chairman this year. In August, the education department referred Legacy to the New York State Attorney General’s office, which has filed a fraud lawsuit against Trump University that Trump is contesting.
Three decades after its debut, Trump Tower’s pink-marbled extravagance can seem dated. Nearby skyscrapers dwarf its height and prices. Not many Trump Tower units have sold for more than $15 million. Two 1,100-square-foot apartments are on the market for less than $2.2 million.
Still, the building’s value rose to $600 million from $490 million over the past year as Gucci, its largest retail tenant, increased the rent it pays, according to a valuation of Trump’s wealth in July by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. That makes it his most valuable single asset, now worth more than his building at 40 Wall St. He personally guaranteed $8 million when he borrowed $100 million against the midtown skyscraper in 2012.
And Trump Tower still has Trump. His home at the top isn’t like the others. One reason Trump’s triplex is so vast, he has written, is a trip he took to Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi’s condo nearby, where he stepped into a living room bigger than his own. Trump said he bought up a neighboring unit to expand. Photographs show a shiny, marbled, yellow expanse decorated with a toy Mercedes near a statue of Eros and Psyche.
Trump says his apartment reaches up to the 68th floor, even though the building isn’t that high. City records say it’s 10 floors shorter. Much of the explanation is a magic trick downstairs, where Trump skipped the 6th through 13th floors.
Even before a tape of Trump making lewd comments about women was leaked this month, Garcia, the car dealer, said he had thought about leaving because of his neighbor’s politics. “I’m not going to let that get to me,” Garcia, a Democrat, said. “Selfishly, I like the building.”
His neighbor Lombardi backs Trump as well as Italy’s anti-immigrant Northern League party. He predicts Trump will stay in Trump Tower whether or not he becomes president.
“He has a special attachment,” Lombardi said. “I don’t think he’ll ever move out.”
–With assistance from Sergio Di Pasquale, Caleb Melby and Chris Dolmetsch.
Graphic shows selection of current and former residential owners and tenants. Lower floors, which house commercial and retail tenants, aren't shown.