My Dinner with The Donald

Donald Trump: Getty Images.

Donald Trump: Getty Images.

Recently, I saw a video where former Governor and  2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush was asked about  Donald Trump’s  presidential prospects.

Bush smirked in a way that reminded me of brother and former President George ”W” Bush and then he said, “I better not say anything.”

That was before national and New Hampshire polls showed Trump placing second to Bush.

Then Bush and the rest of the national GOP stopped laughing and started worrying. They are right to worry.

While no one expects Trump to be the Republican nominee, he has the opportunity to dominate the debates with his personality and more importantly impact the outcome of the general election by becoming an independent candidate for president.

I know of what I speak as I have had the opportunity of not only meeting Mr. Trump but shared a dinner table with him.

In 2002, I was lucky enough to be named  “County Leader of the Year” by the New Jersey Conference of Mayors. The award was given during the annual gathering of Mayors in Atlantic City, which happened to occur at the then spectacular Trump Plaza.

At the ceremony I was advised that I was going to be seated at the same table with Mr. Trump and his then fiancée, Melania. I had never met Mr. Trump but had heard the stories about his companies playing hardball with contractors to the economic detriment of those contractors. I even represented a chef in a lawsuit against Trump’s first wife, Ivana. That suit settled for about 80% of the demand when I subpoenaed Ivana for her deposition. But other than that example, my sum knowledge of Donald Trump was through the media and urban legends from his putting his name on several casinos in Atlantic City.

So it is fair to say that until that moment, my knowledge of Donald Trump was not unlike everyone else’s. But, that evening I got a glimpse of Donald Trump 2002, which I reflect upon when viewing Donald Trump 2015.

At the table besides the Trumps  and myself was then Governor Jim McGreevey, Donald Fauerbach who was the Executive Director of the NJCM, and Hope Mayor Tim McDonough who was then the President of the NJCM.

The Donald Trump at that table was nothing like the Donald Trump I had read about or the Donald Trump of television fame or even the Donald Trump of development self-promotion. The Donald Trump I met was charming, smart and engaging. He asked questions about all of our backgrounds and appeared interested in learning about us. There was a telling moment when Mr. Trump asked when someone we all knew was getting married and he was interrupted by Melania in an accent that was both sexy and commanding, who said, “Donald when they are getting married is not the question but when are we being married?” Trump for a moment was speechless but quickly made a joke about Melania speaking her mind no matter the locale or topic. In that instant he was just like every other guy who was called out for dragging his feet on marrying a woman who clearly expected that result. In a word he was “human.” Not quite endearing but certainly human.

My other recollection of the discussion was Trump’s suggestion that Tim McDonough, who as I said was at the table, would make  a great chairman of the Casino Control Commission.  After making that proposal to Governor McGreevey, Trump turned to me and asked, “Lou don’t you agree?” For that moment, despite any preconceived ill feelings I had about him, my opinion mattered to Donald Trump, whether for real or for show and it felt good!

If that Donald Trump comes out at the debates and during the primary season he will be a significant factor for a time period far longer than the GOP establishment will want to endure.

For self-described “rich” guy Donald Trump relates amazingly well to average guys. He does so for some reasons which are not laudable; such as his outlandish statements about “Mexicans” or his battle with Rosie O’Donnell, but for also something else when he syncs into the deepest hopes and desires of every guy to be rich and go back to the good old days. Those days were not so good to minorities or women but isn’t that the subtle “genius” of the Trump message?

Of course, it is possible that Trump may implode like many of the flavors of the week who were frontrunners for the GOP for about one news cycle in 2012. But for the GOP establishment to bet on this result, they do so at their own risk. Trump is no Michele Bachman or Herman Cain. He is surrounded by brilliant children who he trusts completely and the best advisors money can buy. And unlike the one week wonders of 2012, Trump has not only learned the media spotlight but has mastered it. One hundred and fifty books with his name as an author, co-author or credited with the forward according to a Barnes and Noble search; fifteen seasons of the Apprentice;  including the show most like primary presidential debate season; “Celebrity Apprentice” with has-beens and wanna bees. Accordingly, I would not bet on a Trump implosion.

Using the nomenclature of Atlantic City, a better bet is that Trump will steal the show and say outlandish things loved by about 30% of America and distained by the rest. But with 13 or 14 candidates for the Republican nomination, 30% is a landslide. At that point the GOP national establishment will have to coalesce around a Bush or Walker or even a Christie to stop Trump. And of course the establishment always wins in a primary. But that is when Donald Trump will be the most dangerous.

Imagine an aggrieved billionaire pushed out by the Republican establishment, who will say those who caused the nation’s problems have ganged up on him. Imagine Donald Trump; whose message will resonate with a solid 30% of the electorate, who will say he was screwed by the professional politicians, who will have the money to hire the infrastructure to get on 50 ballots as an Independent, who will see an election as a further investment in his brand and will spend $500 million in that brand and will be on the ballot against Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush in the November general election.

Think back to how John Anderson hurt Jimmy Carter in 1980, the effect of Ross Perot to George H.W Bush in 1992 and even Ralph Nader to Al Gore in 2000. And now just think what a well-financed, well messaged, motivated and angry Donald Trump, who will get on more ballots than any of the aforementioned Independent candidates, will do to the GOP in 2016 in the age of social media.

It is enough to swipe the smirk off of the face of any Bush.

Lou Magazzu was a Freeholder in Cumberland County NJ from 1998-2011 and the longest serving Freeholder in that county in the last 50 years. He also served as Freeholder Director as well as County Democratic Chairman. He served on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Counties, was the Chairman of the National Democratic County Officials and was President of the New Jersey Association of Counties. He can be reached at Lmagazzu@aol.com.

My Dinner with The Donald