Donald Trump spent the last four years at the center of the world. Holed up in Florida, he is about to face down the Senate in a historic second impeachment trial. He probably won't be convicted, and he remains beloved by his rabid fan base. But he's surely lost forever the chance to get what he really craved: respect in the boardrooms, clubrooms and newsrooms of Manhattan.
As a New York Daily News cover phrased it, "DON'T COME BACK!"
In the past few months, Trump suffered humiliating defeats from voters, judges, social media gatekeepers and even PGA tournament organizers. But surely the hometown rejection stings. He loved to show off his gilded triplex penthouse atop Trump Tower; he drew energy from the paparazzi who tailed him on Fifth Avenue; he gloried in seeing his name on hotels and residential buildings in elite neighborhoods.
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I know this because I had a front-row seat to observe Trump during his dizzying ascent in the 1970s and 1980s. As a college student and then a young journalist, I spent time with Roy Marcus Cohn, the fixer who mentored Trump. Roy was my father’s cousin, so I saw the Cohn-Trump bullying and corner-cutting.
As I watched Trump with Cohn at parties in Manhattan and the Hamptons, I realized that their intense friendship was forged out of their common resentment of New Yorkers who seemed more successful, more established, more accepted.
Trump and Cohn grew up in the city’s outer boroughs, their faces pressed against the window of society, hoping to join in.
Trump and Cohn grew up in the city’s outer boroughs, their faces pressed against the window of society, hoping to join in. Later, Trump would spin fables about his real estate prowess, like his $1.2 billion Taj Mahal casino, “the eighth wonder of the world” (until it went bankrupt). But deep down, he knew he was just an heir from a Queens family that owned undistinguished housing complexes. Cohn was born in the Bronx, raised by a mother who yearned for approval in Manhattan.
I understand. I spent my early childhood in East Harlem, while friends and relatives lived in glitzy neighborhoods, tantalizingly close by. New Yorkers know that the span of a few blocks means a world of difference in status.
Cohn wasn't much of a lawyer, but he was an unrelenting connector and charlatan. He introduced Trump to the tax-evading owners of Studio 54, the corrupt politicians who eased zoning restrictions, the Mafia bosses who allegedly ensured a steady supply of concrete for Trump Tower during a strike.
Cohn and Trump made sure the Old Guard saw them squired around town in their chauffeured Rolls-Royces. Yet no matter how many times Trump appeared in the tabloid columns or affixed his name to buildings, he couldn’t ingratiate himself with New York’s establishment.
“Donald operated in New York on the assumption that wealth, even pretend wealth, would buy everything he yearned for,” Ruth Messinger told me in an interview recently. She served as borough president of Manhattan in the 1990s and clashed with Trump over his attempts to wall in Manhattan with enormous apartment complexes.
“Real estate leaders made fun of Donald behind his back,” Messinger continued. “Some city officials turned him down just because they saw him as too conniving, too manipulative, too untrustworthy.”
No matter how many times Trump appeared in the tabloid columns or affixed his name to buildings, he couldn’t ingratiate himself with New York’s establishment.
When Trump started his presidency, he mused about spending part of the time in his 58th-floor Trump Tower apartment slathered with 24-karat gold. He was obsessed with coverage from the hometown media: The New York Times, the New York Post, the TV networks based in New York. But New York finally, resoundingly rebuffed him. In November’s election, he lost every Manhattan voting district to Joe Biden.
Trump derided the city as a "ghost town." He changed his residence to Florida. But he couldn't fool New Yorkers: He fled to Mar-a-Lago because he is a pariah everywhere in the city whose affirmation he coveted.
Trump-branded properties in New York have lost more than 20 percent of their value, Business Insider reported. New York prosecutors are building cases to show the Trump Organization’s “extensive and protracted criminal conduct,” the Associated Press reported.
“We’ll be back in some form,” Trump promised as he departed Washington — fled, it felt like — for a state he once seemed to disdain. The Daily News cover gave him a Bronx cheer: “Trump joins fellow geezers in Florida.”
Trump shows no signs of having learned from his most important apprenticeship. In 1986, Roy Cohn was dying of AIDS complications in his 33-room townhouse off Park Avenue. One powerful New Yorker after another deserted him — including Donald Trump.
Today, New York remembers my cousin not as a master of the universe, but as a broken, lonely figure who was disbarred and discredited. That should be a warning to his favorite apprentice.