In campaign shaped by New York real estate figures, Trump towers over Clinton to clinch presidency

Jared Kushner played central role in developer's quest for the White House

From left: Donald Trump, Barron Trump, Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Tiffany Trump (credit: Getty)
From left: Donald Trump, Barron Trump, Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Tiffany Trump (credit: Getty)

Donald Trump, the developer who stamped his particular brand of bombast on New York’s real estate market, was elected the 45th president of the United States on Tuesday, pulling off the most stunning upset in modern American politics.

“Working together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American dream,” Trump told supporters at a rally at the New York Hilton Midtown around 3 a.m. Wednesday, after his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton had called him to concede. “I’ve spent my entire life in business, looking at the untapped potential in projects and in people all over the world. That is now what I want to do for our country.”

Trump’s run at the White House, perhaps the most unconventional campaign ever waged by a candidate from a major party, was shaped in a big way by figures from New York’s real estate industry. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and CEO of Kushner Companies [TRDataCustom], gained influence during the course of the campaign, and by July, insiders had taken to describing him as the de-facto campaign manager. Trump also called upon moguls such as Vector Group CEO Howard Lorber and Vornado Realty Trust CEO Steven Roth, naming them to his economic brain trust.

When Trump announced his candidacy last June from the marble-filled atrium of Trump Tower, it was considered by many to be a lark and a tactic to boost his media presence. But from the get go, he received support from industry figures. Ralph Herzka, CEO of Meridian Capital Group and one of the city’s most prominent debt brokers, donated the maximum permitted amount to Trump within weeks of his presidential announcement. Others followed, and it quickly became clear that support for Trump would go much further up the chain of real estate power and influence. An early PAC called Make America Great Again raked in sizeable donations from billionaire developer John Catsimatidis, Midtown Equities’ Michael and Joe Cayre and the Kushner family, once New Jersey’s preeminent Democratic fundraising force.

Throughout the rest of 2015 and into this year, more of the industry’s prominent figures gave either their cash or their endorsement to Trump, the first of their clan to have a real shot at the most powerful piece of real estate in the world. Arthur Zeckendorf and Richard LeFrak stepped up for him, as did Elie Hirschfeld and Peter Kalikow.

But Trump’s style wasn’t for everyone. For many months it seemed like few in the industry wanted to say much about it.

Joseph Moinian, Steven Spinola, Larry Silverstein, Anthony Malkin and many others declined requests to discuss Trump back in March. Others who went on the record would often caveat critical comments by expressing admiration of Trump’s skills as a promoter. Even some who hopped aboard the Trump train, such as Vornado’s Roth, stayed mum.

“I have nothing to say about the campaign and I don’t spend any time on it,” Roth said in September.

Meanwhile, plenty of New York real estate’s most powerful families and chieftains were busy funding Trump’s rivals. Members of the Durst, Resnick and Rudin families donated to Clinton’s campaign (later a survey by Kushner’s own paper, the New York Observer, would show that much of the city’s property elite supported Clinton, too). Arthur Zeckendorf’s brother, William Lie Zeckendorf, also gave to Clinton. Longtime Republican fundraisers like Related Companies’ Stephen Ross weren’t giving to either of the two future nominees and were publicly expressing doubts, but not condemnations, of a Trump presidency.

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“I respect him, but I don’t really see him as president of the United States,” Ross said on CBS last October. “I think the ability to put a leadership cabinet, and organizations…and I don’t think he’s really dealt with that in his life.” Others, such as Aby Rosen, were far less forgiving.  In August, the RFR Holding chief plastered a massive billboard urging New Yorkers to “Vote Your Conscience” at one of his development sites in Noho.

On election day, Hirschfeld told TRD that despite Trump’s decades in New York real estate, he “somehow never seemed to become an insider.”

“I’m not sure if the industry knows how to relate to him,” Hirschfeld added.

As Clinton leaped far ahead in wrangling campaign dollars from prominent donors, Trump reached out to a somewhat more obscure collection of hedge funders (Anthony Scaramucci, Robert Mercer) and elsewhere investors (Bradley Hughes, Andy Beal). In California this spring, Colony Capital CEO Tom Barrack helped form a super PAC to raise tens of millions of dollars for Trump. Critics constantly questioned whether Trump would raise enough money to compete with Clinton, and Barrack, as vocal in his support as ever, even took a step back from the PAC he had helped form. He never donated to it, and according to a recent analysis by Bloomberg, the PAC will only have spent 63 percent of what Barrack originally said it had raised. In July, Barrack himself questioned the role of super PACs in an interview he gave to TRD. “The purpose of funds primarily, especially from Super PACs, is for negative ads,” Barrack said. “Do you need more money to run more negative ads? I don’t think so.”

Trump made up for the financing gap by relying on his preternatural talent for staying in the spotlight, drawing huge crowds to his rallies and wielding his Twitter account like a 24-7 free attack ad.

As his vitriol got increasingly darker over the course of the campaign, many industry insiders previously thrilled by the prospect of one of their own becoming president relaxed their support. As Andrew Heiberger, the founder and CEO of Town Residential and an early Trump supporter, put it, Trump’s drift to the farthest fringes of political discourse became “an insurmountable blemish on his character.” And Edward Mermelstein, an attorney, developer, and acquaintance of Trump, rued that the candidate never made more of himself than the brassy caricature of a New York billionaire that allowed his rise to prominence in the first place.

“He’s still showing us more of the individual that we were seeing on television shows than the individual we expect him to be as president of the United States,” Mermelstein said.

The truth is that Trump had been cultivating a reputation for fringe political beliefs for years. From questioning the legitimacy of America’s first black president to contemplating the execution of the “Central Park Five,” Trump’s taste for the most indecorous of conspiratorial American politics became as foundational to his brand as Trump Tower.

Now, when he takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, Trump will enjoy an unencumbered ability to govern, given that the Republicans maintained control of both the House and Senate. What he does with the most powerful position in the world remains to be seen, but what appears clear is that a Trump presidency will be unlike anything America has seen before.

“So, it’s been what they call a historic event,” Trump said at the rally Wednesday. “But to be really historic, we have to do a great job. And I promise you that I will not let you down. We will do a great job. We will do a great job.”

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