By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
Looking at archival footage from his days as an Atlantic City casino mogul, the first thing that strikes you about Donald Trump back then is how similar he was to the candidate we know today.
There is the braggadocio.
Trump in 1996: “We’re four-star, we’re four-diamond, nobody else can say that. We just want to keep it that way.”
“It’s finer by far than anything in Las Vegas.”
Current Trump: “I’m using my own money. I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.”
There is the pride in everything being first-class.
Trump in 1996: “We’re going to have bottlenecks so nobody can come down and use our facilities — which are world-class facilities.”
“If you look at the quality of the finish, if you look at the bronze doors. I haven’t seen that in a long time. It’s what I put in Trump Tower in New York and I have not seen that in a long time. I mean, the quality is so incredible.”
Trump in Scotland: “When you see — I don’t know if you’ll get the chance — but if you do you should try and get to see the suites because they are two of the most beautiful suites you’ll ever see.”
He was ever the salesman in Atlantic City.
Trump in 1996: “It’s been open on a soft basis for a week and, I mean, you can’t even get in, it’s been so popular and it’s really been a smooth opening. We haven’t had a complaint. Everyone gets their change right away. Everything works perfectly. The machines are great. So we’re really honored by it, and it’s been a real success.”
He was ever the businessman.
Trump in 1996: “I mean, the Taj Mahal is number one in every category — it’s number one in slots, it’s number one in games, it’s number one in gross operating profits, number one in revenues.”
And, of course, there’s that word: “Huge”.
At its peak, the Trump organization operated four casinos that bore the CEO’s name.
Even back then, Trump was not a man shy about advertising himself.
Atlantic City was doing well in the early ’90s, and Trump was its biggest booster.
Asked to explain the city’s success, he gave credit to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission and then-Gov. Christie Whitman.
Trump in 1996: “I think that the economy is getting better in the Northeast. I think that’s a very important element. I think more than anything else it’s what the commission has done, what Gov. Whitman has done and her leadership. I mean, her leadership has been incredible in the state. People are finding Atlantic City an attractive place. It’s become a much more beautiful place and very shortly it’s going to be a really beautiful place.”
Trump has been in the media glare for most of his adult life. The years in Atlantic City were no exception.
The media did their part to pump up Trump.
“It’s being billed as the eighth wonder of the world. Gamblers and gawkers by the thousands streamed into Atlantic City today to check out Donald Trump’s new Taj Mahal Casino Hotel,” said Kent Manahan in 1990.
And always the superlatives.
1990: “Trump spared no expense with this project — exclusive artwork, penthouse suites with every luxury, 12 restaurants, lounge entertainment, even Trump’s 7,000 workers are part of the scenery.”
“All of this grandeur. All this opulence. Next question, can Donald Trump afford to pay for it?” said Deborah Zara.
Trump: “I think easily. I really believe it’s going to be easy. People see the building and they all come back. I think it’s going to be very easy.”
But it wasn’t so easy. Trump would later declare bankruptcy four times in Atlantic City, something he seemed to think only happened to other people’s companies.
Trump in 1996: “You know, it was sad because so many very, very capable people unfortunately were forced into bankruptcies and a lot of other things. And I was able to work out all my difficulties, to a point where now it’s stronger than ever before. And I’m really happy about it. And Atlantic City really helped me, I have to say.”
The media this year have unearthed stories about Trump allegedly ripping off shore-area contractors and leaving a trail of bad business practices.
Hillary Clinton even came to town to trumpet those tales.
“Hundreds of liens have been filed against him by contractors going back decades. They all tell the same story: I worked for him, I did my job, he wouldn’t pay me what he owed me. One person after another after another,” she said.
In his own mind at the time, Trump was not just the city’s biggest booster, but also its savior.
Trump in 1996: “I mean, I employ 15, 16, maybe even 17,000 people. I did a great job in Atlantic City. I’ve been rewarded and they’ve been rewarded. We’ve all been rewarded together. I think a lot of people think if I wasn’t in Atlantic City, it would have folded up. It would have just died.”
“In America, we don’t begrudge people being successful — that’s part of the American dream — but we do if they get rich by destroying other people in the process,” Clinton said.
Trump’s interaction with crowds looked and sounded the same back then.
Democrats, like then-Atlantic City Mayor Jim Whelan, dismissed him then as Democrats do now.
“Well, it’s Donald being Donald,” Whelan said in 1990.
Reporters don’t flirt with him as much today.
1996: “What’s your favorite style of singing?”
“Style of singing? I don’t know. Barry White’s awfully good,” Trump said.
“Kind of romantic, just like you.”
But Trump cared as much back then about his likability.
Trump in 1996: “People that know me, like me. The people that don’t like me are people that don’t know me.”
Current Trump: “Latinos love Trump and I love them.”
“The African-Americans love me.”
“When people get to know me, they get to like me.”
“They’re going to like me better than they like Obama.”
Trump was 49 back then. He is 70 today. People’s opinions may evolve at that stage, but people themselves apparently don’t change that much.