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Insults, Lawsuits And Broken Rules: How Trump Built A California Golf Course

For years, now-President Trump fought with the city of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., over the Trump National Golf Club.
Stephen Shugerman
Getty Images
For years, now-President Trump fought with the city of Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., over the Trump National Golf Club.

Editor's Note: This story includes language that may be offensive to some readers.

When Donald Trump arrived in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., in 2002, he was welcomed as a "white knight," says former City Councilman Tom Long.

Trump bought a golf course there that had gone bankrupt after the 18th hole literally fell into the ocean in a landslide.

Long, a Democrat, says residents looked forward to Trump's promises of repairing the course and generating revenue and attention for the city.

Despite that goodwill, the relationship got off to a rough start.

In fact, the story of the Trump National Golf Club, Los Angeles, is part of a pattern in how Trump did business in these small towns and cities. In many ways, it mirrors how Trump now approaches the presidency.

The way he did business in Rancho Palos Verdes was to fight. He sued the local public school district and the city government and publicly insulted an opposing lawyer, who now happens to be on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has been crucial to legal battles over Trump's policies as president.

Lawsuit against the public school district

A year after he arrived in Rancho Palos Verdes, Trump sued the local public school district over a land dispute. The Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District had essentially been leasing part of its land to the previous owner of the golf course. When Trump took ownership of the property — and thus took over that agreement — he fought the district over how much that land was worth, and when the golf course would start paying fees. In late 2003, Trump sued.

Ira Toibin, the superintendent of the school district at the time, says the district worried about the lawsuit's effect on its budget, especially when the schools needed to make repairs to aging facilities. After almost a year, Toibin says, the lawsuit had cost the district at least $100,000 in legal fees — the equivalent of two teachers' annual salaries.

Attorney Milan Smith, who represented the school district in the lawsuit, "just rubbed [Trump] the wrong way," Toibin says.

Smith also had some choice words for the future president.

In an interview at the time with the Easy Reader News, a small Southern California news outlet, Smith called Trump "pompous" and "arrogant."

"I have never had any contact with any human being who appears to be so self-absorbed and so impressed with himself," Smith said, according to the Easy Reader. "He's kind of like a big bag of wind."

The suit was settled in 2004, and the Trump Organization agreed to pay the district $5 million in return for ownership of the land.

Trump later said that he "won" the lawsuit "through a very favorable settlement."

A public celebration ends with a public insult

The money was settled, but for Trump, the grievance with attorney Milan Smith was not. And when Trump had a chance to revisit the lawsuit in front of the media, residents and local officials, he took it.

It was supposed to be a day of celebration on Jan. 14, 2005: Trump was hosting a ribbon-cutting for new luxury homes at the golf club. About a half-dozen TV cameras from outlets like CNBC and E! Entertainment Television stood in the back of a packed room, their lenses on Trump, who sat alongside the hopeful and excited local mayor and members of City Council.

Then Trump started talking about the old lawsuit and called Smith "an obnoxious a******."

(NPR was unable to find recordings of the event, but the quote was reported by local newspaper The Daily Breeze and recalled to NPR by three people in the room.)

"That, I would say, was the moment when I think I realized that the relationship between the city and the Trump organization might well have some significant problems," says former Councilman Long.

In response to a request for comment, White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said in an email, "You will need to contact the Trump Organization." The Trump Organization did not respond to NPR's phone calls, emails, letters or fax message.

A series of spats

In fact, the relationship between Rancho Palos Verdes and the Trump Organization became much more contentious.

There was a debate over the size of the 70-foot-tall flagpole that Trump erected at the golf course in 2006 to fly the American flag. A year later, Trump grew 10-foot ficus trees to block houses he thought were ugly. Those plants blocked residents' views of the ocean, which impact property values in the area.

In an effort to mediate the shrubbery dispute, members of the City Council went with Trump to visit one of the homeowners. According to a former City Council member, who was not there but heard about the meeting through colleagues, Trump walked in, "looks around the place and he looks at [the homeowner] and he says, 'This looks like s***.' "

"And then he's doing this, by the way, in order to get these people to accept his offer of putting up his ficus trees and being OK," former councilman Steve Wolowicz says. "Gives you a little insight to the kind of person that he — he appeared to be."

NPR talked to three people who were present at the meeting and who requested anonymity. Like several people we talked to for this story, they voiced concern about being sued by Trump. Two of them confirmed Wolowicz's account. The third remembers Trump saying, "Your house is ugly. My customers should not have to look at your ugly house."

Then there was a fight over new construction on the property, which led to another lawsuit. And while the city was ready for another row, new members of the council eventually encouraged the city to take a different tack: try giving Trump some of what he wanted. In 2012, the city agreed to Trump's longtime demand that the road leading to the golf club be renamed Trump National Drive.

Shortly thereafter, the lawsuit was settled. Trump didn't get everything he asked for. But he did get one thing: that street sign with his name on it.

From businessman to president

The fighting and the insults haven't stopped since Trump reached the Oval Office. His blunt nature is part of why people voted to put him there in the first place.

Among Trump's targets: the judicial branch, particularly the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against his administration's travel ban.

It's on that same appeals court that Smith, the school district's attorney who was once the target of Trump's insult, now sits. Smith was nominated to the position by President George W. Bush and unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2006.

Smith did not rule on any of the travel ban cases, says David Madden, assistant circuit executive with the appeals court. And even if he had, Madden wrote in an email, that wouldn't be a problem. Asked whether Smith's history with Trump posed any conflict of interest issues for that case or any other case that may come before the court, Madden wrote simply, "no."

But Kathleen Clark, a professor at Washington University School of Law, says Smith's prior comments about Trump might raise questions for lawyers arguing before the judge. On the other hand, Clark says, Trump's insults toward Smith would likely not play a role in any question of recusal.

As for Trump's comments raising any conflicts, that question may be unique to this president, she says.

"I can't think of any president, who has acted the way our current president is acting with regard to the name-calling of judges," says Clark.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.
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