The Last Night At The Trump Taj Mahal

Donald Trump's Atlantic City empire has come to a slow, sad end

The last Atlantic City casino to bear Trump's name has closed. — Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Oct 11, 2016 at 4:03 PM ET

It’s debate night in America, and darkness has fallen in Atlantic City. The area where Pacific and Virginia Avenues meet — once a bustling intersection swarming with patrons ready to take on the house — is now empty, even eerie. To the west, a seniors home and a jewelry shop with a neon-lit “cash for gold” sign face off across the street. A parking lot for employees holds a scattering of limos and not much else. In the distance, you can see the Showboat and Revel casinos, which closed in 2014. And then, there it is. The obnoxious, captivating sign: “Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort.” For 26 years, its lights lured millions of guests through its doors. In a few hours, they will be turned off for good.

There’s still a sense of the riches the place promised when it opened back in 1990. Al Glasgow, then publisher of gaming newsletter Atlantic City Action, said when the Taj opened: “Will the Taj work? It can’t miss. It’s like spitting and missing the floor.”

But as you walk inside, you get a sense that the Taj Mahal did miss, a sense confirmed by its fourth and final bankruptcy. On the walls, the paint is chipped, the wallpaper stained. Broken water fountains have become ashtrays. The last vestige of Trump’s empire isn’t in great shape, the fossilization already underway.

Donald Trump is likely unaware of these dilapidations — he hasn’t had a stake in the Taj since 2009, and has been avoiding Atlantic City altogether of late: In the 481 days Trump has been campaigning to be president, he has not made a single campaign stop in Atlantic City, a town in which he owned a sizeable stake until 2009.

There’s no little irony that Atlantic City’s one-time wonder boy is due to discuss his employment plan on a national stage just hours before 3,000 people — hundreds of whom worked for the Taj since Trump opened it in 1990 — become unemployed.

It is the last night at Trump Taj Mahal. Doors close at 5:59 a.m.

Trump’s well-documented love affairs follow a predictable pattern: high-drama wooing, followed by braggadociously courting vast publicity, followed by a rapid loss of enthusiasm and, ultimately, collapse. So went his affair with Atlantic City. It began in the late 1970s, as a gaming boom was hitting the shore town and a Trump boom was happening in New York real estate circles. When Resorts, the first casino to debut in A.C. after gambling legalization, opened its doors, Trump made the trip down from Manhattan to scout out property. Using exaggeration, strong-arm tactics and even alleged mob connections, by 1985 Trump found himself with two casinos bearing his name.

But he wanted more, which led him to the Taj. Resorts International had already been building the Taj Mahal for three years when its owner suddenly died. With the company flailing under a lack of leadership, Trump smelled blood and acquired a controlling stake in the company a year later. After a public battle with TV host Merv Griffin, the two decided to divvy up the company’s assets, which gave Trump a third casino in Atlantic City.

Now he just had to find a way to finance its completion. In a 1988 licensing hearing, Trump had to convince the Casino Control Commission that he could properly fund the Taj Mahal’s construction, despite shouldering more than a billion dollars in Atlantic City casino debt.

Donald Trump did what he had to in order to secure the money to build the Taj. It’s something he’s done very often during his 16-month campaign for president of the United States: Donald Trump lied.

The Washington Post reviewed the meeting transcripts in January:

“Trump said he could pull it off for one main reason: He was Donald Trump. Because of his reputation as a dealmaker, he said, bankers were lining to lend him money at prime rates. That meant he could avoid the risky, high-interest loans known as junk bonds.”

That, of course, never happened. Unable to extract deals from financiers, Trump funded the Taj with high-interest junk bonds that he would struggle to repay. From the outset, the Taj was starting to look like fool’s gold.

Fast forward 28 years, and the Trump Taj Mahal casino floor is mostly a ghost town. On its final night, maybe a hundred people are getting their final fix via four blackjack games, a craps table, a roulette wheel and the handful of slot machines that still work.

Upstairs, the specialty restaurants are closed — a single customer eating alone in Panda Express. The gift store is selling presidential Trump merchandise featuring shirts, bobbleheads, and Trump mints (not Tic Tacs), but nobody’s buying. At the Trump Exchange, which once bore the slogan “Where Trump is everything, and everything is Trump,” lights are already dimmed. A signature Trump quote, however, can be seen through the locked glass doors: “I like thinking big. You have to think anyway, so why not think big?”

The opening of the Taj in 1990, then the largest casino in the world, was a Trump-sized spectacle. Michael Jackson flew in. Attendance was mandatory for all employees, regardless of whether they were working that day or not. Trump gleefully rubbed a giant genie lamp, and the doors opened, to some skepticism.

“When this property opens, he will have have so much free publicity he will break every record in the books in April, June, and July,” said casino analyst Marvin Roffman two weeks before it opened. “But once the cold winds blow from October to February, it won’t make it. The market just isn’t there.”

Roffman was right. It’s a premonition that sounds eerily familiar to election-watchers in 2016. Early returns at the Taj were huge, helped by the polished-brass allure of the Trump brand.

“[Analysts] talked about $1 million a day,” Trump said, referring to the projected break-even point. “I think we did that in the first few hours.”

A year on, revenues began to slide. Trump’s three casinos were competing viciously with each other in an already saturated market, and the debt and criticism continued to pile up.

On June 22, 1991, the Washington Post ran an article slamming Donald Trump for missing a $41.1 million debt payment on Trump Castle.

Trump responded two weeks later with an op-ed in the same paper, in which he claimed his trials and tribulations were nothing unusual, but that he was under greater scrutiny than most developers due to his high profile. Describing himself in the third person, Trump downplayed his debt maneuverings and attacked what he saw as false reports in a now familiar style:

“In any event, keep writing and keep giving negative quotes from “real estate developers” I have never heard of. The bottom line is that Donald Trump is doing very well – except in the press.”

Eleven days after Trump’s op-ed response ran, the Trump Taj Mahal filed for the first of its four bankruptcies.

Out on the boardwalk on Sunday, a few dozen people stand around wearing the red shirts of Unite Here Local 54, two of them dancing to Marc Anthony’s Vivir Mi Vida.

Local 54 is a group of about 1,000 bartenders, housekeepers, bellmen, and cooks, who have been striking outside of the Taj for the past 101 days. Day 102 will be the last.

Trump hasn’t had any stake in the Taj since 2009, but the casino eventually fell into his friend Carl Icahn’s hands in February 2016 after the building went through a fourth bankruptcy. Before the Icahn takeover, a bankruptcy court abruptly terminated staff health and pension benefits. After months of stalled negotiations with their new billionaire boss, 95 percent of the staff who serve the Taj walked out on July 1. Weeks later, Icahn said the union had “blocked any path to profitability,” and announced the planned shut-down. (Trump floated Icahn’s name as a candidate for U.S. Treasury Secretary last June.)

Chuck Baker, a Trump Taj cook since it opened in 1990 and a member of the union negotiation committee, lamented the lack of cooperation from Icahn and co.

“Twenty-six years of service and I’m thrown to the curb,” he said, noting he’s been paying $296 a month for his allergy medication since he’s lost his medical benefits two years ago. “I gave 100 percent of myself every single day at the Taj — in sickness and in health.”

33 percent of those on strike currently have no form of health insurance, according to a union spokesperson. Some, like Baker, have a hard time paying for daily medication. Others have had to put necessary operations on hold. In one instance, the lack of health benefits turned fatal. The picketers lost Esau Ivan Madrid, a dishwasher at Taj for 17 years, after he passed away due to a health condition to which he couldn’t afford treatment. His picture is still taped to a pillar outside the casino.

While most of the striking employees primarily blame Icahn for the impending closure, some wonder why their old boss and friend of Icahn didn’t step in to keep the “eighth wonder of the world” open. “All Trump had to do was pick up the phone. Did you call on our behalf? Not once. Did you come down and see us? Not once. Did you care about us? Not once. Donald Trump doesn’t care,” Baker said.

Triumph the Insult Dog has arrived outside the Taj for the debate to parody the end of the Trump empire. Part of the plan is to create an impromptu watch party so that those on the picket line get a chance to see their former boss at work — albeit a very different kind of work.

“Casinos are what [Trump] does well. Politics are not something he’s fit for,” said a Taj cocktail server who declined to be named. “He was my boss, but I don’t want him as president.”

About a dozen people huddled around a 50-inch TV to watch Sunday’s debate, which came just days after a scandalous hot mic recording rocked his campaign. Except for a couple chuckles, most watched in silence, partially out of respect for anyone who may not share the same political views as themselves.

Others made their thoughts known. “Trump and Icahn took this place from first class to busted ass,” said Greg Natale, a cocktail server.

Joe Trifiletti, another cocktail server, who has worked at the Taj since it opened in April of 1990, saw something positive in such a dark day.

“We couldn’t wait to see his name disappear from the skyline. Now it’s gonna happen.”

With the debate over, it’s approaching midnight on the boardwalk. The loudest noises are the crash of the waves and the calls of seagulls overhead. A black cat prowls the dunes below the boards. Closing time is close at hand.

On the casino floor, things are thinning out. The ring of the remaining slot machines fights to be heard against a soundtrack of The Weeknd and Lady Gaga. Dealers are clearing their tables, packing up hundreds of thousands of chips. Patrons tearfully pose for pictures with their favorite roulette attendant. Soon enough, security guards outnumber gamblers.

“You’re gonna be alright, we’re all gonna be alright. This is just a nice little break,” says one pit boss to his employee on the way out. By all indications, Icahn has no intention to reopen the Taj anytime soon, but some still hold out hope.

At one point, the now infamous Trump tapes became a topic of conversation on the casino floor. “Did you hear what he said on that tape the other day?,” a woman said. The two men who she was talking to quietly nodded. Everyone had heard.

By 5 a.m., all was quiet on the floor. Just one person remaining on table games: Shelly Orloff, a longtime Atlantic City loyalist, who came here on a familiar closing-day mission. Mr. Orloff played the final hand of blackjack at the Trump Taj Mahal. Previously, he closed out the blackjack tables at all four casinos that shuttered in 2014: The Atlantic Club, Showboat, Revel and Trump Plaza. He lost the final hand at the Taj (the dealer won with 18), but he was excited to keep his streak alive.

“I do this to put them in my memoirs,” Orloff said. “Well, I don’t have memoirs, but I need an excuse to do this and tell my friends.”

Trump may be long absent from Atlantic City, but the Taj’s first bankruptcy, under his watch, was a cancer that kept coming back. In that rout, dozens of contractors in Atlantic City received 33 cents on the dollar for their work, a savage blow.

Donald Trump loves to say he’s never gone personally bankrupt, which is true, but only because he bankrupted his casinos numerous times instead, as he maneuvered to avoid personal liability and continue taking a paycheck. In 1995, he created Trump Entertainment Resorts, a company that essentially moved his casino assets over to shareholders, along with all the associated debt. It went bankrupt three times, in 2004, 2009, and 2014, at which point Trump was bought out. Trump Marina was sold in 2011 and Trump Plaza was shut down in 2014.

Trump also likes to claim he’s not responsible for the Taj Mahal’s decline, that he “got out at the right time.” But according to Atlantic City job data the Taj Mahal employed 6,015 staffers 1997. By 2004, Trump’s last year with a majority stake in the property, staffing was down 21 percent  to 4,763.

Back outside, closing time is drawing near. About 150 striking workers have shown up, many with colorful signs about Icahn, to bid a farewell to their former workplace. A group of security guards stand inside two layers of doors while picketers, whose last hope expires in minutes, bellow “What do we want? Con-tract! When do we want it? Now!”

At 5:58 a.m. a strike leader calls for a moment of silence and reads a statement off a poster signed by hundreds of union members: “For 102 days we held the line against Wall Street’s attack on the American worker. We held the line for our families, who deserve good quality jobs and health care. We held the line. We will be back.”

The clock hits 5:59 a.m. The Trump Taj Mahal is officially closed, and 3,000 workers will be added to Atlantic City’s unemployment tally, pushing up an unemployment rate of 9.2 percent, a figure already nearly twice the national average. It becomes the city’s fifth casino to close in the past two years (Trump Plaza was one of them).

Passionate picket chants continue for several minutes after zero hour. Two workers inside calmly fit horizontal wooden locks as hundreds of others scream at them through the glass. The gates to the Trump’s debt-filled masterpiece are locked for good.

Tina Condos, a cocktail server since the Taj opened, gets emotional when describing the 102-day strike.

“We never faltered. We didn’t fall,” she said, teary-eyed.

After more than three months on the picket line, Chuck Baker mourned amongst friends. “It’s really hard when you give your life to this place. After all these years, we now have no jobs.”

The laid-off workers slowly disperse after emotional goodbyes. The local news media retreat to their satellite trucks and move on. Looking back toward the ocean, the sun is rising over the Boardwalk. For the first time in 34 years, Donald Trump’s name is absent from Atlantic City.