WASHINGTON ― At the heart of his pitch to voters, Donald Trump has pointed to his experience as a real estate developer and businessman. The GOP presidential nominee may never have presided over a state as a governor or run a big city as its mayor. But he manages territory of a different sort. He has his golf courses located all across the country, from South Florida to Southern California.
Running a chain of golf courses would seem like fairly genteel work consumed with glad-handing banquets and mulligans on the back nine. But there’s more to it than that. There’s dealing with local governments, negotiating tax assessments and zoning issues, handling health code regulations in your clubhouse restaurants and navigating the environmental impact of renovating acres of green space. There is also the stress of hiring and managing thousands of employees that represent the Trump brand.
In examining the body of reporting on his golf properties, a theme quickly emerges. With Trump, every spat ― no matter how petty ― turned into a war. He routinely sought to pay less taxes, swat away regulations and stiff some worker. At first, public officials would welcome Trump, his red power tie, his swoosh of hair and his flamboyant promises to take over a derelict property and polish it to a high-class shine. He certainly fixed up courses and brought in money (maybe not as much as he claimed). But soon, dealing with Trump meant a life in constant conflict.
Running a country is a lot more complex then sprucing up a country club. But a look back at how Trump handled his golf businesses gives one a sense of how he might govern from the Oval Office.
Housing and Urban Development
In 2007, Trump felt that the houses ringing his Rancho Palos Verdes golf course in southern California were an eyesore. So he went ahead and had a wall of trees planted in front of them, possibly running afoul of local laws and angering residents and the mayor. “Why is a man of his resources wasting time bickering with the city?” asked Mayor Tom Long, according to the Los Angeles Times. The trees eventually had to be removed.
After Trump took over the golf course in Doral, Florida, he thought the surrounding $500,000 houses were not up to his standards. So, again, his company put up a wall of palm trees to block the homeowners. “What happens is when you are on, as an example, the first green on the golf course, you are staring at houses with laundry hanging out their window in some cases,” Trump argued. “It’s not appropriate for the finest resort in the country.”
Some neighbors allegedly cut down the newly planted trees now blocking their view of the course. A resident claimed that Trump employees retaliated by turning her backyard into a trash dump, prompting a rat-infestation problem. Trump took the residents to civil court, hiring the law firm of the state’s former attorney general to individually sue eight residents.
Trump didn’t just have issues with Doral’s drying laundry. He also declared that the Florida Power & Light’s utility poles were unsightly for a golf course of his quality. He threatened to sue the company if it couldn’t produce prettier poles. “In my opinion, one of the worst utility companies in the country is Florida Power and Light,” he said in a Twitter post.
The Civil Rights Division
In late 2008, Trump sued the small Californian city of Rancho Palos Verdes accusing it essentially of disrespecting him and his golf course. The LA Times reported that he “accused the city of fraud and civil rights violations, contending that the city was refusing to allow improvements needed to maintain the ‘Trump image,’ including a clubhouse terrace and a row of ficus trees he was forced to cut down earlier.” Trump was asking for $100 million. The city has an annual budget of $20 million.
“I’ve been looking forward for a long time to do this,” Trump told the LA Times.
What was it that Trump believed was violating his civil rights? The city had required him to complete a series of geological studies and surveys on the property which is a risk for landslides. In 1999, a chunk of land had fallen into the Pacific Ocean, which caused the previous owners to go into bankruptcy. The lawsuit was settled for undisclosed terms in 2012.
That same year, Trump was sued by employees of that golf club who alleged that he only wanted attractive hostesses working for the company. “I had witnessed Donald Trump tell managers many times while he was visiting the club that restaurant hostesses were ‘not pretty enough’ and that they should be fired and replaced with more attractive women,” the director of catering said in a sworn statement. USA Today, in reporting the case, noted that “one male employee testified he never saw a male waiter serve Trump.”
Employees had initially filed the suit over a lack of meal and rest breaks. A settlement concerning those allegations was entered with Trump and Co. paying the plaintiffs $475,000. A woman who complained about the company’s sexist policies was also awarded an undisclosed settlement.
At his golf course in Doral, a woman sued a Trump management company claiming she was let go after returning from pregnancy leave. Itzel Hudek was told she was being let go because her position was no longer needed. Later, she “learned her position was given to an employee who wasn’t pregnant, had less experience, and yet still earned more,” according to a news account. The lawsuit was settled.
This past October, a former employee at Trump’s Pine Hill golf course in New Jersey sued the brash businessman for discrimination. He alleged that “he was fired after complaining about co-workers hitting him with golf balls and rocks and calling him a gay slur while supervisors stood by and did nothing,” according to a local paper. He also alleged that co-workers called him a “faggot” and that he required medical treatment after he was hit with a rock. The former employee filed a police report after the incident. He said he no longer felt safe going to the golf course.
In 2010, The Trump National Golf Course, just south of Washington, D.C., cut down roughly 465 trees (residents counted the stumps left behind). Trump officials argued that the trees were hurting the shoreline ― something not exactly based on science.
Local officials admitted some of the trees were unhealthy but nowhere near the number cut by Trump’s axes. The Washingtonian noted that the trees were vital to protecting 1.5 miles of the Potomac River’s shoreline. “Without the trees, and their extensive root systems, acting as a buffer, the Potomac stands to receive much more runoff from farms and other nearby land, while the land around it suffers more topsoil erosion,” reporter Benjamin Freed wrote.
Roughly 6,300 signatures were collected by the Potomac Conservancy on a petition urging Trump to donate 500 trees to Northern Virginia parks. To date, the conservancy hasn’t gotten a response.
An official in Trump World did say that “Trump is a ‘big supporter’ of trees and was initially reluctant to take them down.” But the former reality TV personality has a history of ripping them up when it suits his business interests. In 2011, New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection cited Trump’s golf course in Bedminster for a host of violations, “including cutting trees and brush and disturbing wetlands.”
Office of Tax and Revenue
In 2011, Trump bought a golf course in Jupiter, Florida, for $5 million. But Newsweek pointed out that Trump and Co. didn’t realize what a bad deal they’d made. “A more costly problem was a $41 million cash liability owed to members who had paid refundable initiation fees ranging from $40,00 to $210,000 to be repaid after they resigned their memberships,” the magazine reported. “The author of The Art of the Deal had paid $5 million for a property that was $41 million underwater.”
Trump tried to make up the cost by putting it on the backs of the club members. A huge swath of those members sued when they were forced to pay thousands of dollars in membership fees even while they were trying to cancel their memberships, according to the Miami New Times. All the while, the club refused to allow them access to its facilities.
The rules were different prior to Trump, explained the New Times. “Those who wanted to end their memberships were placed on a waiting list to recoup their deposits while the club searched for new members,” the newspaper said. “During this waiting period, they were still charged their dues but were allowed to continue using the facilities.”
The lawsuit alleged that Trump actually agreed in writing to not charge these members dues if they wanted to quit the club. In his deposition, Eric Trump, the GOP nominee’s son, argued, “We have the absolute right to change our mind.”
When it came to his golf courses, Donald Trump liked to boast that they were the best, most luxurious properties in the world. He always bought them for nothing and then raised their value into the hundreds of millions. But when it came to assessing the properties for taxes, Trump often had a different tune.
In September 2015, Trump tried to cut his tax bill on his Westchester golf course by 90 percent. Instead of paying $471,000, he wanted to pay $47,000 ― a massive drop in revenues that the city would have used for school funding.
The fight exposed how hollow Trump’s boasts about his finances can be. To voters, he is a very wealthy man. To local tax offices, he is a humble golf course owner trying to make ends meet.
This wasn’t unique to the Westchester course. “In 2013, Trump bought a country club north of Charlotte, North Carolina – a property appraised in 2010 at $27 million – for $6 million. He devoted as much as $10 million to restoring it,” according to McClatchy. “After his organization’s appeals, the Iredell County, North Carolina, tax assessor last valued the course overlooking picturesque Lake Norman at $9.7 million, amounting to a 64 percent tax reduction from five years earlier.”
Small Business Administration
Trump dislikes paying the tax office. He also doesn’t like paying the people that help him renovate his golf courses. The Paint Spot, a mom-and-pop firm, had to sue Trump and Co. after he stiffed them on a contract painting the golf course facility in Doral. Trump had refused to pay the last $34,000 of the company’s $200,000 contract, arguing that he had “paid enough.”
A judge put a lien on the property and the money owed was placed in escrow pending a possible appeal. Trump was ordered to pay the paint company’s legal bills totaling nearly $300,000 this past July.
In August, the Miami Herald reported that Trump’s Doral course was facing yet another lien on the property ― it’s 23rd ― for another unpaid bill. Twenty-two other contractors or subcontractors had to do the same in order to force Trump to pay the money they were owed. This latest dispute alleged that Trump owed a construction company $236,472.
Department of Defense
There is the famous World War II Battle of Iwo Jima. And in Trump’s case, there is the less famous battle of Rancho Palos Verdes. In 2006, Trump hoisted a 400-square-foot American flag on a 70 foot flagpole at his golf course severely dampening the view of the Pacific Ocean along the coast line. (Trump waged a similar war over a jumbo flag a this Mar-A-Lago resort).
It turns out that the flagpole was illegal ― 54 feet over the legal height requirements. Trump eventually won approval for it but refused to pay the $10,000 in various fees over the controversy. “Since when do you have to pay to put up the American flag?” Trump asked.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump