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The Man Who Beat Donald Trump

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del.—Sitting here the other day in the library of his house with 40 rooms, 11 fireplaces, four pianos, a wine cellar, a movie theater and an elevator, Marvin Roffman talked about the time Donald Trump tried to destroy him for telling the truth.

“Brutal,” said Roffman, 76, wearing loafers, khaki shorts and a pink polo, his elaborate gardens and the sixth hole of the Kings Creek Country Club golf course visible through the windows.

“I’m telling you,” he said. “Trump is a brutal guy.”

This was March of 1990. Roffman was a veteran securities analyst. He had focused on the gaming industry in Atlantic City since the first casinos opened in 1978. He knew the market as well as anyone and had watched closely as Trump made a typically bold entrance with Trump Plaza and Trump’s Castle in 1984 and ‘85. Now the New York real estate tycoon was about to open his third casino, by far his biggest, most lavish and most shakily financed one yet, the Trump Taj Mahal. Roffman was skeptical. He told a reporter from the Wall Street Journal the Taj would fail.

What happened next was straight out of Trump 101. The “people I don’t take too seriously,” he had written in 1987 in The Art of the Deal, “are the critics—except when they stand in the way of my projects.” Roffman was in the way. Trump bombarded him with invective, threatened to sue his employer, demanded his firing and then publicly assailed him some more. That Roffman’s assessment was grounded in reality—that he would prove to be right—didn’t stop Trump from attacking Roffman. It was the reason for it.

Three days after the quote in the Journal, Roffman was fired. What happened after that, though, was unusual. In the long history of the leading Republican presidential candidate’s use of disparagement, intimidation and forceful warnings of litigation, there is no person quite like Roffman. He sued Trump and won a clear victory—a fat check drawn on a Donald Trump account.

How does one beat Trump? For Roffman, it took time and money, gumption and conviction. Trump v. Roffman was a noisy, blustery harangue in the court of public opinion. Marvin B. Roffman v. Donald J. Trump and Trump Organization, Inc., on the other hand, was a longer, fact-based slog in an actual court.

“If you have a brand that strong, associated with success, power and class, that brand name must never be tarnished, ever,” Roffman told me, attempting to explain Trump’s motive for trying to ruin the life and reputation of a person he knew was right. “You must defend it. You must protect it. I was the monkey wrench in the gears. I was the monkey wrench threatening the integrity of the brand.”

Roffman smiled. “I’m glad I did it. Otherwise,” he said, “I wouldn’t be sitting here in this chair.”

***

“Marvin,” Trump said.

It was the middle of that March. “I know you’re down on the Taj,” Trump said over the phone from New York, according to Roffman’s recollection.

“He said, ‘I want you to see this property in its full splendor,’” Roffman recalled. “‘I’m going to have someone call you and arrange a tour of the Taj. And after the tour, I want you to call me. And I know what you’re going to tell me. You’re going to tell me you have just seen the greatest property ever.’ I swear to God. That’s what he said.”

The tour was set for March 20.

That morning, the Journal ran an article about Trump and the much-anticipated early April opening of the 1,250-room, 120,000-square-foot Taj, which had 70 eye-catching minarets on its roof and a payroll of some 6,500 employees. Roffman, then working for a Philadelphia brokerage firm called Janney Montgomery Scott, was quoted prominently.

“When this property opens,” Roffman told the Journal, “he will have had so much free publicity he will break every record in the book in April, June and July. But once the cold winds blow from October to February, it won’t make it. The market just isn’t there.” He called Atlantic City in general “an ugly and dreary kind of place.”

When Roffman arrived at the casino for his tour that day, Trump’s brother, Robert, stopped him at the door and cursed him—“I’d never heard so many four-letter words in my entire life,” Roffman told me at his house—and yelled at him to “get the fuck off the property.”

Back in Philadelphia, on the fax machine at Janney’s offices, a letter arrived from Trump Tower.

Trump in the letter called Roffman “hair-trigger” and “somewhat unstable in his tone and manner of criticism.” He continued, without regard for spelling: “For Mr. Roffman to make these statements with such definity is an outrage. I am now planning to institue a major lawsuit against your firm unless Mr. Roffman makes a major public apology or is dismissed. For a long while I have thought of Mr. Roffman as an unguided missle.”

Roffman by this point had been a securities analyst for 25 years and at Janney for 16, developing a reputation as an outspoken, tell-it-like-it-is analyst. Trump had noticed, according to Roffman, calling on occasion to quiz him about competing casinos and other executives.

In 1987, Trump even had hired Roffman as an expert witness. In testimony in front of New Jersey’s Casino Control Commission, Roffman acknowledged the “tremendous risk” involved with the Taj because of its size and cost—it was more than two years from completion—but he also told the agency’s members he was “excited” about its prospects. He called Trump’s first two casinos, the Plaza and the Castle, “very efficient” and “well managed,” according to a transcript of the hearing. He believed the Taj, he said, could help finally revitalize the perpetually downtrodden small city on the shore.

That fall, though, Wall Street crashed. The gaming industry started to stall. Roffman grew pessimistic. He warned in a report for Janney clients in May 1988 of “Trouble Ahead With A Capital ‘T’”—a reference to Trump and the Taj. “Trump has only experienced an economy that is growing. Let’s see how he does in a real turndown,” he told the Boston Globe that October. “Donald Trump’s style is not cash, it’s to borrow,” he said in December to the Associated Press, noting that Trump now was shouldering more than a billion dollars of debt just with his casinos. The Taj debt was $675 million in junk bonds, the only form of financing he could secure. For the Taj to service its debt and simply break even, Roffman calculated, the operation would have to take in around $1.3 million a day, unprecedented in the history of casinos.

Throughout 1989—in reports for clients, speeches to trade groups and conversations with reporters—Roffman said versions or in some cases nearly word-for-word previews of what would run in the Journal the following March. He even had said similar things earlier in the month in other high-profile publications. “I have serious reservations about the financial success of the Taj Mahal,” he told Newsday. Trump “will have to do over steady basis something no other casino in the world has ever been able to do,” he told Newsweek. If Trump had been angered by these comments, he never complained privately to Roffman, nor did he bother to publicly rebut them.

It was the March 20 story in the Journal that triggered Trump’s wrath.

He was on edge already.

Trump at the time was the subject of relentless, tabloid-led coverage of the disintegration of his marriage to Ivana Trump, the mother of his first three children, in part because of his affair with his younger, leggy mistress, Marla Maples. For going on six weeks, the drama had been front-page fodder for New York’s tabloids. LOVE ON THE ROCKS. WAR OF THE TRUMP$. IVANA IN TEARS. MARLA RAGES!

Trump was asked by the New York Post if he considered adultery a sin. “I don’t think it’s a sin,” he said, “but I don’t think it should be done.”

He told the Journal the crush of publicity about his personal life was actually good for his bottom line, citing 1,500 requests from reporters to cover the opening of the Taj. “A divorce is never a pleasant thing,” he said, “but from a business standpoint, it’s had a very positive effect.”

It was a bluff. Almost everybody was fixated on his personal failings; almost nobody knew the perilous state of his finances. Trump had racked up massive debt—not only with his casinos, but in 1988, too, with a manic jag of buying trophy properties, such as Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel and the Eastern Air Shuttle, which he renamed the Trump Shuttle. With the onset of a recession, it was becoming unsustainable.

“He had to know it,” Roffman told me. “But he didn’t want anybody else to know it.”

Hence the hostile letter.

The next day, Jim Meyer, Janney’s director of research, detailed in an internal memo Roffman’s punishments: He was to have “no direct contact with members of the press,” no possibility of a bonus to his base salary in 1990 and a review of his employment status at the end of the year. Edgar Scott, the chairman of the board, called Trump, according to court records, informing him of the nature of the censure. He asked Trump what kind of apology he wanted. Trump, according to the records, directed that Roffman write him a letter saying the Taj would be “the greatest success ever.” Roffman didn’t want to write a letter like that. His bosses did it for him. The obsequious letter said the opening of the Taj “unquestionably” would be “the grandest and most successful” in the annals of Atlantic City. “I do hope that you will let me continue to cover your companies,” it read. Roffman wanted to save his job. He reluctantly signed it. He was “a team player,” he said later in a deposition. “I wanted to go long with the firm because I liked working there.”

After a sleepless night, Roffman got a call from Trump’s secretary, according to court records. Trump, she said, wanted him to make some adjustments to the letter. He wanted, for instance, the phrase “every hope that the Taj will ultimately be very profitable” changed to “every expectation,” Roffman said. Roffman stewed. That afternoon, he wrote a new letter to Trump, a letter of his own.

“I did not write the letter,” Roffman wrote. “I retract the letter.”

Roffman showed the letter to Meyer, according to court records, saying he was going to send it to Trump. Meyer logged his response in an internal memo: “Regarding the proposed attached letter to Donald Trump, after discussion with senior management of our firm, we are directing you not to send the attached letter to Mr. Trump while you are an employee of this firm. As long as you remain an employee of ours we insist on the right to review and authorize all correspondence of yours related to anything or anybody associated with the casino industry.”

Around 4:30, Roffman sent it, anyway.

Trump’s response was quick and terse. “Only a fool, a highly unstable one at that, would send a letter such as your second one negating your original letter. You have proved by these strange and irrational actions to be a great liability to your firm,” he wrote to Roffman. “I look forward to seeing you and your firm in court.” That was March 22.

Roffman was fired on March 23.

“Because I wanted to tell the truth,” he told a United Press International reporter.

Wrong, according to Janney. Roffman was let go, according to company documents, because he gave his opinion about the Taj in a quote to a reporter before writing a report for paying clients—a dubious assertion considering he had been saying pretty much the same thing for weeks at least—and “for failure to follow his supervisor’s direct instruction.”

From Barron’s to Fortune, from Institutional Investor to Vanity Fair, from the New York Post to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Trump in the wake of Roffman’s firing unleashed a torrent of criticism against him, calling him “a bad analyst,” “a very unprofessional guy,” “a totally mediocre guy with no talent,” “not a good man,” “a man of little talent,” and “a disgrace to his profession.”

“I have a right to be a critic of a critic,” Trump said to Institutional Investor.

He also noted in the interview with Fortune that Roffman owned roughly $8,000 of shares in the Pratt Hotel Corporation, the parent company of the Sands Hotel and Casino, a Trump competitor. This, Trump said, put Roffman “in total conflict”—to which Roffman responded: “That’s baloney. I said right up front in every report I wrote that I own the stock.”

“Marvin Roffman was dismissed or was about to be dismissed six months ago, and I saved his job,” Trump told the Inquirer. He “called me crying, ‘Please, will you call the head of my firm? He respects you. You have power.’” Roffman’s retort: “He’s a liar.” Janney’s president told the newspaper Roffman’s job at that time “wasn’t on the line.”

In the September issue of Vanity Fair, the sniping having dragged on for some six months, Trump said: “Here’s a guy that used to call me, begging me to buy stock through him, with the implication that if I’d buy stock he’d give me positive comments.”

Was Trump accusing Roffman of fraud?

“I’m accusing him,” Trump said, “of being not very good at his job.” Roffman called the charge “unbelievable garbage.”

Roffman tried to find another job, and couldn’t. In his mind, Janney fired him mostly because it didn’t want to spend the money necessary to defend him against Trump in court. “You can argue how we tried to make peace with Trump,” Meyer had said in Institutional Investor. “But you’d like not to spend a quarter of a million dollars to defend yourself.” Roffman and his attorneys weighed the possibility of a retaliatory lawsuit.

As they did that, Roffman’s warnings about Trump and the Taj began to become reality. It was even worse than he had predicted. Accounting problems and malfunctioning slot machines marred the hyped launch of the Taj. In late April, the Journal reported on Trump’s financial squeeze. Forbes followed in May, downgrading by more than a billion dollars its estimate of Trump’s net worth. By June, Trump started missing loan payments and negotiating with his lenders for more lenient terms. His casinos were on their way to losing a combined $173 million for the year—$120 million of that was red ink from the Taj—and Trump owed $69.5 million to 253 subcontractors who had helped build the Taj. Trump was more than $3 billion in debt—owing $933 million to Citibank, according to the AP.

He went on ABC’s Primetime Live with Sam Donaldson the first week of May in an attempt to foster positive spin.

“What I own is trophies,” Trump said. “The Plaza Hotel’s a trophy. The Taj Mahal … that’s a trophy. A trophy doesn’t go down.”

“You can’t pay your bills with trophies,” Donaldson pointed out.

“I think you can pay your bills with trophies,” Trump shot back.

“Empire’s Fate Teeters on the Brink,” read the headline in Newsday in the middle of June.

“Do I feel vindicated?” Roffman told the Miami Herald. “That’s not the issue. The issue is if an analyst can’t say negative things after doing his homework, for fear he’ll ruffle some feathers, he’s not worth two cents. It’s an outrage. It disgusts me.”

Roffman had no intention of letting Trump off the hook.

In July, he sued Trump for libel and slander. In the initial filing of Civil Action No. 90-4511 in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Roffman’s attorneys said Trump had “wrongfully, intentionally and maliciously” gotten Janney to fire him. The suit sought a million dollars in damages for defamation and another million for “tortious interference with contractual relations.”

“I only hope that Mr. Trump will have money left when we get our judgment against him,” Roffman told the UPI.

His mother had died the previous Christmas, and his father was robbed at gunpoint in the delicatessen where he worked cutting meat, and Roffman couldn’t land another job—other brokerage firms, he believed, not wanting to hire him given the contentious situation with Trump. He lived off savings. He went on unemployment. Out-of-pocket health insurance, he told the Chicago Tribune, was costing him $180 a month. He turned over to Trump’s attorneys his tax returns. The police, he said, knocked on his door one day and informed him somebody was going through his trash, which Roffman interpreted as Trump representatives looking for dirt.

Trump’s “defamatory statements have effectively ‘blackballed’ Roffman from gainful employment in his chosen profession,” Roffman’s attorneys argued in court filings. “… while Roffman’s comments about the Taj Mahal may have been too painful for Trump, they were necessarily illuminating, and designed to protect the investing public and the integrity of the financial market. For this, the Court should not permit Roffman to suffer at the hands of a vindictive and vengeful Trump.”

Trump’s attorneys countered by saying essentially that Roffman had started it—and they contended, too, that Roffman had been helped, not hurt, by the publicity generated by his fight with the high-profile Trump. “Far from being defamed,” they wrote, “Roffman’s reputation has been enhanced as a result of what has occurred.”

Roffman said they asked him in his deposition about going to a gay bar. “I’m not promiscuous at all,” he told me. “I have a 30-year relationship. They just tried to make me feel uncomfortable. But I wasn’t going to back down.”

Roffman did start psychotherapy, though, according to court records, and his legal fees ballooned. He was reluctant to tell me how high, but I threw some numbers at him, getting up to more than $1 million. “No question,” he told me. “I got this one bill from my attorneys for $10,000 for photocopying. Ten thousand dollars! For photocopying!” His “emotional state,” he said, “was absolutely a disaster.”

In late April 1991, though, a year and a month after the comment that precipitated the dispute, Trump settled the case. Roffman already that March had won $750,000 from Janney, his former employer, after a separate arbitration hearing. A confidentiality agreement prohibits Roffman from discussing the final sum from Trump—“I’ve never told anybody,” he said—but he did say he had turned down previous offers. The AP reached Roffman. He was so satisfied he slipped into third person. “All I can say is Marvin Roffman is extremely happy with the settlement,” he said.

“I wouldn’t have settled, if he wasn’t happy with it,” Martin Sobol, one of Roffman’s attorneys, told me on the phone. The suit, said James Schwartzman, another of his attorneys, was “very successfully concluded.”

“It all worked out very well,” Trump said in a statement to Politico. “He turned out to be a very nice guy.”

A month after the settlement, the Taj entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.

In October, in a speech to the New York Society of Security Analysts, Roffman took the opportunity to gloat. “I think I have a little bit more net worth than Donald Trump does,” he said, according to the Inquirer.

“I did not come here to bury Donald Trump,” he added. “He does a pretty good job of that himself.”

Roffman opened his own money management firm—the money from his legal victories certainly helped—and he hung in his office an enlarged copy of the original letter from Trump.

He published a book in 1994.

“Events proved my Taj prediction to be accurate,” Roffman wrote. “Trump’s empire was on the verge of crumbling when he turned his situation around through refinancing deals with bondholders and bankers that saved him hundreds of millions of dollars. I’m happy to say that although my willingness to speak out cost me my job, it saved millions for the Trump bondholders who listened. … The numbers I used to back up my words held together. Trump’s numbers didn’t. My emphasis on fundamentals—investment basics such as making sure that bonds have strong companies behind them—enabled me to recognize before anyone else the shaky state of Trump’s casinos.”

“It was No. 3 on the best seller list in the Philadelphia Inquirer,” Roffman said. “I was very happy about it.”

The title of the book incorporated his antagonist’s famous name.

Take Charge of Your Financial Future: Straight Talk on Managing Your Money From the Financial Analyst Who Defied Donald Trump.

***

Roffman stood up from his chair in his house. He wanted to give me a tour.

He showed me his bronze sculptures, his alabaster columns, his Tiffany lamps. He pointed toward the ceiling at what he said was an 18th-century Baccarat chandelier he had had specially electrified. He had me look at a painting called “The Birth of Venus,” by Luc Billet, which he had purchased through Sotheby’s in Paris. Once, he wanted me to know, it had been owned by Napoleon.

“I’ve got some fabulous things,” he said.

Roffman started his own company with $2 million under management, he told me, and when he retired, in 2007, he said, that figure had grown to approximately half a billion.

“I’ve done very well,” he said.

Back in 1999, when Trump toyed with the notion of running for president on the Reform Party ticket, Roffman was asked about the potential candidacy. “If he runs the country like he rewards his shareholders, it is going to be a disaster,” he said at the time to the New York Daily News.

During the course of our conversations, at his house and on the phone, Roffman said Trump had a “terrible temper” and called him “a weasel” and “a creep” and “an absolute disaster” when it came to owning casinos.

Election 2016, though, has spit out an odd, unexpected mixture of options. It has put Roffman in a position that would have been unthinkable for most of the last quarter-century.

“Trump is sort of like a breath of fresh air,” Roffman told me. “He’s not like normal politicians. He doesn’t say things that are politically correct.”

Was Roffman, a registered Republican, saying he would vote for Trump over Hillary Clinton in that prospective general-election matchup in November?

“I actually think Trump would be so much better than Hillary. No question in my mind. None,” he said. “This is really serious stuff here. If Hillary gets elected, it’s really like Obama’s third term, and I’m not happy with where the country is headed.”

For Roffman, Tuesday’s Delaware primary is more complicated. Would he vote for Trump?

“I, I, I, I—I don’t think so,” he said.

So Ted Cruz? John Kasich? He couldn’t say, or wouldn’t.

The tour continued.

We took the elevator upstairs, to the sprawling, third-floor master suite. In his closet, Roffman showed me his shirts. “I have over 500 shirts,” he said. He fingered his ties, “really, really nice stuff,” flipping them over to see the tags of the brands.

“I have another closet just for shoes,” he said.

My mind flashed to the summer of 1988, when an ascendant and rapacious Trump eagerly invited reporters for walk-throughs of his Trump Princess yacht, gushing in publications from Newsday to New York magazine about the golden handrails and the glut of “hand-carved onyx by the finest craftsman from the hills of Italy.”

“Look at this … look at this … then this,” Trump said then.

I couldn’t help but hear echoes, from Trump’s yacht to Roffman’s house. In the way Roffman was talking, I heard the voice of the man who had gotten him fired, a man who once called him “very unprofessional,” “totally mediocre,” “a disgrace”—a man he probably will vote for come November.

“Then here,” Roffman said to me, walking in his loafers from his shirts and his ties to his sauna and his shower. “Look at this bathroom.”

Next to the cedar sauna, as big as an extra bedroom, was a gleaming, glass-doored, eight-nozzled, emerald-hued shower.

“Isn’t that something?” he said. “It’s all stone. We bought all this stone. I’m telling you. This is really good stuff.”

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