The New Jersey Taj Mahal that Donald Trump would prefer to forget

Kusum Tewari

US President Donald Trump will visit the Taj Mahal on Monday, as part of his two-day trip to India. The tomb of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal is a regular item on the itineraries of visiting dignitaries, even if theHindu nationalist politicians currently in power in India are not the biggest fans of the monument.

But Trump’s visit is sure to dredge up some uncomfortable memories about his own previous association with the Taj. Not the all-marble mausoleum from the 17th century, but the brand name of a casino that the US President once fought to take control of, only to see it end up being the first of four companies that would go bankrupt under his stewardship.

Back in 1987, Trump was a businessman, focused at the time on attempting to control the gambling business on America’s East Coast. He already owned two casinos in Atlantic City, a beach-side New Jersey town that represented American exuberance in the first three decades of the 20th century. But the third – named the Taj Mahal – was to be the grandest.

A gamble

With tacky domes and minars that seemed to have been cribbed from Russian churches rather than Mughal buildings, Trump’s Taj Mahal opened in 1990 as the world’s largest casino-hotel complex. More than $1.2 billion had been poured into that Taj, a fraction of the amount that was spent on the real thing, but a big enough investment to make it the biggest gamble of Trump’s own career until then.

The building was launched in a gaudy ceremony with actors dressed as genies and Michael Jackson turning up as the chief guest. The press releases called it the “eighth wonder of the world”.

By July 1991, Trump filed for bankruptcy protection as the “sole shareholder of Trump Taj Mahal, Inc”.

The next year, the other two Trump casinos in Atlantic City also filed for bankruptcy protection. The resultant proceedures would cause huge losses to many of Trump’s lenders, big and small, and the losses of thousands of jobs.

“At one point, Trump had three casinos in Atlantic City, employing 8,000 people and accounting for nearly a third of the area’s gambling revenues,” said a report in the Guardian. “But they eventually became unsustainable thanks to a mixture of enormous debts, rival venues, weak local demand and negative press, which suggested Trump’s businesses were facilitating money laundering – something later given credence when the Taj was fined $10m for failing to report suspicious transactions.”

Union members protest outside the Trump Taj Mahal in New Jersey. Credit: Reuters

The result left Atlantic City a “ghost town”, according to some observers, with the area never really recovering from the massive failures of Trump’s ventures. But because he himself was too big to fail, Donlad Trump did not lose his gaming licence and to this day claims that his time in Atlantic City was a great success – at least for his own wealth.

“The Taj Mahal was a very successful job for me,” he told the Washington Post. “It’s not personal. This was just business… I got out great.”

In 2017, after years of restructuring, the Taj Mahal was finally sold to the Hard Rock brand, owned by the Seminole Indians of Florida, for just four cents on every dollar. The organisation had planned to re-open once it removed all vestiges of the Trump branding that once adorned the building.

A Washington Post investigation into Trump’s legacy with the brand took reporters to Steven P Perskie, former chairman of the Casino Control Commission and a former state Democratic lawmaker.

“Trump was welcomed with open arms by everybody and provided the sense he was able to do everything he promised,” Perskie told the Post, explaining how things changed after “His name and his legacy in the city were significantly tarnished. The business community and regulators no longer accepted the music of the Pied Piper.”

As Trump is welcomed with open arms in another country with a very different Taj Mahal, people might be left wondering – how reliable are the promises of the man who once sunk the fortunes of an entire city and yet “got out great”?

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