PALM BEACH, Fla. — Donald Trump had a problem.
He’d met two people who seemed as stubborn as he: a feisty widow whose house stood in the way of his Atlantic City casino expansion, and her attorney.
Trump’s approach struck his adversaries as brazen. Even though the widow was suing him for damaging her house, Trump called her attorney, Glenn Zeitz, and, according to Zeitz, tried to hire him for a potentially more lucrative case.
Zeitz rejected the offer, which came as Trump was also pressing him to settle the dispute and persuade his client to sell her house. Zeitz said he couldn’t fight Trump in one case and represent him in another. It would have created “a tangled web of conflicts,” Zeitz said in a recent interview.
“It was like, ‘Wow!’ Just bizarre. The audacity,” recalled Julia Ingersoll, an associate in Zeitz’s office and one of five friends and former colleagues who learned of the call at the time and confirmed it in recent interviews. “It’s like, if we can’t beat you, we’ll buy you.”
The 1996 call was a shock to Zeitz — not just because it happened, but because of the case Trump wanted him to work on. Trump, who had been championing the use of eminent domain to take the home of Zeitz’s client, Vera Coking, suddenly wanted him to help fight the use of eminent domain for a project that would have benefited one of his rivals.
Trump declined to be interviewed, and his spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, said in an email that “this story and these statements are completely false. Additionally, it is ancient history.”
The Coking case has gained wide attention in the presidential race because Trump’s critics in the Republican Party have pointed to his use of eminent domain as evidence that the GOP front-runner is out of step with small-government conservatives who cherish private property rights.
But new interviews and previously unreported documents from the case, including a 1996 deposition of Trump, offer a glimpse of Trump as a defendant, drawing on some of the tactics and personality traits that have made him a wily and unpredictable presidential candidate 20 years later. He was a dealmaker, and, according to Zeitz, eager to play both sides of the eminent domain issue as it suited his needs.
In his campaign, Trump has said he “loves” eminent domain and has argued that projects, such as roads and hospitals, could not be won without it.
“You should be so lucky to get hit with eminent domain because they pay you a fortune,” he told a Fox News interviewer.
Coking had been fighting to keep her home, located a few steps from the city’s famed seaside boardwalk, since the 1980s when Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione launched a casino and hotel project and tried to buy her out. She refused. So he built around her, erecting a steel skeleton that rose within inches of Coking’s home on three sides, surrounding it as if it was in a cage. His project ran out of money and sat unfinished for years — a rotting eight-story shell with no walls.
Trump bought the derelict Penthouse property and faced the same problem as Guccione: Coking’s house was in the way.
But Coking refused to sell her house to Trump. So the mogul began tearing down Guccione’s failed project in 1993. Along the way, Trump was supportive of efforts by the state’s casino redevelopment agency to use eminent domain to buy Coking’s home. At one point, Trump’s team pushed city officials to condemn her house and tear it down.
Coking was portrayed by some commentators as a hero for standing up to a powerful businessman. Trump sought to define her differently.
“This is not an innocent little darling we’re dealing with here,” Trump told reporters in the mid-1990s. “This is a tough, cunning, crafty person who has purposely allowed that property to go to hell, right at the foot of the entrance to Atlantic City, so she can get a higher price.”
Coking needed legal help. But she was skeptical that she could find someone in her state who wouldn’t be influenced by casino owners and politicians.
So she called a Pennsylvania lawyer referral line. They sent her to Zeitz because he was also licensed to practice in New Jersey.
It was an unlikely pairing. Zeitz — a criminal defense attorney with blue-collar roots and a relentless manner — had represented tough guys and murder suspects. Among his racketeering clients was Frank Sheeran, the union boss investigated in the death of Jimmy Hoffa. Zeitz, 69, who now lives part of the year in an elegant Palm Beach bungalow a 10-minute drive from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, had never handled an eminent domain case.
But he couldn’t say “no” to Vera Coking.
Coking, represented by Zeitz, sued Trump and the demolition company he hired, claiming that the work tearing down the remnants of the Penthouse structure started a fire in her home and caused other damage.
That lawsuit took place alongside a separate legal fight in which Coking and Zeitz were suing to prevent the state from using eminent domain to force her to sell her house.
The legal battles stretched for years. Coking eventually prevailed in the eminent domain case and was able to keep her house. She settled her demolition lawsuit against Trump and his demolition company for $90,000, which was intended to cover damage to her home.
Coking, who is elderly and in poor health, doesn’t speak to reporters anymore, according to an associate. She held on to the house for an additional 18 years — until it was sold in 2014 and later torn down.
But in 1996, when Coking’s lawyer got a chance to question Trump face to face, the outcome was far from certain. The widow looked like a big underdog against the billionaire.
The July 17, 1996, deposition, which was taken as part of the demolition lawsuit, took place on Trump’s turf: a conference room at his Trump’s Castle building in Atlantic City. Before they officially got started, Zeitz had a warning for Trump: “There are going to be three women in your life that you’re never going to forget: Ivana, Marla and Vera,” Zeitz recalled telling the developer, invoking the names of his client and Trump’s first two wives.
Zeitz’s adversary was no novice in these sorts of situations. When the lawyer asked him if he could give a “ballpark figure” of how many times he’d been deposed, Trump responded, “No, but many,” according to a transcript that Zeitz has kept in his files.
For the next hour and 45 minutes, Trump sought to distance himself from the seven-month-long demolition project, repeatedly saying he had “people” to take care of the details. Trump insisted that “the only thing that was very important to me was the safety aspect of it, and on that I was very strong,” according to the transcript.
Zeitz wanted Trump to admit that the demolition work was endangering his client. “Did you ever walk around that area during that — ” Zeitz asked, according to the transcript.
Trump cut him off.
“I don’t like walking in demolition sites because buildings tend to collapse,” Trump said.
Trump, at times, took the opportunity to needle his questioner. “She is a very litigious person,” he said. “Don’t let this reflect on you, of course, but I said she would hire some third-rate lawyer, go in and sue, and I predicted she was going to sue if Leonardo da Vinci took down the building.”
Trump added moments later, “So I congratulate you for getting the contract.”
Zeitz wanted to know if Trump harbored any “bitterness or animosity” toward Coking.
“Not at all,” Trump responded. “She was just doing her thing. No bitterness at all. She was a very nice woman perhaps, but she has played the game very poorly.”
What happened shortly thereafter was a surprise. Trump asked to go off the record. Then he offered to pay $1 million to buy Coking’s home and end the legal disputes, according to David Laughlin, the attorney who accompanied Trump, as well as Zeitz and one other person with firsthand knowledge of the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Hicks, Trump’s spokeswoman, did not respond to a specific question about it beyond her statement that The Washington Post’s story was based on “false” statements.
Zeitz had gotten informal appraisals that valued the property as high as $2 million, and he told Trump that he planned to recommend that his client reject the offer.
Still, Zeitz told Trump he wanted to give him something.
Zeitz pulled out a baseball. He told Trump that when he first got involved in the case, the developer’s lawyers told him that the Trump organization “plays hardball.” He wanted Trump to know that he played hardball, too.
Trump took the ball in his hand, Zeitz said. It had an inscription: “From ‘The Vera.’ To ‘The Donald.’ ”
The Donald handed it back.
The next day Trump called Zeitz at the lawyer’s weekend home in Avalon, N.J.
“Glenn? Donald,” the voice on the other end of the line said without preamble, Zeitz recalled.
Trump pressed Zeitz to tell his client to take the deal and forget about both lawsuits. Then Trump added a wrinkle. He began talking about an Atlantic City tunnel project that a rival developer — casino mogul Steve Wynn — wanted built. The endeavor was similar to Coking’s case in this respect: It would use eminent domain to buy out homeowners. But it was different in this respect: Trump wanted to block the project to prevent his rival from getting what he wanted. And that meant blocking the use of eminent domain — the very same kind of government action that he was supporting in Coking’s case.
Zeitz was familiar with the project already. In fact, he’d been approached about representing one of the homeowners, Lillian Bryant, a former Atlantic County freeholder, an office akin to a county commissioner in other states. Bryant owned one of the homes that was threatened with eminent domain on Horace J. Bryant Drive, a road named for her father, the first African American member of the New Jersey state government cabinet. Zeitz said he had declined to take the case. He said he felt it would have been a conflict of interest because winning the case would benefit Trump by hurting a rival casino owner — and he couldn’t do that while also representing Coking, who was in a legal dispute with Trump.
But he was stunned at what Trump said next. “He said to me that he wanted to hire me to represent Lillian Bryant and other people on the street,” Zeitz recalled. “I would be getting hired by him to represent his interests.”
The call has not previously been reported, but Zeitz was so taken aback that he told many of his friends and colleagues about it at the time.
“I thought he was just trying to conflict him out of the case,” said George Brady, a law school friend of Zeitz’s who discussed the offer at the time. “I remember saying to Glenn, ‘Does he think you’re stupid?’ ”
Richard Klineburger, a lawyer whose office was in the same building as Zeitz’s, recalled his friend being “very angry” about Trump’s call.
Zeitz told Trump that he had to be loyal to his client and that it would be a conflict of interest to take the case while he was involved in Coking’s lawsuit against the developer. Trump countered that he should rush a settlement of the Coking case so he’d no longer have a conflict, according to Zeitz.
Zeitz said, “No.”
The next time they talked was in an Atlantic City courtroom.