Former president Donald Trump’s son Eric, who runs the family’s private company, touted the potential of transforming their Doral golf resort into a gambling destination amid a push among Florida Republicans to legalize casinos in areas of the state that have long opposed them.
The bill would allow developers to transfer gambling licenses to properties in areas where casinos have long been prohibited and bar local municipal governments from intervening, according to a half-dozen policymakers, lobbyists and other stakeholders, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because the bill’s language has not yet been made public.
“My understanding is they are trying to take the gambling permits that are in South Florida and make them portable and preempt local governments from stopping them,” said Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber (D), a longtime opponent of gambling. The Miami Beach City Commission on Wednesday authorized the hiring of outside legal counsel to challenge the legality of such a move.
Eric Trump said in a statement to The Washington Post on Tuesday that the Doral property in Miami, which has suffered from a drop in business due to the pandemic and his father’s polarizing presidency, would be a natural choice.
The elder Trump famously built an Atlantic City casino empire that ended in bankruptcies in the early 1990s. He then repeatedly advocated for the expansion of casinos in Florida before entering politics.
“Many people consider Trump Doral to be unmatched from a gaming perspective — at 700 acres, properties just don’t exist of that size and quality in South Florida, let alone in the heart of Miami,” Eric Trump said in an email. He declined to say whether the company was pushing for the bill.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, revenue at the heavily indebted club dropped steeply, falling 44 percent last year as the pandemic struck, according to his government disclosure form.
Florida currently limits gambling mostly to tribal casinos and horse racing properties. A political battle over whether to expand gambling occurs almost annually in the state capital in Tallahassee, but people on different sides of the issue say this year’s proposal may be more likely to succeed.
“We’ve been trying to do this for eight years, and this is the closest we’ve gotten,” said one person familiar with the proposal.
Said Miami Beach’s Gelber: “When you hear that there’s support for it from both chambers and the governor’s office, it’s frightening.”
Two people familiar with the proposal said it is being shepherded by Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Republican from Trilby, and could be introduced later this week or early next.
Katie Betta, a Simpson spokeswoman, said in a statement that “gaming negotiations are extremely complicated, and while Simpson believes the efforts are worthy, it is also important to be realistic about where we are.”
Simpson “has been involved in these negotiations for years, and if they get to a place where he believes an agreement would benefit the State of Florida and have the support of his colleagues in the Legislature as well as the Governor, he would be happy to discuss further details,” she said. She said the senator had not discussed gambling with Trump.
DeSantis was scheduled to meet Thursday with owners of gambling facilities whose business might be hurt by new casinos, a spokeswoman for the governor confirmed.
Spokespeople for DeSantis and Trump did not immediately reply to requests for comment. DeSantis, who is widely considered to have national political ambitions, has worked since before his 2018 election to build a rapport with Trump and strongly supported his reelection.
Brian Ballard, a longtime Trump ally and powerful Florida lobbyist, is working to expand gaming in Florida, people familiar with his activities say. A person close to Ballard said he was not working on behalf of Trump for the venture but instead was working for sports leagues and other clients.
Although Republicans control the state House, Senate and executive branch, support for gambling expansion has not always fallen along partisan lines. Miami-area leaders of both parties have teamed up with Disney and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which operates tribal casinos, to defeat past proposals. The state constitution also requires that voters ultimately approve gambling through a ballot measure.
Republican real estate developer Armando Codina, who has built offices, homes, restaurants and a school in the Doral area, said he was aware of the proposal and was already working to fight it, particularly because the negotiations “have happened in a dark room,” he said.
He said he did not know whether the former president was involved in crafting the plan but said the legislation could make Trump’s Doral resort worth hundreds of millions of dollars more if a casino opened there.
“I think this would be bad for Florida, and I think it would be terrible for Miami-Dade County,” Codina said. “We’ve created a venue that is a family venue. If this was to happen in Doral, we would over time probably sell a bunch of our interests.”
South Florida billionaire and philanthropist Norman Braman said the Miami area had no need for casinos, particularly given that the area has become a hub for art galleries and tech start-ups in recent years.
“We don’t need it,” Braman said. “It’s nonsense that tourists will come here to gamble. It just doesn’t make sense. It will feed off the community.”
Braman said it was “without question” that Trump’s presence in the state was affecting the debate, whether he was actively participating in the effort or not.
“There’s no secret that Doral would be the perfect place,” he said.
Codina and Braman spoke with Miami Beach city commissioners Wednesday to affirm their opposition to the measure, as did state Rep. Michael Grieco (D), who represents the area. Grieco said he was closely watching for any gambling-related provisions to be submitted in the capital.
“I will be the tip of the spear when it comes to anything coming across the House floor,” he said.
Before he ran for political office, Trump spent years trying to persuade Florida legislators to approve new casino licenses. After buying the Doral resort for $150 million in 2012, Trump began his efforts anew, hiring a top Florida lobbyist to try to get gambling approved and telling the Miami Herald in 2013, “I think gambling is a good thing for Miami.”
During a 2015 GOP primary presidential debate, fellow candidate Jeb Bush, who opposed gambling as Florida governor from 1999 to 2007, accused Trump of trying to buy his support for new casino licenses through campaign donations, which Trump denied.
“I promise, if I wanted it, I would have gotten it,” Trump said.
Building a casino at Doral could reverse Trump’s fortunes at the property, which suffered alongside other elements of his brand from his divisive politics, including the loss of a PGA Tour event in 2016 that was moved to Mexico.
Doral took an additional hit when the pandemic shut down much of the country’s corporate and meeting business, the resort’s bread and butter. Trump has a $125 million loan on the property from Deutsche Bank, according to government records. The full extent of the losses is not known, but the resort had lost $162.3 million through 2018, according to the New York Times.
But Trump’s Doral resort is not the only site expected to pursue casino licenses if they become available. Developer Jeffrey Soffer, owner of the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel, has repeatedly pushed for casino approval and recently purchased a parimutuel casino and former dog track north of Miami, renaming it the Big Easy Casino.
A company controlled by Soffer recently sold National Football League star Tom Brady property on Indian Creek Island, near where Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the former president’s daughter and son-in-law, plan to move.
“You could move a casino to the Fontainebleau the next day with 1,500 machines” if the bill passes, said one person familiar with the proposal.
Two people familiar with the proposal said that in addition to allowing new casinos, the bill would probably introduce sports betting into the state and allow the Seminole tribe to control much of the sports betting market as part of a revised compact with the state.
The site of the former Miami Herald headquarters also has been considered as a potential casino location in the past. Representatives for Soffer and the Seminole tribe did not respond to requests for comment.
Florida Rep. Joseph Geller, a Democrat who tracks gambling issues, said he had not seen any details of the bill. “Usually the whole thing is done behind the scenes,” he said.
Geller said the oft-used argument that gambling was needed to shore up the state budget was inadequate now that President Biden has signed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package with roughly $10 billion to be directed to Florida.
Despite Trump’s popularity among Republicans, Geller said he was not sure there would be wide interest in helping him open a gambling operation, particularly given the collapse of Trump-run casinos in Atlantic City decades ago.
“This guy has bankrupted every casino he’s ever run. How do you bankrupt a casino?” he said. “I don’t think we need a failed casino. We don’t want to be the next Atlantic City.”
David Fahrenthold contributed to this report.