"I will never, ever let you down," presidential candidate Donald Trump, fresh from a round of June 7 primary wins, told those gathered inside the clubhouse of the Trump National Golf Club in Westchester, N.Y. After all, the Republican noted, he'd "built an extraordinary business on relationships and deals that benefit all parties involved."
Tell that to the man who designed the clubhouse itself: New York City-based architect Andrew Tesoro. While Tesoro said he likes Trump personally, "his organization is built to make sure they hold onto every dime. And if that means stiffing little guys like me, then so be it."
Tesoro, who studied and later taught architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, finished the clubhouse project a decade ago. But he still remembers its ballroom as the place where he met with more than a dozen Trump representatives, trying to settle expenses totaling $140,000. The representatives "ganged up on me," pressuring him to take only $50,000, he said.
It's not uncommon for developers to try and drive down the price of completed work, Tesoro said, and there'd been delays in finishing the project. He agreed to the lower amount — but says Trump ultimately rejected that bill as well.
In a subsequent meeting, Tesoro said, Trump "said he didn't want to pay me, but because I was a nice guy, he would pay me half" of the already-reduced invoice. A Trump attorney, he added, warned that suing for the rest of the money would take more time and money than it was worth.
Tesoro's experiences are the subject of a four-minute web video produced by Clinton campaign. In it, Tesoro said his dealings with Trump "almost put me out of business. ... His definition of winning is making sure the other guy loses."
Trump's campaign did not respond to requests for comment. But as of Thursday, the video had received roughly 8 million Facebook views on one campaign page alone. Tesoro's story has also attracted the attention of Fortune magazine and USA Today, which has reported on Trump's use of the courts to press his cause in such disputes. Speaking about vendors generally, Trump told the paper that he would deduct from invoices for "a job that's not good, or a job that they didn't finish, or a job that was way late ... That's what the country should be doing."
Tesoro's story is just one aspect of his business record that Democrats have seized on.
When Trump came to Monessen to talk about trade policy in June, for example, he said there'd been a "total betrayal" of working-class Americans who'd been hurt by foreign imports. Under his administration, he said, "It will be American steel that sends our skyscrapers soaring into the sky." But Democrats quickly accused him of hypocrisy. "While Donald Trump was on stage bashing trade policies, he was wearing one of his Trump ties that was made in China and a Trump suit that was made in Mexico," said Pennsylvania state Democratic Party chair Marcel Groen.
For that matter, Trump's own skyscrapers haven't always been American-made. The outer skin of his Trump International Hotel and Tower in Ontario, for example, was constructed with materials shipped from Shenzhen, China.
Roy Jones, a University of Pittsburgh business professor who teaches business ethics, said it's fair for voters to ponder that track record. "The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior," he said. "If you're going to say you'll build bridges with American-made steel, you have to be transparent and accountable for what you've done in the past."
Trump has arguably done so. In 2011, he told conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, among others, that while "I wanted to go American and I often do," American companies "couldn't compete against the low-valued yuan" on some building materials. And Jones said it's not unethical for businesses to use trade or other laws to his advantage. "Giving a candidate additional burdens because he was a businessperson — I don't agree with that."
Trump's "business deals are going to undergo tremendous scrutiny," predicted Terry Madonna, a veteran pollster at Franklin & Marshall College. "The question is whether people will care."
In 2012, Republican nominee Mitt Romney was damaged by his own ties to a company, Bain Capital, that profited as companies it held either shed jobs or moved them overseas.
But Madonna said, "We are in a totally different era, with so much frustration and angst. It seems to overwhelm the personal downside of the candidate."
Tricia Cunningham, who coordinates Trump volunteers in Western Pennsylvania, was philosophical about his use of foreign goods. When foreigners exploit weak trade laws, she said, "I've benefited by getting a high-quality product at a lower price." But she said she supported Trump in hopes he'd change those laws so her neighbors could compete on equal footing.
"I do sympathize with wanting someone who is tough protecting America," Tesoro said. And Trump "is a charismatic guy, no question. ... I walked out of there feeling really trounced, but not hating the man."
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