Trump made approach to Cowlitz over casino plan

Early letter included mysterious apology

By Lauren Dake, Columbian Political Writer

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Related column

Press Talk: Trump and the Cowlitz casino

More than a decade ago, real estate tycoon Donald Trump wanted his name emblazoned across a casino in Southwest Washington.

But first, Trump felt it necessary to clarify inflammatory remarks he had made about Native Americans.

In a letter to the Cowlitz Indian Tribe — dated nearly 16 years before the presumptive Republican presidential nominee made controversial remarks about women and Mexicans — he addressed “certain concerns” the tribe might have “concerning prior statements attributed to me regarding Native Americans.”

The letter arrived on Nov. 20, 2000, printed on thick cardboard stock — presumably in case the recipient wanted to frame a letter from Trump. It bore a large gold “T” monogrammed in the upper left-hand corner.

Dave Barnett, the founder of the casino project and a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, said at the time tribal leaders had no idea what comments Trump was referring to.

“It wasn’t like the Internet days where you can find out anything about anyone,” Barnett said.

So, Barnett, his father, and other tribal representatives met with Trump. He was respectful and professional, Barnett said. They toured the site of the proposed La Center casino.

“Trump said it was the most incredible site he had ever seen, incredible,” Barnett recalled.

Trump’s comments

It was 1993. Trump owned three Atlantic City, N.J., casinos and was suing the federal government for giving Native American tribes favorable status when it came to operating casinos.

Tribes with sovereign rights are their own nations and therefore do not pay federal or state taxes. Trump argued he was being discriminated against.

The letter to the Cowlitz Tribe stemmed from comments the real estate mogul had made at a congressional hearing that resulted in what one outlet called a “nasty yelling match.”

During the hearing Trump questioned whether some Native Americans were actually what they claimed to be.

“Trump told some people they didn’t look like Indians. That’s something Native Americans who aren’t full-blooded have to deal with everyday,” Barnett said.

Many criticized the comments, directed at an East Coast tribe, as racist.

But Jim Moore, a political science professor and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation at Pacific University, noted Trump’s remarks were less about racism and more about simply winning.

“With context, it wasn’t so much racism against Native Americans … (Trump) didn’t really care who he was dealing with,” Moore said in an interview this week. “He was fighting anyone that would take away New York customers from (Atlantic City casinos), and him just being a casual racist about it was just the way Donald Trump was.”

Trump also said at the 1993 hearing that Native American gaming is part of an organized crime network representing “the biggest scandal since Al Capone,” according to a Philadelphia Inquirer article.

Trump’s focus was the Mashantucket Pequots, in Connecticut, whose new Foxwoods casino was competing for Atlantic City customers. Connecticut’s governor at the time, Republican Lowell P. Weicker Jr., was opposed to both the tribe’s casino and Trump’s involvement.

“I came to a very fast conclusion that we don’t need that dirtbag in Connecticut,” Weicker said, referring to Trump, according to reporting by the Hartford Courant.

Trump responded by calling Weicker “a fat slob who couldn’t get elected dogcatcher in Connecticut.”

The deal

Later, Trump switched gears, realizing partnering with tribes could be beneficial.

In the typed letter to members of the Cowlitz Tribe, Trump includes a handwritten message: “I look forward to meeting you!”

His proposal reminded them they would not only receive the development expertise of the “acknowledged premier developer in New York City,” but also the “well-known and established Trump name and brand.”

The proposal was sent in January 2002, at the time Trump estimated the trademark license agreement would entitle him to $500,000 per year when up to 1,500 slot machines were operated and $750,000 per year when more than 1,500 slot machines were being used.

For use of his name, Trump also wanted 5 percent of all gross revenue in excess of the company’s projected revenues.

This would be in addition to consulting fees of $400,000 per month to help get the project underway, plus an additional $100,000 per month if the slot machines exceed 1,500.

Tack on development and management costs and in the end, Barnett said, “It was too pricey” for the Cowlitz Tribe.

“All of it was really basically for the Trump name,” Barnett said.

And the comments about Native Americans didn’t help Trump’s pitch.

In the 2002 proposal, Trump highlights his relationship with the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians of Coachella, Calif., which he writes “will result in the opening in early this April of the Trump 29 Casino, a $60 million dollar casino facility for which Trump developed, arranged financing and will manage.”

The Desert Sun newspaper wrote about the unraveling of that deal.

“The relationship ended three years later. Trump’s multibillion-dollar resort company was in bankruptcy, and the tribe was looking to cut a deal of its own. Leaders terminated his management contract early, buying out Trump for a measly $6 million — less than the contract had earned him in a single year,” the newspaper reported.

Instead of Trump 29, the casino is back to its original name, Spotlight 29.

Meeting the casino king was interesting, said Barnett, with the Cowlitz Tribe.

Barnett said Trump left a good impression. He vividly remembers the Trump-branded bottled water they drank.

He won’t say if he’s casting his vote for the GOP candidate.

But he is holding on to the letter, in particular, for one paragraph it contains.

Trump’s 2000 letter states, “I want to assure you and all of the members of the Tribe that I do now, and always have, supported the sovereignty of Native Americans and their right to pursue all lawful opportunities.”

“In case he becomes the president someday,” Barnett said.