On a frigid January night in 1988, 16,000 spectators packed into Atlantic City’s Convention Center to see 21-year-old Mike Tyson take on boxing legend Larry Holmes, 38. The event, marketed as “Heavyweight History,” sold out, with an even larger audience watching as Home Box Office televised the event. In a ring emblazoned with Trump Plaza branding, Tyson repeatedly knocked down Holmes, until, to great uproar, the referee stopped the fight five seconds before the end of the fourth round.
But Holmes and Tyson weren’t the only spectacular pair in the arena that night. Leaving the Convention Center, amid fans vociferously enraptured with the night’s drama, was Donald Trump — and not far behind him, “in a light blue suit with his ever-present Martin Luther King Jr. peace medallion resting on his barrel chest, was Mr. [Al] Sharpton,” the New York Times reported.
Trump’s relationship with Sharpton began as a pragmatic business choice. By the late 1980s, Atlantic City’s slow rot had begun to stink. Beyond the neon glimmer of casinos lay a ramshackle city beset by corruption, crime, poverty, and racial tensions. In contrast, Las Vegas was thriving; between 1982 and 1988, its visitors increased by nearly 50 percent, drawn by the glitzier casinos, a safer city, and the bigger attractions, even as the approval of gambling and lotteries in other states created more competition.
“We did business together, and we revolutionized Atlantic City, bringing in the biggest events that could be put forth,” King tells NR, describing the mogul as “dead set on building Atlantic City.” King recalls how Trump would fly him in on a helicopter to negotiate deals that were “done on a handshake.”
King was also close with Sharpton, and he decided to introduce him to Trump, both King and Sharpton say.
At the time, King says, “I was the one who subsidized [Sharpton], to give him that ‘F-you money,’ so that you don’t have to worry about going out there.” He continues: “I wanted Sharpton to meet this guy because he was a giant in the business community and a giant in the human community.” King says he thought highly of Trump then, just as he does now, and he realized that Sharpton needed white allies. “Trump was a white ally — and he was one of distinction and renown in the business world,” King says.
The relationship worked, King says, because Sharpton and Trump shared core values, among them commitment to the rights of women and minorities. But other sources have suggested that Trump was more calculating: Supporting Sharpton would cement his relationship with King, which would allow Trump to continue booking major stars for Atlantic City events.
‘Trump, I think, saw Sharpton as a hustler, and a hustler who could deliver the people he needed.’
“Trump, I think, saw Sharpton as a hustler, and a hustler who could deliver the people he needed,” says one source close to Sharpton. “He is a businessman, after all, so why wouldn’t he do a deal with Sharpton . . . if he could get Don King or James Brown or Mike Tyson?”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to repeated inquiries by NR about the candidate’s relationship with Sharpton.
But last December, Trump appeared on Fox to discuss the murder of two New York City cops and whether mayor Bill de Blasio and Sharpton “have blood on their hands.”
“I know [Sharpton] very well, and I’ve always gotten along with him, to be honest with you,” Trump said at the time. “There are those who say [Sharpton] likes Trump a lot. . . . Al’s a con man. He knows it. I know it. Don King knows it, his friend, who I go to with fights with — with Al. And they all know it.”
In the summer of 1989, Sharpton was arrested and named in a 67-count indictment, which alleged, among other charges, that he had stolen at least $250,000 from the organization, using the money for himself. Records of the court case were sealed after a jury in 1990 acquitted Sharpton of all counts, even after 80 witnesses testified against him. But news reports at the time suggested Trump donated to the National Youth Movement.
After reviewing the indictment, the Washington Post in July 1989 listed Trump and King — along with CBS, Coca-Cola, Warner Communications, and Miller Brewing Co. — as National Youth Movement donors.
And an April 1990 report on the trial by the Philadelphia Inquirer claimed that Sharpton had raised $70,000 at a 1986 fundraising dinner “by selling $300 seats to record companies and organizations headed by boxing promoter Don King and entrepreneur Donald Trump.” The prosecutors alleged that only $4,500 went to the National Youth Movement’s anti-drug campaign, the article says, with the rest diverted elsewhere by Sharpton.
One source close to Sharpton estimates that over the years, Trump gave him anywhere between $20,000 and $150,000 for the National Youth Movement and his activism.
Sharpton, however, tells NR, “I never received any financial support” from Trump, and that he was “never” a middleman between Trump and King. “I don’t think we were close,” he says of their Atlantic City days. “We were relational.”
The media accounts listing Trump as a donor were wrong, Sharpton says, and, “as you know, we were acquitted of all charges, in part because what they alleged, they couldn’t produce in court — among them, a donation from some of the people they [listed].”
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Sharpton says he received only limited verbal support from Trump, who approved of some of his drug-fighting work. “He would say it was good, he was encouraging,” Sharpton says. “That’s all I remember. He never contributed, never did anything other than verbal [support].”
King says he doesn’t know how much money, if any, Trump gave Sharpton, but that the mogul’s endorsement alone helped Sharpton.
“I do know that Trump became an ally,” King says. “And the mere fact that he’d be seen in photographs with [Sharpton], that’s more than money. And to give some money, whatever it may have been — that would have been icing on the cake..”
In January 2004, when Sharpton was running for president, The Guardian ran a biographic piece about Sharpton, mentioning that he considered mentor James Brown, “alongside other prominent figures such as lawyer Johnny Cochran and Donald Trump, as a political supporter.”Around this time, knowledgeable sources maintain, Sharpton called his Atlantic City pal for a big favor.
In the spring of 2003, Sharpton left his wife, Kathy, at almost exactly the same time as Marjorie Harris, the National Action Network’s executive director, left her husband. Tabloids soon alleged an affair between Sharpton and Harris, and a Village Voice investigation revealed that Harris had somehow come into possession of a new Cadillac and Mercedes, in addition to a “$7,000 Rolex, mink coats, and David Yurman jewels appraised at $1,500 and $4,000.”
Even flashier, though, were Harris’s new digs: a sublet luxury apartment on the 15th floor of Trump Place. The Village Voice put its value at roughly half a million dollars in 2004; today, CityRealty lists a one-bedroom apartment on the floor below at $1.1 million.
It’s unclear how Harris was able to afford the place. National Action Network’s sparse eight-page tax filings for 2004 fail to list her as an officer, though according to numerous news reports, as well as Harris’s own LinkedIn page, she was the executive director. In fact, in 2004, Sharpton is the only officer, director, trustee, or key employee named in the tax filings, which list his salary at just over $93,000, also noting that the organization was $1.2 million in the red.
So how did Marjorie Harris get the apartment? According to more than one source familiar with the situation, Sharpton phoned Trump, asking him to use his influence with the management board to get her into Trump Place, even though she lacked the necessary credit or income.
“When she got the apartment, Sharpton said, ‘My executive director needs a place to live,’” one source says. “Trump said for Marjorie to just call his assistant, she’ll get you the apartment. She didn’t have to fill out an application, do a credit check — anything. Then it was reduced rent: She was paying a tiny bit. Sharpton was starting to pay a bit, too, because he was sleeping with her.”
Another source told me: Trump exercised “whatever clout he had with the management board” on Harris’s behalf. “Donald didn’t own this building,” the source says. “But Sharpton asked if he could get his ‘friend,’ who didn’t have [adequate] credit standards, into the building. Donald accommodated.”
A source close to Sharpton says he’s felt betrayed by Trump recently. ‘This guy is either playing the Right or playing us, whatever worked for him,’ the source says.
When NR asked Sharpton about claims that Trump had helped Marjorie Harris get an apartment beyond her pay grade, Sharpton replied: “It’s absolutely and irrevocably untrue, because first of all, I never knew how she got in. I assume she went in through a normal way, and I don’t even know if that was just one of the buildings [Trump] put his name on or whatever. But I’ve never had favors from Donald Trump at all, for me or anyone else, like that. I know people that he supported, but I wasn’t one of them.”
Today, the two are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. In the interview last December, Trump said on Fox that Sharpton “is a guy who I don’t believe really believes what he’s saying.”
And Sharpton has used his MSNBC and radio shows to criticize Trump, arguing that his stances on Barack Obama’s birth certificate and the Central Park Five were racist.
A source close to Sharpton says he’s felt betrayed by Trump recently. “This guy is either playing the Right or playing us, whatever worked for him,” the source says. “And Sharpton felt it was very cynical and was personally offended that [Trump] would be so cavalier.”
Be that as it may, both of them have come a long way since Atlantic City.
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow at the Independent Women Forum and the Blankley fellow at the Steamboat Institute.