Trump Taj Mahal was billed by Donald Trump as the largest casino ever built when it opened in 1990. At $1.1 billion, it was certainly the most expensive ever then constructed. Now, 26 years after it first opened and in the midst of a record-breaking labor dispute with new owner Carl Icahn, the Taj Mahal will close down, and Trump’s name will completely disappear from the Atlantic City skyline with which it was once synonymous.
The story of the failure of Trump Taj Mahal, it has been noted by multiple commentators, is a perfect metaphor for Trump’s presidential campaign. As Jay Cost of the conservative Weekly Standard wrote last week, “[Trump has] made grand promises, but look closer and you’ll see the whole thing is a scam.”
When it opened, Trump boasted that the Taj Mahal was the “eighth wonder of the world.” A year later, it had gone through the first of its four bankruptcies. By 2004, Trump lost majority control of the hotel after it underwent another bankruptcy. And since 2009, he has not had anything to do with the management of the hotel. After that bankruptcy, he retained a 10 percent stake in the hotel in return for the use of his name, until another bankruptcy in 2014 undid his ownership entirely. On Wednesday, the management company for the current owner—Trump’s billionaire friend Icahn, who has been rumored as a potential treasury secretary pick—announced the property’s doors would close after Labor Day weekend.
“Currently the Taj is losing multi-millions a month, and now with this strike we see no path to profitability,” Tony Rodio, president and chief executive officer of Tropicana Entertainment, said in the statement. Thursday was going to be the day that the strike by Local 54 of the Unite-HERE union reached its 35th day, which would surpass the 34-day record for an Atlantic City strike set in 2004. Workers were asking for fully restored health care and pension benefits that were lost in the last bankruptcy. Management has argued that these costs were unaffordable with the company already having offered partially restored benefits. As the Wall Street Journal reported last month, casino workers had relied on full health plans for years until a recent downturn in Atlantic City that resulted in four previous casino closings. Ben Begleiter, a union representative, told the Journal that one-third of Taj Mahal workers had no health care and 50 percent were on taxpayer-subsidized insurance.
Trump himself left the hotel behind years ago, though, having seen it turn into one of the great financial albatrosses of the city. The project took on more than $820 million in debt to be built and maintained, including $675 million in junk bonds. As the New York Times reported in an extensive June profile of the property, one casino analyst argued at its opening that the Trump Taj Mahal would have to make $1.3 million a day—a record at the time—just to break even. Trump demanded that the analyst’s company fire him, which it did.
The enormous debt Trump took on was used to finance grotesque opulence. The hotel featured $14 million worth of Austrian crystal chandeliers, nine two-ton Indian elephants made of carved stone, 12 restaurants, a 5,500-seat arena, doormen dressed in flowing purple robes with feathered turbans, belly dancers in the lobby, and a convention center and casino the size of four football fields. Michael Jackson was brought in to attend the grand opening, footage of which you can watch here:
“This building is a winner, and it’s going to be a shot in the arm for Atlantic City,” Trump said at the grand opening with the Star Wars theme playing in the background.
The Los Angeles Times noted in its story about the opening that the city was an odd site for such extravagance in the first place:
Indeed, tourists venturing only two blocks beyond the city’s famed boardwalk find blighted neighborhoods filled with abandoned storefronts, pawnshops and bars. Junkies, prostitutes and alcoholics prowl the streets and crime is rampant. For all the ballyhoo, Atlantic City’s 37,000 residents have yet to see the massive urban renewal projects that were promised when the casinos opened.
And here’s how the New York Times described the Trump Taj Mahal in its 1990 review:
Rooms full of gold mirrors and crystal chandeliers and Carrera marble and purple carpeting are like diets consisting only of chocolate mousse—fun at first, and unbearable after a while.
The Taj Mahal, this plain building dressed up to within an inch of its life, is relentless—a grim money machine, towering over the bleakness of crumbling Atlantic City. In the end, for all that its glitter promises joy within, behind all that crystal hanging over all those slot machines, there is only bigness, and no more real joy here than on the desolate streets outside.
After all the bankruptcies and turmoil, the hotel had fallen into disrepair in recent years. Gawker recently reported that, as of 2015, it had a major mouse and bed bug infestation.
“What Trump built in Atlantic City was a Potemkin Village. A façade. It looks fabulous in the front, but behind which there is no substance,” Stephen P. Perskie, chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission from 1990 to 1994, told the Washington Post in a video that ran earlier this year. “All there was was Donald Trump’s smile and a whole lot of unaffordable debt. And that combination didn’t make it.”
As Perskie noted in the video, bankruptcy filings show that many small businesses were stiffed when Trump failed to pay back his debts.
“This was in every way an attempt to convey empty wealth, which it turned out to be a lot emptier than Donald expected or than any of us saw coming,” Wayne Barrett, author of Trump: The Deals and the Downfall, told the Post. “Since then he’s become a wealthy man by selling the name that was based on failed projects. The real things that he built, where are they?”
Indeed, Trump has boasted regularly about his success in taking as much money as possible out of Atlantic City for his own personal benefit while leaving his actual projects in massive debt. “Atlantic City fueled a lot of growth for me,” Trump told the Times. “The money I took out of there was incredible.”
In a prophetic student documentary from 1990, an 85-year-old longtime Atlantic City resident named Adolf Raske perhaps said it best.
“Taj Mahal’s going to open up tomorrow. They spent a billion dollars to open up that place. It’s like a fairy land up there,” Raske said. “Boy, that Taj Mahal sticks out like a sore thumb.”
The closing of the Taj Mahal will cost about 3,000 workers their jobs, ABC News reported.