Trump faces old New York foe in Mueller report battle

Nadler, who thwarted tycoon in the past, insists president has not been exonerated

Jerrold Nadler's pledge to call William Barr, the US attorney general, to testify before Congress about the Mueller report sets the stage for what promises to be the next battle between House Democrats and the Trump administration.

Viewed from New York, though, the clash looks like something else: the resumption of decades-old hostilities between two of the city’s enduring archetypes – the neighbourhood activist and the brash developer.

Long before they squared up in Washington on the national stage, Nadler and Trump – sons of Brooklyn and Queens, respectively – waged an ill-tempered feud over a legacy-defining development on Manhattan's upper west side that was to feature the world's tallest building.

The embers of that conflict still glow today. While Nadler is beloved in the neighbourhood, Trump is not. In fact, residents petitioned to have his name chiselled from their buildings.


Their late 20th century New York brawl previewed two starkly contrasting figures, now on display in Washington.

The bombastic Trump, then early in his career but already media-savvy, was still refining what has become a well-honed practice of deploying nicknames to demean opponents. At one point, he publicly blasted Nadler as “fat Jerry”.

Nadler – more a “svelte Jerry” these days after a dramatic weight loss – kept his emotions in check. He is not easily charmed or offended, say those who know him.

Instead, he tends to maintain a lawyerly mien and then allow his legal filings to do the talking. Last month, soon after being installed as the Democratic chairman of the House judiciary committee, Nadler fired a volley of 81 subpoenas against Trump associates as part of a probe into possible obstruction of justice and corruption.

I'm sure there's a sense of satisfaction that at the end of the day, he's going to get the better of Trump

"That's classic Jerry," said Jason Haber, a New York estate agent who has long worked in Democratic politics. "Jerry's going to do the work and keep his head down. And then all of a sudden, he brings the hammer down."

Prospect of revenge

Still, beneath the rational exterior, Linda Rosenthal, who once worked for Nadler and now holds his former seat in the New York state assembly, detected at least a trace of glee at the prospect of revenge after so many years.

“I do think he probably relishes the fact that this opposition has come full circle and now he’s in the driver’s seat,” she said, referring to the congressional hearings Nadler plans to convene. “I’m sure there’s a sense of satisfaction that at the end of the day, he’s going to get the better of Trump.”

The upper west side fight involved a property that was particularly dear to both men. It was a former rail yard bordering the Hudson River that was then Manhattan’s last sizeable parcel of undeveloped land.

Trump, now 72, had bought an option to develop it in 1974 in one of his first big Manhattan forays but let it lapse five years later – a decision he called "the toughest" of his career in his 1987 autobiography, The Art of The Deal.

After some manoeuvring, Trump managed to regain the site in January 1985 and soon announced plans for a grand development that would include a soaring residential tower overlooking the river and a shopping mall. The centrepiece was to be a 150-storey skyscraper where Trump would reside in a penthouse. The brash developer dubbed it Television City, and planned to lure broadcaster NBC from Rockefeller Center to anchor the project.

While it made a media splash, Trump’s presentation infuriated locals in a Manhattan enclave long known as a hotbed for social activism. They complained that the project was too big, and would ruin the neighbourhood – not to mention their view.

Champion of affordable housing

Nadler, an opponent of high-rise buildings and a champion of affordable housing, called it “grotesque”.

A self-described "nerd", Nadler began his political career by winning election as president of the student government at New York's elite Stuyvesant High School in the 1960s. His campaign manager was Dick Morris, who would go on to serve Bill Clinton.

He attended Columbia University in the midst of its anti-Vietnam upheaval, and then entered the New York assembly in 1976 while still in law school. Nadler – widely known as "Jerry" – did so after he and a group of other 20-somethings managed to topple the old-style politicians who had long ruled the neighbourhood.

"He was our go-to guy," Batya Lewton, a member of the Coalition for a Livable West Side, a community group that opposed Trump (whom she still calls "that asshole"), said of Nadler. "He was just on top of everything."

Trump took to the airwaves to taunt his local opponents as "the blue-haired ladies" and badger mayor Ed Koch. But his opponents had him tied down. He could not break ground without permits from the city, which were not forthcoming.

After repeated promises to begin construction came and went, Trump offered a redesign, shorn of the tower and dubbed “Trump City”. It fared no better.

Finally, in 1991, with his Atlantic City casinos haemorrhaging cash and his empire teetering, he confounded his adversaries by seeking compromise. Trump accepted a dramatically scaled-down plan hashed out with a coalition of local community groups. It came to be known as Riverside South.

“For Trump, it was probably one of the better kumbaya moments,” one of his former aides said, praising his strategic flexibility.

Financially hobbled, the developer was forced to sell most of his interest in the project to a Hong Kong consortium. Yet he remained its public face and still plastered his name on the resulting towers.

Shrinking his towers

For many residents, reaching an accommodation with the unyielding developer was a reasonable outcome. In addition to shrinking his towers, they forced Trump to include a 23-acre riverfront park in the new plan.

But Nadler, who entered Congress in 1992, remained defiant. He dismissed the park as “a private backyard” and angered Trump by blocking his attempts to secure $355 million in government mortgage guarantees – arguing that the luxury towers did not meet affordable housing guidelines.

Their fight then moved on to a stretch of the West Side Highway that passed Riverside South. It was supposed to be buried to brighten the park. But Nadler objected, arguing that federal money should not be spent to improve the view from Trump’s apartments. The highway still stands.

Even now, it is difficult to say who prevailed. Although Trump’s dream of putting up a legacy-defining tower was dashed, he managed to build where other developers had failed. He also made out handsomely in 2005 when – with the city’s property market booming – his investors sold the property for $1.8 billion.

So we have to look into abuses of power, we have to look into obstructions of justice. And that we will do, and we'll see where it goes

“Trump has always managed to make out like a bandit,” Rosenthal conceded.

Nadler also gained something. "Jerry was really the only elected official at that time who stood alone and said: this is the wrong development for the area," said Scott Stringer, a former Nadler aide who is now New York City's comptroller. "The people in that neighbourhood never forgot."

These days, they swarm him at local diners, keen to hear how he will handle Trump in their next showdown. On Sunday, with many Democrats despairing over the findings of the special counsel investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Nadler insisted the president had not been exonerated. He also reminded them that Congress had a far broader mandate than the special counsel to scrutinise the president.

“So we have to look into abuses of power, we have to look into obstructions of justice. And that we will do, and we’ll see where it goes – we’ll see where the facts take us,” he said.

Lewton, an old comrade, had high hopes. “Jerry will go after him tooth and nail, sweetie,” she promised. “He’s not afraid.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019