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When Donald Trump came to Auckland and vowed to learn te reo

Trump, flanked by Ngāti Whātua elder Joe Hawke and Donna Hall, legal adviser to the National Māori Congress, Trump’s joint-venture partner in the casino bid. Photo/Fairfax

Property mogul and future President Donald Trump spent nine hours in New Zealand's Queen City spruiking a casino bid. 

He came, he saw, he vowed to learn te reo. On a wet and blustery August morning in 1993, Donald Trump breezed into Auckland, a business mogul in town to push his company’s bid for an Auckland casino.

The Donald stayed for nine hours. He ate brown M&M’s, and a single piece of fruit (a banana) from the bowl in his lavish presidential suite at the Hyatt. He told reporters that his central railway station site would be an “absolute diamond” in the queen city’s crown.

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“What a shame if this site wasn’t chosen,” he said. “It could bring vibrance. You have an opportunity to do something dramatic. The world could be talking about it,” he said, in the same extravagant tones he uses in his tweets as US President.

At that time, 46-year-old Trump was a dark horse with flamboyant form. He was a Big Apple tycoon, shaking off a string of bankruptcies, but we knew less about his business affairs than about his divorce from first wife, Ivana. There had been speculation he would bring his new partner, Marla Maples, who was quoted in a 1990 front-page splash in the tabloid New York Post as saying her relationship was the “best sex I ever had”, although she has repeatedly denied saying it. They would wed that Christmas.

With Marla Maples at the US Tennis Open, 1991. Photo/Getty Images

As Trump’s stretch limousine pulled up at the Hyatt, New Zealand, grappling with its own money problems, was ready to listen to a passing billionaire. The economy had been tanking for two years, inflation stood at 10%, and the numbers seeking work approached 280,000, a post-war high. The country’s first casino, in Christchurch, was due to open the next year, and Auckland was next cab off the rank.

Trump’s gambling empire had a 25% stake in Auckland Casino Ltd’s high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful bid for an operator’s licence. The consortium had strong Māori links: it was a joint venture between the National Māori Congress and heavy-hitting Hong Kong outfit New World Developments.

Trump spent two of his nine hours in Auckland giving evidence to the Casino Control Authority as it met in a boardroom above Symonds St to decide which of three local applicants should gain the coveted prize. Chairman Jock Irvine would later declare that Trump was “everything I expected”, but that the PR razzle-dazzle swirling around him had not influenced him or his peers.

Trump then made a courtesy lunch call to Ōrākei Marae high above Okahu Bay, which had been returned to Ngāti Whātua in 1991. Leaving his loafers and a red Trump Plaza cap at the door, Trump pressed noses and was treated to a hangi lunch. He said he hoped “one day” to be able to understand and speak Māori.

The flattery didn’t end there. He hailed his hosts as fellow property wizards: “It looks to me like you folks have the top location and I say that as someone who knows property really well.”

Trump on Fifth Ave, 1990. Photo/Getty Images

Later, at the Hyatt, he was still gushing about the hangi to a TV3 reporter: “I had lunch, and it was fantastic. We had a great lunch of chicken and potatoes. This is the kind of food I like. And it was [cooked] under earth, and it was absolutely beautiful the way it was done.”

That interview offered other insights into the man who would become the 45th US president. One nugget in particular gained headlines in 2016 when TV3 political editor Patrick Gower dug out the tape on the eve of the US election. At the time Trump as candidate was embroiled in controversy over his sexist views.

Asked about his image as a womaniser, he had told TV3: “I think women are beautiful – I think certain women are more beautiful than others to be perfectly honest – and it’s fortunate that I don’t have to run for political office.”

At 4pm, Trump checked out of the Hyatt, headed for the airport and his 5pm United Airlines flight to Los Angeles. A bodyguard carried his three bags to the white V8 Lincoln, as late-afternoon rain poured down.

As the car sped towards Māngere, a PR spokesman handed Trump an oversized mobile phone for a chat to a local radio star: “I feel good and I feel we have the best site, as you probably know. We really do, we have a great group, New World and the Māoris.

“Nice city,” said the Donald as he prepared to leave Auckland. “Reminds me of San Francisco.”

This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.