Donald Trump’s original apprentice, Louise Sunshine, recalls her ‘magical’ years and the not-so-happy ending

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Lisa Belkin
·Chief National Correspondent
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Louise Sunshine entered Donald Trump’s orbit when she secured a vanity license plate for him. It was 1974, and Sunshine was the treasurer of the New York State Democratic Committee under the newly elected governor, Hugh Carey, to whom Trump was a significant donor. He was a 20-something newcomer to the real estate scene back then, still in his father’s shadow, and since his dad had initialized plates, Donald wanted them too.

But “DJT” was already taken at the DMV. So Sunshine kept tabs, and when the person who owned them moved out of state six months later, she nabbed them for Donald. “As far as he was concerned, I could never do anything wrong from that minute,” she says. “He said: ‘You are the most persevering, determined woman I know. You must work with me.’”

To talk to Sunshine today about her 15 years in Trump’s inner circle and her messy departure after a falling-out is to examine a pattern in his working life. It goes something like this: Trump finds people and declares them the “best,” until they aren’t. The men he finds become advisers or mentors; the women become pupils or protégés.

When Sunshine and Trump first met, she knew a little about real estate development — her father owned several properties in New Jersey and she had taken some real estate business classes as a student at NYU. What she knew a lot about was people in politics. A 30-year-old mother of three at the time, she was the granddaughter of Barney Pressman, the founder of the retail fashion chain Barney’s New York and a major donor to Democrats on both sides of the Hudson.

When Trump first offered her a job, she turned him down, she recalls, because she had no interest in commuting to his father’s headquarters in Brooklyn. But it was her uptown Manhattan pedigree that interested him, and he hired her as a lobbyist, installing her in a two-room office on Lexington Ave. “What I think I brought to the table was my connections, my political skills, my ability to get things done,” she says. “A certain sophistication, worldliness, political knowledge and intuition.” (Or, as she wrote on her website, in hyperbole she may also have learned from Trump, he saw in her “an unleashed power to change the way people think and invited her to join his then-fledgling empire.”)

Her first victory on his behalf was to help persuade New York City’s Urban Development Corporation to grant him some controversial tax abatements for his renovation of the old Commodore Hotel near Grand Central Terminal. He turned it into the Grand Hyatt, his first significant project on his own. She did the same in Atlantic City as he took control of casinos — using her connections and very little of his money. When he briefly considered buying the World Trade Center, she introduced him to a key executive.

Then, in 1978, Sunshine and Trump were riding along Fifth Ave. in his silver Cadillac limousine — with those hard-won DJT plates — and passed Bonwit Teller, the landmark department store, which was struggling financially.

As Washington Post reporters Mark Fisher and Michael Kranish describe in the new book “Trump Revealed,” Trump told Sunshine: “Oh, I love that site, let’s find out who owns it, let’s tear the building down.” So she introduced him to the largest stockholder in the holding company that owned Bonwit’s and negotiated a $25 million lease on the land where Trump Tower now stands.

As these buildings took , Sunshine says she learned every part of real estate, from site selection to apartment sales. She became known as one of the best salespeople in the city for high-end apartments, closing deals in the early days of Trump Tower with such buyers as Johnny Carson, Paul Anka, Sophia Loren and Steven Spielberg. “I learned so much; I was like a sponge that just kept absorbing,” she says. “I just learned every possible skill that had to do with real estate development.”

Business and friendship blur in Donald Trump’s world (it has been said of him that everything is business to him), and Sunshine became part of his inner social circle. She describes twice-weekly dinners, first with Trump and his first wife, Ivana, and then with Trump and his second wife, Marla Maples. Business reporters at the time wrote of friction between Ivana and the women executives who worked for the Trump Organization, but Sunshine says both women were her friends.

“Those years were magical, miraculous,” she says.

She was certainly not the only one orbiting the would-be tycoon. “He encouraged one top aide after another to inch their way into his personal orbit, only to abruptly and inexplicably cut them out and shunt them aside,” wrote Wayne Barrett, who has reported about Trump for nearly 40 years, in his book “Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth.”

The most visible of these rise-and-fall relationships was the one Trump had with Roy Cohn, a ruthless and controversial lawyer who sharpened Trump’s unrelenting business persona but was all but cut off when he was dying of AIDS. There was also Howard Rubenstein, the public relations pro, who burnished Trump’s image for 17 years until Trump released a public letter during his bankruptcies in the early ’90s blaming Rubenstein for generating bad press.

The pattern, biographer Barrett notes, was that Trump ended relationships when employees or associates started to attract the spotlight on their own. In Barrett’s book there is an analysis of Trump’s first book, “The Art of Deal,” which recounts the story of his rise to success. Most striking, Barrett notes, is who is not mentioned in the book, specifically those who had made Trump’s first deal — the Grand Hyatt — possible.

“Despite all that each (of the dozen people) had done to make the Hyatt happen,” Barrett writes, “none drew a mention in Trump’s autobiographical account of the deal that invented him. In ‘The Art of the Deal,’ it was as if Donald walked out onstage alone.”

Sunshine was the only woman on Barrett’s list. Over the years that followed there would be others in the inner circle, and his relationships with those women would be subtly but significantly different than those with the men. With the women, there was a meet-cute thread of discovery — they did not apply to work for him, but instead he met them while they were working elsewhere. He saw their potential for greater things and brought them aboard.

“He plucked me off a roof,” says Barbara Res, who was in charge of the construction of Trump Tower. She means it almost literally. She was working a midlevel job on the site of a project Trump was visiting, and he saw her standing up to taunts and guff from the entirely male crew. So he hired her and nicknamed her “Donna Trump.”

“I was 30 years old,” she said in an interview earlier in the campaign. “I went from being an assistant supervisor to a vice president, the first woman in the business with that much responsibility. That was part of the fun for him, finding people and creating them.”

Blanche Sprague has a similar story. She was in real estate sales in the early ’80s when she appeared on Trump’s radar. Like Res, she more than held her own in a meeting with a roomful of men. “I love that mouth, and I have to have it,” he said before offering her a job as head of development at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, she told Yahoo News earlier in the campaign.

In her book, “The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a Presidential Candidate,” Gwenda Blair described Trump’s relationships with his female executives as strategically different than his relationships with men. Including women in his “inner circle” was not only “an enlightened move, it was also smart,” she writes, “for they worked hard to prove themselves in what was still a man’s world.”

She goes on to quote architect Alan Lapidus as saying: “There was nothing sexual in those relationships, but it was more than employer-employee. They all needed Daddy’s approval.”

These relationships ended when first Res and then Sunshine attempted to step out of Trump’s circle and go into business on their own. Res says Trump insisted she say that she was leaving for personal reasons rather than the reality that she felt pushed aside by a new “find” he’d hired for his West Side Yards project. At the time, she says, her 5-year-old son was “on the special education merry-go-round. We were having him tested. It was a nightmare. Donald said I should use that as my reason.”

Sunshine’s departure, in turn, was litigious, explosive and epic. Trump had given her a 5 percent stake in Trump Plaza, and when she said she was leaving the organization, he informed her that she owed him $1 million toward the tax bill on the property. Then he suggested that she sell out her entire share to him in order to pay the bill. “I think this was his way of telling me ‘I’m still the boss around here,’” she told Vanity Fair. Sunshine sued and then settled for a payment of $2.7 million from Trump.

“All good things must come to an end,” she now says sardonically, when asked why she left.

Sunshine went on to found her own firm, the Sunshine Group, in 1986, coining the phrase “All Square Feet Are Not Created Equal” and building the firm into a development company with $8 billion in total property sales by 2000. She sold that company, stayed on there until it was merged with the Corcoran Group, then went out on her own again. Still working steadily at age 75, she runs LMS Consulting, and her projects include the Surf Club Four Seasons Hotel and Residences in Florida.

She has had a rapprochement with her former boss and sees him socially sometimes, though Melania, she reports, is “not nearly as close a friend” as the first two Mrs. Trumps. After he announced his presidential bid, Sunshine founded “Women for Trump,” but she has not been actively involved in the group due to the death of her second husband, Martin S. Begun, last spring.

She is not at all surprised by Trump’s White House run, she says, because “for as long as I knew him, nothing he ever did surprised me.” She also would not be shocked if he wins. “I, for one, will not be surprised if it’s President Trump.”

Will she vote for him?

“I remain a Democrat,” says the woman who used to run the finances for that party in New York and who met Trump when he gave a $135,000 donation. She adds, cryptically: “But if Donald does the right thing, I’ll be voting for Donald. If he doesn’t do the right thing, I’ll be voting for Mike Pence, and if both of them don’t come through and do the right thing, I’ll be voting for Tim Kaine.”