The New York Daily News calls Donald Trump a clown. The Obama White House dismisses him as “a sideshow” who has, according to presidential adviser David Plouffe, “zero chance of being hired by the American people.”
But at least one influential advocacy organization, the Republican-oriented Club for Growth, is treating him as a major presidential prospect—and a significant threat to the country.
The economically conservative Club—which supports low taxes, free trade, and deregulation—has yet to express an opinion concerning any other GOP hopeful. But it has singled out Trump for harsh attacks in recent days, issuing two press releases accusing the Celebrity Apprentice star and real-estate developer of holding allegedly liberal, big-government, and economically restrictive positions—favoring, at various times, universal health care, tax hikes, and protectionist policies such as high tariffs on Chinese imports.
The Club’s communiqué on Tuesday morning charged the NBC prime-time personality with abusing the government’s powers of eminent domain for his own selfish ends, citing his 1997 attempt to force an elderly widow, Vera Coking, to sell her Atlantic City rooming house so that he could expand the Trump Plaza Casino with a limousine parking area.
“This case was years and years ago,” Trump told me, adding the property battle pre-dated his ownership of the casino. “We were going to make that area into a public park. She didn’t sell. But I inherited a problem from the previous owner,” the late Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione. “I believe that when you have a major public purpose for roads, for schools, for in some cases hospitals, you have no choice but to use eminent domain, absolutely,” Trump added. “Otherwise, you’d never be able to build a road.”
“I don’t think Trump has really been in the policy world,” Chocola said. “He has no policy passion. He has no core beliefs when it comes to these issues.”
As for the Club for Growth, Trump said that “perhaps they’re not happy about the fact that I’m leading in all the polls.” He speculated that the group has a “favorite son” in the race and is distressed that the thatch-roofed New Yorker is running ahead in recent surveys. “You’ve seen that Public Policy Poll that came out Friday evening? I was at 26 percent and [Mitt] Romney is at 15 percent. So what they’re doing is sort of an interesting thing.”
Public Policy Polling, a North Carolina-based Democratic consulting firm, released the survey of 400 respondents who say they plan to vote in the Republican primaries. Public Policy Polling’s Dustin Ingalls told me the survey is measuring far more than simply name I.D. “Everybody in the top tier is fairly well-known,” he said, adding that Trump seems to be pulling ahead of Mike Huckabee and Romney largely on the strength of his “birther” broadsides against President Obama. The survey notes that “23 percent of these voters say they would not be willing to vote for a candidate who stated clearly that Obama was born in the U.S.” and “that’s where Trump is gaining traction,” Ingalls said.
Club for Growth President Chris Chocola—whose immediate predecessor, Pat Toomey, is now a U.S. senator from Pennsylvania—told me his organization eventually will issue detailed “white papers” on every candidate. But a critique of Trump was necessarily more urgent.
“We just think that if he’s going to be a serious presidential candidate, then it’s time to get serious about where he stands on the issues,” Chocola said. “He’s been given a stage, and I think there’s a media infatuation with the guy. He’s been on shows like Limbaugh and Hannity, and they haven’t asked him real questions. They’ve given him the stage, but not the substance.”
Chocola insisted the Club isn’t trying to capitalize on Trump’s notoriety in order to bask in his reflected glare. “We are hesitant to engage in this,” he claimed. “It gives Trump exactly what he wants—the attention. He wants people talking about him. But we think it’s worth the risk because what we do at the Club for Growth is focus on pro-growth policies and candidates, and we try to find champions of economic freedom. When you examine Trump’s policies, he’s not pro-growth, he’s not conservative, and he wouldn’t be a good candidate for conservative voters.”
Trump countered that until very recently, he had never even heard of the Club for Growth, which has been a player in Republican politics at least since the late 1990s. “I don’t know the Club for Growth,” Trump said. “I’m think I’m going to speak to them soon and I’ll figure out exactly what’s going on.”
Chocola said Trump’s lack of familiarity with the Club doesn’t surprise him. “I don’t think Trump has really been in the policy world,” he said. “He has no policy passion. He has no core beliefs when it comes to these issues. He’s a master self-promoter and we think you need someone who is a champion of pro-growth policies, not a champion of self promotion.”
Chocola added: “This may all be a publicity stunt, but I think that Donald Trump believes his own press and he’s probably going to talk himself into running. And if he does, we think people ought to be informed.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.