SIn the grand scheme of his many legal and regulatory conflicts, President Donald Trump’s spats with state regulators over damaged wetlands and excess water use at his New Jersey golf courses seem almost trivial. Trump ultimately was fined $147,000 — less than he banks from a couple of new memberships at the two private country clubs where he was cited for breaking state law. Both disputes were resolved during his presidential campaign and went unnoticed in the press.
Yet, as small as the sum was for a man like Trump, these two episodes are telling, not just because his resistance to oversight seems so disproportionate to the underlying allegations, but also because they provide a revealing anatomy of the five primary stages of Trump response. They could be summarized as Delay, Dissemble, Shift Blame, Haggle and Get Personally Involved. (The elements can be used in any order, more than once.) Often, there’s a sixth stage, too: Offer a job to one of the key players on the opposing side. Trump deployed those tactics again and again in his titanic real estate battles in New York, and his mega-dollar fights over casinos in New Jersey, according to Wayne Barrett’s biography, “Trump: The Deals and the Downfall.”
The stakes may have been smaller on the golf courses, but documents and interviews show the playbook was the same. Historically, Trump’s approach has proved effective, and so it was in New Jersey. The Trump Organization’s repeated infractions at the two clubs lingered unresolved for years. In the end, Trump paid just a fraction of the penalties that state law allows. Then the key regulator, who helped negotiate the generous terms, signed on to a job in the Trump campaign.
The conflicts with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) began on a 500-acre property once owned by disgraced carmaker John DeLorean, which Trump bought for $35 million in 2002. Situated in horse country 40 miles west of Manhattan, the site is now familiar as the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster. It’s where President-elect Trump paraded cabinet aspirants before the media; where he plays golf on warm-weather weekends; and where he’s spoken about wanting to be laid to rest after his final deal is done.
Trump transformed the property, building two golf courses, a 25-meter heated pool, tennis courts, clubhouse, fitness center, guest cottages and a helipad. The president has a home at the club; so do Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who were married there. The membership fee has been variously reported at between $100,000 and $350,000.
The violations at Bedminster date back to 2009. At the time, Trump had recently added a second golf course and was making improvements on the first. In the process of reshaping the land — building tee boxes and cart paths and clearing lines of play — his workers chopped down trees, uprooted vegetation and covered open waters. Trump was legally permitted to make changes on the property, but state law required that certain portions, particularly sensitive wetlands, be left untouched.
The Bedminster mini-saga began with what appeared to be a forthright admission of responsibility. On May 29, 2009, Edward Russo, then Trump’s environmental consultant, “self-reported” damage to 4.34 acres of wetlands, open waters and wetland transition areas. In doing so, the Trump Organization was seeking forgiveness under a DEP policy that allows as much as a 100 percent reduction in fines for offenders who voluntarily disclose violations “in a timely manner” and correct them promptly.
Subsequent violations would not be self-reported in a timely manner — indeed, they wouldn’t be self-reported at all — and the series of infractions would take six years to resolve. Indeed, before the first problem was even addressed, state inspectors began discovering more damage during follow-up visits, a problem that continued over the succeeding two years. The violations seemed to multiply faster than the Trump promises to fix them.
It didn’t help that Trump’s representatives sometimes dissembled. In August 2009, for example, a state inspector discovered that trees had “suspiciously” been removed from protected wooded wetland corridors near eight Bedminster golf holes — coincidentally, just where it would be necessary to allow golfers to play through.
Trump’s consultants insisted a state-approved forestry plan allowed the tree-cutting, according to state inspection reports. An examination of the plan showed just the opposite: The plan recommended “no tree harvesting” where workers had cut paths.
New Jersey officials appeared to lose patience. They formally served Trump National with a six-page “Notice of Violation” in May 2011, warning: “ALL UNAUTHORIZED ACTIVITIES MUST CEASE IMMEDIATELY.” The state demanded a prompt plan to avoid further damage and restore the protected areas. DEP officials met again at the course two months later to discuss the situation — only to discover even more “new areas of violation.”
Time kept slipping away and by 2013, Trump’s consultants made a new attempt to avoid responsibility, this time by shifting blame. They fingered two improbable culprits, according to a chronology later prepared by the state: the New Jersey Audubon Society and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Trump’s team insisted, in a May 2013 meeting, that considerable environmental damage had occurred at the direction of those institutions, which were collaborating with Trump to create grassland bird habitat on the property.
Both New Jersey Audubon and U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials dismiss the notion they had anything to do with damaging protected areas. “Any kind of practice we would recommend wouldn’t adversely affect the wetlands,” commented Fish and Wildlife biologist Brian Marsh, who worked on the Bedminster project. “We’re all about doing restoration and enhancing habitat.” In addition, the habitat work hadn’t begun until the fall of 2012 — more than a year after Trump’s club had already been cited for the destruction of wetlands.
Asked about the environmental conflict, Russo said that Trump executives have barred him from commenting publicly. (He ended more than a dozen years as a consultant for the Trump Organization shortly after the presidential election.) Russo self-published a book entitled “Donald J. Trump: An Environmental Hero,” and citing that book, he dismissed the state complaints as “technical paperwork matters.” He characterized what he called efforts to “expand and enhance habitats” at Bedminster as a “tremendous environmental success.” He also acknowledged that environmental groups had nothing to do with any violations and added, “The DEP’s inference that I was in any way blaming Audubon and Fish and Wildlife was not my intent at all.”
Emails to the Trump Organization seeking comment went unanswered.
Nearly four years into the Bedminster spat, the case remained unresolved. In February 2013, state officials drafted a proposed consent order to settle the matter. It cited Trump’s club for damaging nearly 16 acres of protected areas — more than three times as much as the club had reported back in 2009.
Still, it would take another two and a half years to reach a settlement, as the Trump Organization haggled over what damage it could and couldn’t restore to its natural state — the latter because it was deemed essential for the “playability” of the golf course. Said DEP regional enforcement supervisor Peter Keledy: “They were defending every square inch.” To compensate for those sections, Trump offered instead to establish several acres of new wetland and “natural areas” elsewhere on the property.
Meanwhile, the Trump Organization was racking up violations at its second country club, in Colts Neck, near the Jersey Shore. Trump had purchased the 300-acre golf course out of foreclosure in 2008, spent millions to upgrade the property, and renamed it Trump National Colts Neck.
But he had a problem: Irrigating the course properly, in Trump’s view, required far more water than the site was allowed under its state permit. It was already using about twice its annual limit.
In 2011, Trump sought a new permit that would more than triple his yearly water allowance. This was not a popular request at a time when Colts Neck Township had just suffered a drought. Almost all the houses in the community relied on groundwater wells, and some had gone dry the previous summer.
Relations between the township and Trump were prickly. Residents bristled at his proposal to build a landing pad for his helicopter at the club. Colts Neck rejected the helipad but Trump then waged an extended court fight, including appeals, and won. That prompted the township’s mayor to decry his “bully mentality.” For a person who helicoptered into town, Trump seemed very sensitive to noise: He was so irked by a dog whose barking disturbed his golf game that he personally sent a police officer to the home of one neighbor to complain, according to a statement the neighbor gave to the board of adjustment.
After a public hearing, the state granted Trump a new water permit in August 2011 with the big increase he wanted, but only if he met certain conditions. Trump would need to make costly alterations to three irrigation ponds on the course, and construct a fourth. This would assure that the club’s increased water use came from sources that weren’t likely to drain the supply for homeowners. But relying on the ponds would also require the club to periodically draw them down to water the property, leaving a mucky eyesore for golfers.
Clearly unhappy about the situation, Trump got personally involved. In October 2012, he called DEP Commissioner Robert Martin to discuss the matter. What Trump said is unknown, but a letter that Martin sent him afterwards alluded to the discussion: “The location of this golf course with respect to the availability of water supply is very challenging,” Martin wrote Trump. The commissioner urged him to fulfill the conditions spelled out in the water permit. “That may be the best way for you to manage through the costs of this project,” Martin wrote.
Having seemingly not gotten what he wanted, Trump chose to ignore the restrictions. For five consecutive years starting in 2011, Trump National Colts Neck blew past its annual water limits. “Once he was caught going over, it’s not like he stopped and waited until he got more allocation,” said Timothy Anfuso, township planner for Colts Neck. “He kept using the water the whole time.”
The Trump Organization received annual notices of its violations, warning of “substantial monetary penalties” — up to $50,000 per day per offense. In theory, that meant the organization could’ve been fined millions (though “cooperative” violators would unlikely face fines of that magnitude, according to the DEP, since the agency’s goal is to bring violators back into compliance and restore any damage).
The state’s long-running conflicts with the two Trump golf clubs continued into the spring of 2015, when Trump was preparing to announce his candidacy for president. On April 9, Russo, Trump’s environmental consultant, met with John Giordano, the agency’s assistant commissioner for compliance and enforcement, who had overseen both matters since his appointment two years earlier.
The logjam finally came unstuck. Russo promised to take steps to “alleviate” the agency’s “compliance concerns” at both Trump National properties, according to a “Dear Ed” letter summarizing the meeting that Giordano sent afterwards. “The Department appreciates your willingness to voluntarily undertake these actions thereby making an adversarial relationship unnecessary,” Giordano wrote. “I look forward to continuing this cooperative relationship as the most efficient and effective means to address the Department’s concerns.”
Six months later, in October, Giordano and Russo signed a consent order settling the Bedminster issues. It required restoration and improvements to compensate for the damaged areas; placement of markers identifying protected areas; training of golf course staff to avoid future violations; and detailed monitoring reports. The agreement imposed no fines.
The Colts Neck dispute was settled in April 2016. By then, Giordano had moved to another post in the agency, leaving Raymond Bukowski, a career agency official, to finalize a second consent order. This one required the Trump Organization to cut its water use by planting drought-resistant grasses, irrigating less of the course’s acreage, and installing sophisticated irrigation systems. Mostly, Trump Colts Neck would meet its needs by buying rights to use 15 million gallons annually from New Jersey American Water, the state’s largest water utility. (Russo said the Colts Neck golf course “had never complied with the water allocation rules of the State of New Jersey” before Trump bought it. “We saved the club,” he asserted, “and brought all environmental issues including water allocation into compliance.”)
In this case, the DEP did assess a fine: Despite five years of violations, just $294,000 — before cutting the amount in half, to $147,000 (plus $2,790 in interest), as part of the settlement. Bukowski asserts that Trump got no special treatment.
A few months later, in August 2016, Giordano left DEP to join the Trump campaign. He then became deputy general counsel to the presidential transition committee and later joined an administration “landing team” at the U.S. Energy Department. Giordano then went to work at a Philadelphia law firm and was subsequently considered for appointment as a U.S. attorney for the region, according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. That article quoted David Urban, a lobbyist and senior Pennsylvania adviser to the Trump campaign, explaining that Giordano “put a lot of work in for the president.” Giordano told the Inquirer he was “prepared to serve my country and support the president’s agenda, whether that’s in the public or private sector.”
Ultimately, however, another attorney got the appointment. In December, Giordano, now 43, was reported to be considering a run for a New Jersey congressional seat. Recently, he posted a photo of himself with Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a Philadelphia Union League lunch, where Sessions began his speech by recognizing Giordano as a “Trump administration alumnus.”
Giordano did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.
Meanwhile, the agreements with the state did not spell an end to the environmental problems. In April 2017, a year after the Colts Neck settlement, the Trump Organization received yet another notice from New Jersey regulators. Its golf club in Colts Neck had exceeded its monthly water limits five times in 2016. The state and the Trump Organization have not resolved the violation.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.