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The family feud behind the Trump-Cuomo battle: 'Sometimes you have to hold a grudge'

Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, center, gathers with demonstrators near Central Park during the March For Our Lives in New York.

August 20, 2018 10:36 am Updated: August 20, 2018 10:37 am

In bygone days, before Donald Trump exchanged fire with the Democratic governor of his home state, well, he actually did the very same thing.

Rather than Twitter, however, the terrain was an old-fashioned telephone, into which Trump screamed so loudly in the late 1990s that people in adjacent offices popped their heads in to find out who was experiencing Trump's wrath. It was Mario Cuomo, the late leader of New York and father of the state's current governor, Andrew Cuomo, who was then in Washington serving as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The decades-old spat now appears as a prophecy of sorts. It reveals resentment - Shakespearean in its deep-seated and multi-generational meaning - behind the war of words that escalated over the weekend between Trump and the scion of the powerful New York family.

The recent flare-up was over the governor's poorly worded rebuke of the president's catchphrase - Andrew Cuomo's observation that America "was never that great." Trump had a field day with the pronouncement. He said the governor had "choked" so badly that he had torpedoed his own career. On Sunday, before congregants of a black church in Brooklyn, Cuomo fired back, calling the president's policies "un-American" and celebrating New York as a bulwark against Trump's ambitions.

"Mr. Trump, I've known you for 30 years," Cuomo said. "You may be a slick salesman who fooled many people in this country, but you didn't fool me and you didn't fool New Yorkers," Cuomo said.

The governor's reference to their shared history, and his insistence that the state where Trump made his name had also at times stymied him, harked back to the 1990s. His remarks hinted at the grudge match that began over a Manhattan development project once led by the president and federal housing rules once enforced by the governor.

The skirmish not only drew the Trump-Cuomo battle lines but also pulled in Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York City at the time and now the president's personal attorney. So, too, did it involve Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of the president's fiercest Capitol Hill combatants.

The story behind the Trump-Cuomo feud was recently chronicled on Twitter by Howard Glaser, then-acting general counsel of HUD.

At the center of the conflict were plans for Riverside South, a sprawling complex on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The plans for the site would make it "the largest privately held waterfront site in Manhattan" and included a "much-needed public waterfront park and esplanade," according to a municipal waterfront plan.

In 1995, Trump, who was the lead developer for the project, applied to HUD for mortgage insurance on a $356 million loan, according to an agency memorandum. Federal guidelines stipulated that mortgage insurance was appropriate when a development furthered aims of "concentrated housing, physical development, and public service activities" geared toward "neighborhood improvement, conservation or preservation," the memorandum stated. Trump's agreement with the city dictated that he set aside 20 percent of the units for low-income housing, New York media reported at the time.

The Giuliani administration wrote a letter of support for the HUD application, arguing that the site - along the Hudson River, near Lincoln Center - was in a "blighted area," according to the New York Daily News, which deemed this description "ludicrous."

HUD initially accepted the designation, but local community groups brought litigation in federal court, according to the 1997 memorandum. The auditor who drafted the five-page memorandum concluded that the federal agency should not insure the mortgage, reasoning that an insufficient portion of the complex would be devoted to affordable housing and warning that the city would take on the risk for the associated park and pier since these were public lands.

Howard Glaser tweeted "The Trump scam was typical Trump: inflate the federal subsidy by including the value of city parkland adjacent to the development...

"..which accounted for 75% of the funding. A. Cuomo told Trump the transaction would be illegal, forcing Trump to withdraw his application"

It wasn't only local leaders, unnamed in the memorandum, who were leery of Trump's methods.

In the Senate, McCain took aim at the Riverside South project. He offered an amendment to a 1997 appropriations bill giving Congress oversight power over HUD's potential use of taxpayer dollars to underwrite mortgages for luxury housing developments.

McCain spoke in laudatory terms about Trump - calling him "the venerable Donald Trump" - but said the mortgage application under review would misallocate public funds.

"I certainly have nothing against luxury apartments nor do I have anything against very successful project developers, including Mr. Trump," McCain said on the floor of the Senate. "I do object, however, to asking the taxpayer to bear the risk of a development for one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the country, to help finance a project that will predominantly benefit upper income Americans."

The federal program eyed for the project - "targeted to families who earn in excess of $100,000," McCain said - "is designed to promote vital urban renewal." Downtown Manhattan, he judged, should not be a public priority, at least compared to "Harlem, South Chicago, South Central Los Angeles, and South Phoenix." Projects meriting public support, he said, should support "the needy in the most seriously depressed areas."

"Moreover," McCain added, "the Donald Trumps of the world can more than afford to bear the risk of their endeavors, and should not be indemnified with taxpayer dollars."

Still, Trump pressed ahead.

In his 2004 self-help book, "How to Get Rich," Trump recounted how he phoned Mario Cuomo, who had recently lost his reelection bid to Republican George Pataki, to ask for a favor.

For years, Trump noted, he had supported the three-term governor - "I was one of his largest campaign contributors" - and received nothing in return. (Trump also gave generously to the younger Cuomo.) His repayment, Trump observed ironically, was "a tax on real estate so onerous that it drove many investors away from the city."

"I called Mario to ask for a perfectly legal and appropriate favor involving attention to a detail at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which at the time was being run by his son Andrew," Trump recalled. He doesn't go into detail about his request, but the question of mortgage insurance was before the agency at the time.

Cuomo demurred, saying he "rarely calls the 'Secretary' on business matters," Trump wrote. He persisted: "I said to him, 'Mario, he is not the Secretary. He's your son."

Trump reiterated that he was making "a simple, aboveboard request," and recounted, "Finally, I asked Mario point-blank, 'Well, are you going to help me?'"

"In a very nice way," Trump wrote, "he essentially told me no."

The real estate mogul was incensed.

"I did the only thing that felt right to me," Trump wrote. "I began screaming. 'You son of a [---]! For years I've helped you and never asked for a thing, and when I finally need something, and a totally proper thing at that, you aren't there for me. You're no good. You're one of the most disloyal people I've known and as far as I'm concerned, you can go to hell."

His break with Cuomo was complete, Trump explained, though he would go on to bankroll the political aspirations of his foe's progeny.

"Now whenever I see Mario at a dinner, I refuse to acknowledge him, talk to him, or even look at him," Trump maintained. He did allow that the former governor's wife, Matilda, "is a fine woman and was a terrific friend to my mother. It's not her fault that her husband is a loser."

There are shades of the future president here: his readiness to attack, his fixation on loyalty, his transactional view of human relations. Even his vocabulary - from his disparagement of Cuomo as a "loser" to his appraisal of his wife as "a fine woman" - anticipates the language he would come to deploy from the presidential bully pulpit.

Trump failed to win mortgage insurance for the project. Environment & Energy Publishing reported that he withdrew the application, while the New York Times said the federal government in 1998 rejected an appeal for at least $180 million in insurance.

"I congratulate HUD for piercing one of Trump's many scams," Rep. Jerrold L. Nadler, an Upper West Side Democrat, told the Times.

Trump drew a clear lesson from his dealings with the Cuomo family. He titled this chapter of his book, "Sometimes You Have to Hold a Grudge."