The biggest bid of Donald J. Trump’s life will be decided this week. But if another big deal – a big Buffalo deal – had happened two years earlier, we likely wouldn’t be talking about a potential President Trump.
In 2014, after the death of team founder Ralph C. Wilson Jr., Trump was one of three finalists in the quest to buy the Buffalo Bills. Wilson’s estate, and ultimately the National Football League owners, chose Terry and Kim Pegula’s $1.4 billion bid over Trump’s offer of a reported $1 billion.
That wasn’t a surprise. The bombastic Trump’s bid never gained as much traction as the Pegulas’ offer or the one from a Toronto group that included rock star Jon Bon Jovi. (Coincidentally, Bon Jovi has been playing “Get Out the Vote” campaign concerts in recent weeks for Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton.)
But the New York-based businessman has said this many times, including to the Buffalo News: If he purchased the Buffalo Bills, he wouldn’t be running for president.
Think about that one.
No call for a Mexican wall. No One Buffalo beer. No Rex Ryan. (Well, maybe Rex Ryan – the coach is a Trump guy.) No talk of making America great again; just making the Bills great again.
Let’s explore that alternate world, in the words of Trump and in individual interviews with people who’ve worked with him or covered him:
Trump, to News reporter Bob McCarthy before the New York primary last April: I bid on that team half-heartedly because I really wanted to do this (run for president). I could not have done that (own the team) and this, because it would have been too much.
David Cay Johnston, author of “The Making of Donald Trump” and a Rochester resident: If Trump is confident he’s going to get something, he’s all in. If he knows he can’t or won’t, he’ll try to laugh it off and say, “I wasn’t serious.” It’s part of how Trump creates his own reality.
Trump tweet in October 2014, one day after the Bills’ first game under Terry and Kim Pegula’s ownership: Even though I refused to pay a ridiculous price for the Buffalo Bills, I would have produced a winner. Now that won’t happen.
Johnston: He doesn’t want anyone to look at Donald Trump and say, “Loser.”
Trump tweet in October 2014: The people of Buffalo should be happy Terry Pegula got the team, but I hope he does better w/ the Bills than he has w/ the Sabres. Good luck!
Trump, to the News’ McCarthy in April 2015: I like the owner. I think the owner is doing a really good job. He’s got a great coach. You know, I bid on it, but I knew I would be doing this. I’ve got enough on my hands.
Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican and one of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump, told The News last spring that he suspects as an NFL owner Trump would still be vying for the presidency.
Collins: Donald Trump has investments all over the world. If he had purchased the Buffalo Bills, that would have been an investment, and my expectation would have been he’d still be running for president … I think we just would have had the owner of the Buffalo Bills running for president if Donald Trump had purchased them.
What would a Trump ownership have looked like? In separate interviews, we asked a pair of Washington insiders who are ardent Bills fans.
Luke Russert, former NBC political reporter and son of the late Buffalo-born “Meet the Press” moderator Tim Russert: He’s bombastic, egotistical. He would certainly have tried to shake up the owners’ club as it exists. I think about who he compares to most closely. Maybe Jerry Jones? But even Jerry Jones has a point in time where he kind of falls in line and goes with the status quo.
Dave Levinthal, Buffalo native and senior political reporter for the Center for Public Integrity: If we think Rex Ryan can be a bit outlandish every once in a while, multiply that by, well, Donald Trump. It would have been an entirely different way of running the franchise and unlike anything the city has seen before.
Russert: My God, imagine the quotes…
Levinthal: I wonder how many "Make the Bills Great Again" caps New Era would be selling.
Russert, during a phone interview, started thinking aloud about potential issues that could have arisen, especially if as an owner Trump also had run for the White House. “Who knows what would have come out?” Russert said. “Let’s say he buys the team and 12 women allege things against him? ... What if he said something crazy? How long of a leash would the fans give him?”
Or how long a leash would NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell give Trump? In a league already struggling to address issues such as domestic violence, how would the allegations against Trump play if he were part of the NFL owners' club?
Russert: They wouldn’t know what hit them. They wouldn’t know. You have an owner who’s simultaneously accused of being a sexist, a racist. Who knows? It’s wild.
A Trumped-up Bills would also mean a Pegula-less (but not Pegula-free) presence in Western New York. The Pegulas already owned the Sabres, of course. Their crowning downtown development – the privately funded $172 million HarborCenter – opened only weeks after they bought the team. It's here regardless of who owns the Buffalo Bills.
But their overarching One Buffalo movement that ties together sports, entertainment, development and tourism? It’s less likely Trump as a team owner would so adamantly market Buffalo.
Johnston: I call him the P.T. Barnum of our age. He is a master of promotion. He would promote the Buffalo Bills, but he wouldn’t promote Buffalo.
Russert: I’m sure there were some fans that would have loved him. They would say, "Hey, Donald’s out there being tough, fighting for us, fighting for the Bills." But who knows how that would have ended?
Johnston: When the team went south because he had drained it of all of the cash needed to make a successful franchise, or more likely he’d arranged to move it to somewhere else – even as part of a sale – I think people would feel shock and betrayal. It really is fortunate for Western New York that a local person bought the team. You’re not going to see the Pegulas move the team somewhere else. (Note: During the sale process, Trump repeatedly promised to keep the team in Buffalo.)
Collins: I think all of us absolutely love what the Pegulas have done — Pegulaville, the Sabres and the Bills. I can’t think of a better owner for the Bills, and certainly everyone understands what a great job Terry has done in helping downtown and the waterfront come back … Donald would have been a great owner as well. But it didn’t happen and he’s running for president.
But what if Trump – true to his own hypothetical reflection – had bought the team and NOT run for president? The nation – the entire planet – would be a different place. Today, American politics has become bona fide event television. Voter engagement is high — and so is voter frustration. We can credit multiple pols for that, including Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
But most of all we can credit Trump, who turned politics into the most authentic of reality shows.
Former Rep. Thomas Reynolds, a Republican, in an interview during primary season: Would we have seen the type of voter interest and turnout? Would that have occurred without Trump there? I would say no. It would have less of a turnout, less of an interest, until it hit your state. People are watching these primaries as they occur around America from their living rooms, in all 50 states and the four territories.
Levinthal: We wouldn’t be talking about building a wall. We wouldn’t be talking about making America great again.
Collins: If Donald Trump had not run for president, it would have been a lot of status quo, a lot of political correctness, a lot stump speeches that were written by others who would say all the right things. But the average voter, the average Western New Yorker, would shrug their shoulders and say, “Same old, same old.”
Levinthal: We could be looking at Hillary Clinton versus Jeb Bush right now. We could be looking at Hillary Clinton versus Marco Rubio. There are just so many permutations to consider, absent Trump being the race. The whole election, the whole nature of the issues and debates surrounding the election, would just be wildly different.
But would it be better? If you’re a Trump fan, you’re probably glad the Bills and NFL turned him down and made him available to America. But if you’re fearing the notion of a President Trump, you're probably thinking, the Buffalo Bills could have saved us all!
Filmmaker Mike Tollin worked with Trump in the mid-'80s, when the billionaire owned the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Tollin produced weekly shows for the league, which shut down after the 1985 season in the wake of a lawsuit against the NFL. Many people blame Trump, who pushed that lawsuit, for the league’s failure.
Tollin, who directed ESPN’s 2009 documentary “Small Potatoes: Who killed the USFL?”: I’m not sure that I wish it on the great citizens of Buffalo, but I’m guessing if you took a poll of reasonable Buffalo citizens/Bills fans, and they looked at the negative influence of a Trump ownership of the team versus the potential destruction from a Trump presidency, they’d probably close their eyes, swallow hard and say, “OK, I’ll take one for the country.”
Russert: Is this the moment where Buffalo won and America lost, when so many times it’s been the other way around? I think it’s fair to say that. I think it’s fair to say had he actually become the Bills owner and spared the country through all this, it probably would have been better overall.
Tollin: There's another (if-only scenario) I love: If only (Major League Baseball) had offered George W. Bush the commissionership. You can fill in the rest of the sentence that you choose, but my version would suggest that both baseball and the country would be much better off.
Russert: Part of me says, “Hey, Buffalo dodged a bullet.” And we also ended up with the first minority female owner (Kim Pegula) in the NFL, which I’m very proud of, and I think the city should be very proud of.
It’s fun (or scary, depending on your worldview) to think about what might have been. But Trump likely isn’t doing that.
Collins: He’s happy to see what’s happening in Buffalo but I think Donald is ... not somebody to sit back and lament what might have been, or what could have been. He just moves on to the next deal.