In the 15 years that Phil Ruffin has known Donald Trump, he has seldom dared give the GOP frontrunner any political advice.
Given the complicated emotional makeup of his New York friend, Ruffin says he doesn’t dare go there.
For reasons of fun and politics and affection, Ruffin says, he will watch Wednesday night’s latest GOP presidential debate with relish and anticipation.
Ruffin is the 80-year-old billionaire owner of the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas who grew up poor in Wichita. Trump, 69, grew up the son of a millionaire in New York. The two men are longtime business partners and close friends.
Ruffin’s friend has promised fireworks for Wednesday’s GOP debate. Ben Carson is gaining on him in the polls. Republicans and Democrats have denounced Trump’s inflammatory talk on immigration.
But in a speech in Texas on Monday, Trump defied Republican leaders pleading with him to tone it down.
Ruffin himself weighed in gingerly, in a Monday phone call: “ ‘Calm down. Stay calm. Don’t get mad,’ I told him.”
Instead, in Dallas, Trump denounced illegal immigration again, calling the United States “a dumping ground for the rest of the world.” He promised Republican leaders he’s just getting started.
“It’s disgusting what’s happening to our country,” Trump said.
“He’s always been like this,” Ruffin said. “He’s an alpha male. He dominates.”
And then Ruffin laughs. It’s a long, slow little laugh mixing affection and resignation.
“You can’t tell Donald what to do. You don’t argue. You go to dinner with him, he dominates. Anybody who attacks him, they are making a big mistake. They are going down.
“And Donald is doing pretty well on his own without anybody’s advice.”
Trump’s rise in the GOP polls has surprised everyone – even his blunt and bombastic friend.
“I don’t think he thought his campaign would get this much traction,” Ruffin said. “He hoped it would, but he’s surprised.”
It’s no secret why Trump is leading polls, Ruffin said. “People are sick of the regular politicians, which is why outsiders like Donald and Ben Carson are doing so well.”
Ruffin in recent years has sounded as embittered about wasteful government and clueless politicians as Trump. And he provided his own example about why government exasperates.
On the wall of his Las Vegas office at Treasure Island, Ruffin years ago hung a photocopy of his IRS tax payment for the year 2008.
It was the Wichita Bank of America check that Ruffin signed and made out to the IRS for $172 million in income taxes, most of that income being the profit he made from selling a casino in the Bahamas.
“And the federal government lost it!” Ruffin said Tuesday.
“I asked them, how can you lose a check for $172 million? And they said I now owed them $284 million. We hired Ernst and Young (business management consultants) to get us out of that mess. And $20,000 later, the government said they’d found the check. And never mind!
“Business people like Donald, we all have stories like that. The federal government is totally dysfunctional. Now, Donald is not as conservative as some people would like, and he’s got no political experience, it’s true. But he’s smart, one of a kind, and nothing like the regular politicians. After we had Republicans take over not only the House, but the Senate, they couldn’t get anything done; all they seem to do is raise money to get re-elected.”
He met Trump over a business deal at Trump’s office in New York 15 years ago. Trump was the best man at Ruffin’s wedding in 2008.
Trump himself lauded his friend in a 2007 telephone interview with The Wichita Eagle. “Phil is a very fine person, a person of integrity who cares about people,” Trump said. “And let’s face it, we all know that there are very few men of our ilk who are good people.”
Despite Trump’s persona, Ruffin said, Trump is that same kind of person – kind, warm, decent to people. “He’s hired thousands of Asians and Mexicans and Latin Americans and others to help run his properties,” Ruffin said.
The bombast and the flammable rhetoric his friend unleashed on the GOP primary race a few months ago is mostly the same swaggering persona that Trump perfected to do his business deals and create his television show, “The Apprentice,” Ruffin said.
“Behind the scenes, the guy is always doing some charities where he doesn’t tell anybody about it,” Ruffin said.
Trump told him beginning two years ago that he might run for president, Ruffin said. “ ‘Why?’ I asked him. ‘Donald, you’re on top of the world.’ ”
Trump told him he was fed up with the government. “ ‘I want to do it for the country’ is how he put it,” Ruffin said.
Except for the few who know him, most people get Trump wrong, he said.
The real Donald is the best deal negotiator that Ruffin says he has ever seen.
He’s a thinker who has deliberated over how he’ll run the country, while keeping those ideas to himself, Ruffin said.
He’s a workaholic. “He’ll work 20 hours a day,” Ruffin said. “He’s got so much energy it’s almost unbelievable.”
And Donald, as he calls him, was the best man at Ruffin’s wedding at Trump’s Mar-A-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, Fla.
Ruffin said Donald stood up at the reception and said: “My gift to you is that I’m comping everybody here.”
“That little gesture probably cost him more than half a million,” Ruffin said.
Contributing: Associated Press