Top executives of Equinox and SoulCycle were among the guests at a 48-hour conclave last summer at the same Southampton mansion where a six-figure-a-plate Trump fundraiser was held on Friday.
The common denominator is billionaire real-estate mogul Stephen Ross, owner of not just the mansion, but also Related Companies, whose subsidiaries include Equinox, which holds a major stake in SoulCycle.
So, those same Equinox and SoulCycle executives might as well have been trying to escape on an exercycle as they sought to distance themselves from Ross’ effort to raise money for his longtime friend and sometimes business partner Donald Trump.
“Neither Equinox nor SoulCycle have anything to do with the event this last week,” an Equinox spokesman said on Thursday. “As is consistent with our policies, no company profits are used to fund politicians.”
Considerable company profits do go to Ross, who opened his Hamptons home to people willing to pay as much at $250,000 to sit down to lunch with Trump. That money all went towards giving us another four years.
“Stephen Ross is a great friend of mine,” Trump said to reporters before leaving the White House for the Hamptons late Friday morning.
Trump went on, “He’s a very successful guy. We were competitors but friends in real estate in New York in the old days.”
Trump added, “He’s probably more inclined to be a liberal if you want to know the truth, but he likes me, he respects me.”
Over the decades, the two were rivals in a number of real estate deals, with Ross usually prevailing but without ever getting enough press attention to challenge the myth of The Donald. Ross followed Trump into the United States Football League in the mid-1980s and was party to its collapse by helping to push it from a spring season to a fall one to compete head-on with the long-established NFL.
Trump became the driving force in the fledgling league when he purchased the New Jersey Generals and began acquiring bigtime players with big money contracts. Ross bought the Houston Gamblers and the original plan was for him to merge that team with the Generals and become Trump's partner in the combined venture.
“This worked out beautifully,” Trump was quoted saying when the partnership deal was made.
Trump then decided that he wanted to own the whole combined team.
“I had 100 percent of the team and I wanted to keep it that way,” Trump said.
Ross apparently accepted this as just Donald being Donald, which included calling reporters posing as his nonexistent spokesman John Barron to offer comment on developments in the USFL.
Ross instead became the majority owner of the Baltimore stars, which was fine because he stood to get an even bigger cut of the per-team award USFL owners anticipated in a $1.69 billion antitrust suit the league brought against the NFL. Ross seems to have been the first person ever to acquire a professional football team primarily as a bet on pending litigation.
“We invested in a lawsuit,” Ross was quoted saying. “That’s what we did.”
Trump testified at the antitrust trial and got into a kind of staring contest with a 23-year-old juror named Patricia Sibilia. She was being mindful of the judge’s instructions at the start to look at any celebrity witnesses just as you would anybody else.
“I was looking at him and he saw me looking at him and we got into a little staring contest,” she told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “I don’t think either of us won.”
She then added, “I guess I did in the end.”
Sibilia meant that it was she who proposed a deciding compromise during the jury's deliberations. The six jurors were divided between those who felt the NFL had clearly acted as a monopoly and those who felt the USFL also had to bear some responsibility for its troubles.
Sibilia suggested that they find for the NFL, but only award $1 in damages to the USFL. The court tripled the damages, which brought it up to to all of to $3.
“What a stupid business decision,” Sibilia said this week when looking back at the spring-to-fall move.
Trump and Ross were left with the particular bond of men who joined together to outsmart themselves. The bond seems to have remained even as Trump went on to become president. Ross had since gone on to become the majority owner of a bona fide NFL team, the Miami Dolphins.
Ross initially seemed be a decidedly unTrumpian owner. He founded and funded RISE, an organization that seeks to use sports to bridge racial and social differences.
But Ross initially did seem swayed by his old pal Trump’s ragings on Twitter regarding players who chose to kneel during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.
“[Trump] has changed that whole paradigm of what protest is,” Ross was quoted saying in October of 2017. “I think it is incumbent upon the players today, because of how the public is looking at it, to stand and salute the flag.”
In May of 2018, he struck a different, less Trumpian note.
“I have no intention of forcing our players to stand during the anthem,” he said in a statement.
He allowed that he personally felt kneeling is “an ineffective tactic that alienates more people than it enlists.” He nonetheless refused to condemn those who did, whatever Trump tweeted.
“I know our players care about the military and law enforcement, too,” Ross said in his statement. “I’ve seen the same players who are fighting for social justice engaging positively with law enforcement and the military.”
He added, “I care passionately that the message for social justice resonates far and wide, and I will continue to support and fund efforts for those who fight for equality for all.”
Such an attitude must have made Ross’s multi-billion Hudson Yards development in Manhattan seem a fine place for chef José Andrés to open up shop this year. Andrés had pulled out of an agreement to open a restaurant in the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 2015 in protest over Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric. Trump sued and Andrés countersued. The parties settled in 2017.
This May, Andrés opened Mercado Little Spain, a trio of restaurants on the first floor of Hudson Yards. He seems to have been shocked by the news of Ross’ fundraiser, and went on Twitter with a video pleading with Ross to reconsider.
“I respect a person’s right to politically support who he chooses but these are not normal times!. So I ask u Steve Ross to use your conscience! Cancel this fundraiser for @realDonaldTrump You are a good man.Don’t support a candidate whose goal is to drive my beloved USA apart!” an accompanying tweet read.
Ross apparently does not understand that accepting Donald just being Donald is no longer so simple. Or maybe Ross figures that the benefits of tax cuts for the rich outweighs the negatives of racism and divisiveness. He went ahead with Friday’s fundraiser, which enjoyed perfect weather.
Trump afterwards retweeted a report by Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel regarding the total raised by Ross’ event and a similar one held by another ultra-rich real estate developer, Joe Farrell, at another Hamptons mansion on Friday.
“Thanks to the unhinged mob on the left, @realDonaldTrump raised $12M today, $2M more than originally expected,” she tweeted. “The support for our President is unprecedented and growing!”
Trump had told reporters just before leaving the White House that “the controversy makes Steve Ross hotter.”
“He’ll figure that out in about a week,” Trump said.
Meanwhile, Equinox and SoulCycle and other Ross-affiliated companies that attended the gathering at the same mansion last summer were busy on their exercycles, trying to escape the inescapable truth.
Ross is likely to continue facing nettlesome boycotts, but there is only one disruption that would be sure to trouble him.
Six months after hosting the Trump fundraiser at his Hamptons mansion, Ross will be hosting Super Bowl LIV, marking the NFL’s centennial season, at his stadium in Miami in February of 2020. He is said to have spent more than $350 million upgrading the facility to where it got the nod.
“I really wanted to see it and I wanted it to be my legacy,” Ross said at the time.
Ross has already drawn pointed criticism from one Dolphins player. Receiver Kenny Stills questioned whether Ross could reconcile the social justice organization RISE with raising cash toward a Trump second term.
“You can’t have a non-profit with this mission statement then open your doors to Trump,” the star receiver tweeted on Wednesday.
Stills knelt during the playing of the national anthem before Thursday night’s preseason game against Atlanta. He stood by his locker after the game and spoke at some length with reporters. The Dolphins had won 34-27 and it should have been a night that brought only happiness to Ross and to Stills and the rest of the team.
“I don’t want to associate myself with bad people and we shouldn’t want to be associated with bad people,” Stills said. “And our country’s in a rough place right now and I think we could be doing more. I think there’s other candidates that he could support. It’s not about Democrat or Republican or any of those things. It’s literally about why. Why are you trying to help this man raise money to continue to do things that he’s been doing?”
Between now and February, Trump is capable of doing many more things to harden feelings against those who bankroll his reelection effort. The Dolphins are presently a long shot to win the championship, but whatever teams do go to the big game at the end of the season are sure to have players who take Stills’ view.
The playing of the national anthem at the big game in Miami might bring a moment that is not the legacy Ross seeks. And after the 2020 Super Bowl comes the 2020 election.