When he was running for president in 2016, Donald Trump had a ready anecdote whenever people wondered how a man with no public-service record could possibly run the United States government. “Remember the Wollman Rink in Central Park?” Trump asked in Iowa during the primary, speaking to a crowd that only vaguely knew what he was talking about. “They couldn’t do it. I knocked it up in four months.” For nearly four decades, Trump has boasted about his role in the 1986 renovation of the Central Park skating rink, which one of Trump’s companies operates on behalf of the city to this day. But this run has come to an end: Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday that the city is terminating the contracts (some of which end this year) that grant Trump’s businesses the right to operate Wollman Rink, Lasker Rink, and a carousel in Central Park, in addition to the Ferry Point golf course in the Bronx. And although he’s surely going to be disappointed to lose the deals — which bring his companies $17 million a year — this will no doubt have an added sting for Trump personally, given how often he has presented this dinky project as proof that he’s a master builder.
Indeed, it was a success, albeit a very minor one. During the city’s financial crisis in the 1970s, Wollman Rink — like much of Central Park — fell into disrepair. The ice-making machinery stopped working. After spending six years and $13 million trying to renovate it, the city declared in 1986 that the project had failed and that it would have to start over from scratch. Trump, then a 39-year-old who had recently opened his namesake tower just off the Park, was already known as a publicity hound, and he leapt in, making a public offer to renovate the rink himself in exchange for the right to run it, adding that he would donate any profits to the homeless. Mayor Ed Koch found the strings attached to Trump’s offer suspicious, but he reluctantly agreed. Trump roped in HRH Construction to do the work at cost, telling the firm that the publicity would pay for itself.
It certainly did generate publicity — for, and thanks to, Trump. He held a press conference for every incremental milestone in the four-month effort, failing to mention HRH. And it was a competent job, finished a month early and under budget. “It was built privately because the public couldn’t get it done,” he gloated to the Daily News the day the rink reopened, in the first of his boasts about it that continue to this day. And people bought his line. “There is much to be learned from the private sector,” Mayor Koch ruefully admitted at the opening. “We could do what Donald Trump did with Wollman Rink,” offered Peter Smith, who ran the Partnership for the Homeless, as he proposed similar public-private partnerships.
Wollman Rink, you could perhaps argue, is one of the few good things Trump has ever done for the public. But to say he did it out of anything other than self-interest would be falling into the publicity trap he had set for everyone back then, before he was widely acknowledged as a pathological liar and a narcissist. “I mean, c’mon, it’s a skating rink,” the conservative writer Julia Vitullo-Martin, who worked in the Parks Department at the time, told Bloomberg in 2015. “Any halfway decent construction person would have been able to build the damn thing.” Adrian Benepe, then the department’s spokesperson and later its commissioner, said the project was largely complete by the time Trump took over. The city, not Trump, paid for the actual reconstruction. And if there were any lingering doubt about Trump’s stated good intentions, a review in 2007 by city comptroller William Thompson found that Trump’s operation had underreported its revenue by $106,608, thus shortchanging the city. The city stripped Trump’s name from the rink in 2019.
The Wollman saga perfectly encapsulates Trump’s habit of hyping small achievements with giant blasts of self-promotion. That a small, straightforward renovation of an ice rink — a for-profit endeavor that he misrepresented as philanthropy — could somehow outweigh his giant record of failure on a larger scale required impressive personal branding skills on his part; like a tabloid editor, Trump knows that a little, concise scene or moment sticks in the mind and can define someone better than almost anything else. It also demands the media-manipulation methods that have caused partisan delusion to sweep through the Republican Party since Trump took his trip down the escalator. At the Central Park level, that meant planting items in the gossip columns and buttering up local reporters; at the geopolitical level, it meant wild unleashings of nonsense and putting the planet at risk. And with the city finally getting rid of his contract to run the rink, it’s be another example of Trump the president smashing the façade of Trump the businessman. At the rededication of the rink in 1986, a reporter noticed that Trump, unlike some of the other officials present, didn’t put on a pair of skates and take to the ice. “People have been waiting for me to fall down for years,” he said, “and I am not going to give them the chance.” It took a long time, but he finally did.