Why Phil Ruffin thinks Trump would be ‘brilliant’ president

T.I. owner also supports bringing NFL team to Las Vegas

Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin is shown after an interview at his office Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. Ruffin and his wife, Oleksandra Nikolayenko, donated $1 million to veterans groups at Donald Trump’s campaign event last week.

Two years ago, Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin told his longtime friend and business partner Donald Trump not to run for president.

They were having dinner at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, Fla., when the subject came up, according to Ruffin. For Ruffin, there was one vital question: Why would Trump want to subject himself to a potentially bruising political campaign given all he had accomplished?

Treasure Island Owner Phil Ruffin

Treasure Island owner Phil Ruffin talks about his relationship with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during an interview at his office Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. Ruffin and his wife Oleksandra Nikolayenko donated $1 million to veterans groups at Trump's campaign event last Thursday. Launch slideshow »

Trump responded that the country was broken and he knew he could fix it, Ruffin said in an interview Tuesday at his Treasure Island office. Despite Ruffin’s initial advice against the campaign, he vowed to give $1 million to his friend’s presidential run, if it ever came to pass — a promise he said he fulfilled after Trump’s campaign launched last year.

But Trump didn’t take the money.

“He immediately sent it back,” Ruffin said. Trump reiterated a standard campaign bragging point — that he’s a self-funded candidate — and said he wouldn’t budge on that, even for Ruffin.

While Trump would not accept a big campaign contribution, according to Ruffin, the candidate did accept help in another way. Last week, Ruffin and his wife donated $1 million at a Des Moines, Iowa, fundraiser for veterans that Trump held instead of participating in the Republican debate.

Donald Trump at Treasure Island

GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump makes a campaign stop Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, at Treasure Island. Launch slideshow »

Ruffin said he made the donation because “it was a good cause” and was in line with his other charitable interests. He said the donation was more about charity than supporting Trump as a candidate.

Still, Ruffin’s donation and presence at the Des Moines event made him a crucial supporter during a key moment in his friend’s highly controversial campaign. Ruffin’s contribution was among about $6 million raised by that event, including $1 million from Trump and $500,000 from investor Carl Icahn, owner of the mothballed Fontainebleau Las Vegas project, according to media reports.

Ruffin and Trump have a long history together. They were partners in developing the Trump International Hotel, which opened in 2008 next to the New Frontier property that Ruffin had recently sold. Ruffin said the hotel has been “a great investment” despite initial headwinds from the recession, calling Trump an “absolutely brilliant” partner.

In fact, their friendship is strong enough that Trump was the best man at Ruffin’s 2008 wedding, which was held at Mar-a-Lago. Trump, not knowing what gift to offer, decided to pay for the whole thing — except the cost of hiring Lionel Richie as the entertainer, according to Ruffin.

“That’s the kind of friend he’s been,” Ruffin said.

Back then, Trump was known more for his real estate empire and his reality television show, “The Apprentice,” than for being a serious contender for the nation’s highest office.

Now, he’s most often in the headlines due to his unconventional, personality-driven presidential campaign. Trump also has become known for making incendiary remarks, particularly about immigrants and Muslims.

Ruffin said he and Trump “differ on a few things” — though he declined to detail specific issues — and that Trump would generally listen to Ruffin, then do “what he wants to do” anyway.

Any particular political differences have not stopped Ruffin from being a strong supporter of his friend’s campaign, however. And Trump held a rally at Treasure Island last year.

“He would be a very good president. I think he’s brilliant,” Ruffin said. “Usually, you don’t get that quality of person running — a lot of those guys are Class B lawyers. I wouldn’t hire any of those guys to run any of my companies.”

Trump, who has tied much of his campaign to the idea of being a winner, suffered a damaging defeat Monday when he was beaten soundly by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucus, the first round of voting in the 2016 presidential primary. Ruffin attributed Cruz’s strength there to his appeal to evangelical Christians, noting that the Iowa caucus was “maybe not Donald’s cup of tea.”

Asked whom he would support if Trump were not in the race, Ruffin ruled out Cruz, who he said was “not a pleasant person” and would likely not work well with Congress. Ruffin might be inclined to lean instead toward New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, hypothetically speaking, he said.

Aside from politics, Ruffin also told VEGAS INC on Tuesday that he supported the idea of bringing an NFL team such as the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. Las Vegas Sands Corp. is backing a plan to build a 65,000-seat stadium on land recently purchased by UNLV, and the company’s CEO Sheldon Adelson met with Raiders owner Mark Davis last week.

Las Vegas Sands has suggested that some of the stadium’s price tag of about $1 billion would be covered by public funds, including, potentially, hotel room taxes. That idea was met with strong opposition last week by MGM Resorts International CEO Jim Murren, who said the priority for room-tax dollars should be funding the expansion and renovation of the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Ruffin did not weigh in about the particulars of room tax dollars but said he valued the convention center expansion more than a stadium project — unless an NFL team was definitely part of the equation.

Additionally, the most controversial change on the Strip right now — MGM Resorts’ move to start charging guests for parking — is not off the table at Treasure Island. Ruffin said his decision about whether to implement a similar policy at his resort depended on whether other operators would follow suit.

“If it spreads throughout the city and everybody does it, we’ll probably do it,” he said.