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How Trump Uses Talk Of Patriotism To His Advantage


Donald Trump is not letting go of his fight with the NFL. For the last few weeks, the president has criticized players who kneel in protest during the national anthem. He says they're disrespecting the flag, the country and the military. While reporting for our podcast Embedded, we found out this was not Trump's first fight over the American flag. In fact there's a pattern to how the president uses talk of patriotism to his own advantage.

NPR's Sonari Glinton and Embedded producer Tom Dreisbach will take it from here. We'll start with Sonari.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: This story takes place in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. It's a small, fairly wealthy city of about 40,000 - politically conservative, but it's that Sunbelt brand of conservative. RPV is kind of the gateway to Orange County and has one of the most beautiful stretches of California coastline that you can find.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: And Donald Trump first came to town in 2002.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mr. Trump, would you like to come up and sit on this side, please?


DREISBACH: He bought up a golf course that was in trouble. The 18th hole had literally fallen into the ocean in a landslide. And Trump promised to fix that course and make it even better.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're going to build something that I believe will be, in the end, one of the great courses anywhere in the world.

GLINTON: Trump was coming to the rescue, and a lot of people were excited, like Tom Long. He's a former city councilman, and he's a Democrat.

TOM LONG: You know, a hole fell into the ocean. The golf course is ruined. I didn't think there was any realistic possibility of it recovering.

GLINTON: And then the way I - I mean, in this part of the story, (imitating bugle)...

LONG: Yes.

GLINTON: Here comes in...

LONG: In comes the white knight, or at least that's I think what everyone felt at first.

DREISBACH: Then came the fights. In 2003, Trump sued the public school district. Now, the story's a little complicated, but here's the short version. The school district owns some land in the middle of the golf course, and they were supposed to start collecting rent on that land. Trump did not like the deal, so he sued. The two sides eventually settled. The school district got $5 million. Trump got the land. But Trump could not let it go.

GLINTON: Trump was especially angry with the school district's lawyer. During the lawsuit, the attorney for the schools called Trump pompous and arrogant. And so at this big public meeting in 2005, in front of the entire city council, residents and the media, Trump brought up the lawsuit. Here is the former city councilman Tom Long.

LONG: Why Donald Trump decided to focus on that lawsuit, I don't know. But what he did is he then commented that the school board's attorney, Milan Smith, was an [expletive].

GLINTON: Let's just say the future president called him a two-syllable word which starts with the letter A.

DREISBACH: This was reported in the local paper and confirmed to us by three people who were there. And just some more background on this lawyer, Milan Smith - he was really well-respected, so well-respected in fact that later he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

GLINTON: And that confirmation vote was unanimous. That court rules on some of the really important issues for the Trump administration. Earlier this year, they blocked President Trump's travel ban for several majority Muslim countries.

DREISBACH: By the way, we asked both the Trump Organization and the White House for comment on this story. Neither responded to our questions. Judge Milan Smith declined to comment.

GLINTON: Now, that incident put the people and the city on notice, but that fight with the school district was just the beginning.

MCEVERS: OK, so yeah, we're taking a left on a road called...

DREISBACH: Trump National Drive.

MCEVERS: Trump National Drive.

DREISBACH: So we drove out to the golf course with Kelly McEvers because when she's not hosting this show, she also hosts Embedded.

MCEVERS: You're looking out over this completely unobstructed, beautiful view of the ocean, and there is one thing that sticks up.

GLINTON: Oh, yeah. Look there.

DREISBACH: The American flag.

MCEVERS: A 70-foot flagpole.

GLINTON: That flagpole is the reason for another one of Donald Trump's fights with the city of Rancho Palos Verdes. It starts in 2006. And by now, Trump has repaired and renovated the golf course, and it's open to the public.

DREISBACH: And one day, essentially a flagpole just appears on the golf course.

GLINTON: And it's not one of those things where everybody in a city doesn't realize it's there - right? - 'cause as you can see from every view on this side of the hill that flagpole is fairly prominent.

DREISBACH: But there's a problem. Trump did not get a permit for that flagpole. And in Rancho Palos Verdes, people are very serious about their views of the ocean. That's because if you've got an unobstructed view, your property values are a lot higher. So the city tells Trump, you need a permit, or you need to take out your flagpole.

GLINTON: And Donald Trump says - he doesn't think you need a permit to put up the American flag. He writes in a letter to the city council, quote, "the American flag and all it stands for will not be taken down." In other words, forget your permits. This is about patriotism.

DREISBACH: And this tactic actually starts to work. Some people are like, well, we can't take down the American flag. It's the American flag. Other people are like, no, Donald Trump has to follow the rules.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you, your honor. We're now moving on to...

DREISBACH: By the time it gets the city council, people are pretty upset.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Item number 10 is proposed solution to the unpermitted Trump flagpole and flag at Trump National...

DREISBACH: First you'll hear Tom Long, and then you'll hear Steve Wolowitz. He's the second former city councilman who helps us tell this story. They both say they've gotten tons of angry letters from people.


LONG: At one end of the spectrum - someone telling me that how dare I even consider voting to take down the flag. And if I did do so, I should be taken out the next morning and shot.

STEVE WOLOWITZ: Then there was a very long letter that this is a litmus test of our own patriotism. It reminded me of shades of McCarthyism because we wouldn't pass this writer's test.

GLINTON: Now, that second city councilman, Steve Wolowitz, says at one point, he thought the whole fight was just an attention grab for Trump's new golf course.


WOLOWITZ: Now, I have to offer congratulations to all of us for providing the very type of publicity that a real estate developer seeks.

GLINTON: In the end, the council votes.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Councilman Gardiner...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Councilman Clark...


GLINTON: The flagpole stays.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The motion passes.

GLINTON: Trump gets his way, and Steve Wolowitz is left on the losing side. Now, that all happened in 2006, but Wolowitz still thinks about it.

WOLOWITZ: And to this day, people will stop me in the community, and they'll say, weren't you the guy who voted against the flag? And I'd take the time to explain to people that local laws, state laws and federal laws are there to protect us, and I can't ignore those.

DREISBACH: Steve Wolowitz lived in Rancho Palos Verdes for four decades. He's been a Republican his entire life. He's worked with just about every community organization you can think of from the Chamber of Commerce to the Rotary. And for all eight years he served on the city council, he also dealt with Donald Trump.

GLINTON: He was there when Donald Trump insulted the school district's lawyer, there for the flagpole. And he was around for the other fights Trump had with the city, like the hundred-million-dollar lawsuit Trump filed. So he got to know Donald Trump long before the presidential campaign. And we wanted to know what Steve Wolowitz thought on Election Day.

WOLOWITZ: Some of my friends and colleagues would hear and see everything I heard and saw, and they still supported him. I didn't. That's from - coming from a lifelong Republican, by the way.

GLINTON: But I wonder. As a lifelong Republican, as someone who - in this community for 40 years, how does that make you feel?

WOLOWITZ: I feel sad.

DREISBACH: In 2008, this city voted for John McCain. In 2012, they voted for Mitt Romney. Then in 2016, they had Donald Trump on the ballot, a man they knew. And they voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. I'm Tom Dreisbach.

GLINTON: I'm Sonari Glinton. NPR News.


Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.