Days before Chief Jim Billie of the Seminole Tribe of Florida captured a particularly ferocious alligator in March of 1996, he got a visit from Donald Trump
Trump's trip came just as the U.S. Supreme Court was set to rule in a landmark case that would pave the way for casinos on reservations across the country
Donald Trump has made a reputation for himself as a ruthless negotiator in business and as a no-holds-barred candidate on the presidential campaign trail.
But cloaked in the murky waters of a swamp on this Native American reservation, a killer alligator is giving the billionaire a run for his money as the most cutthroat Donald Trump.
Days before Chief Jim Billie of the Seminole Tribe of Florida captured a particularly ferocious alligator in March of 1996, he got a visit from the brash billionaire, who at the time was exploring a potential partnership with the Seminoles to develop casinos in Florida.
Trump never did land his Florida casinos but – unknowingly – he did become the namesake of the nearly 800-pound, 13-foot-long alligator distinguished for his vicious, cannibalistic nature.
“We put him in with a bunch of other alligators and immediately he started beating (them up) – I guess you would call it territorial dominance. He started killing the other alligators almost as big as he is and then next couple days we come by, he had one down his throat. He was swallowing it,” Billie recalled. “He was eating it.”
Billie first named the alligator after the billionaire as a way of honoring his new acquaintance, but he soon saw the name as the perfect match for the gator’s temperament.
Standing just outside the pen where Trump – deemed too dangerous to live alongside other gators – now lives in isolation, Billie compared him to the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
“Donald Trump, I seen him the other day and he kinda reminded me of the alligator. He’s very aggressive and those people better look out because he might chew ‘em and spit ‘em out,” said Billie, who wrestled alligators for most of his life – at first to earn money and then just for fun – until he lost a finger in an alligator’s mouth 13 years ago at the age of 58.
A casino magnate comes to town
Billie’s first acquaintance with Trump the man came when the casino magnate swooped onto the Big Cypress Reservation and headed for the Billie Swamp Safari, a modest safari park featuring alligators and other wildlife.
Trump only stayed for the day, but the visit – which involved Billie jumping into the alligator pit to wrangle some alligators for show – marked the beginning of Trump’s courtship of Billie and the Seminole Tribe.
Trump’s trip came just as the U.S. Supreme Court was set to rule in favor of Billie’s tribe in a landmark case that would pave the way for casino gambling on Native American reservations across the country.
Though well-documented, Trump has sought to deny his efforts to establish a foothold for his casino empire in Florida. It reached a fruitless and definitive end when Jeb Bush, now a rival for the GOP presidential nomination, won election to the Florida governorship in 1998 and opposed relaxing restrictions on gambling.
“The one guy that had some special interest that I know of that tried to get me to change my views on something, that was generous and gave me money, was Donald Trump. He wanted casino gambling in Florida,” Bush said during the CNN Republican presidential debate in September.
“Totally false,” Trump retorted. “I promise, if I wanted it, I would’ve gotten it.”
Billie said that while Trump never discussed the specifics of a potential joint casino venture, the casino magnate made his interest clear to him.
Trump put time and effort into his courtship of the Seminole chief. Beyond his visit to Florida, Trump invited Billie to put on an alligator-wrestling show at his luxurious Mar-a-Lago estate and flew Billie out for all-expense-paid trips to New York and Atlantic City.
The Trump campaign declined to respond to multiple requests for comment.
A ‘surreal’ experience
The whole experience was “surreal” for Billie, an unpretentious man who started wrestling alligators as a child to snag “nickels and dimes” from tourists.
Still in his wrestling clothes, Billie was one day whisked away by helicopter to a Trump-lettered jet that took him to New York City. On the jet, he found the caviar and lobster he had jokingly told his secretary to request for his trip aboard Trump’s jet – a trip Billie didn’t actually believe would happen.
“I thought it was a joke, but I went ahead with it,” Billie recalled. “That was the first time in my life that somebody gave me a call and said something like, ‘We’ll have the airplane waiting for you’ – and I’m over there putting mud in the alligator pit.”
But the in-your-face reality TV persona that Trump has forged over his years in the public eye didn’t rear its head during the trip, according to Billie.
While Billie remembered Trump’s lavish digs at Trump Tower on 5th Avenue in New York – “It looked like one of them Roman cathedrals” – Billie said Trump treated him as though the two were on a level playing field and didn’t gloat about his wealth.
But Billie did see the side of Trump that has been a key part of his success on the campaign trail: his straightforward nature.
“I don’t remember him trying to bulls–t me on nothing. He’ll tell you like it is. If you’re ugly, he’ll tell you you’re ugly,” Billie said, adding that while he doesn’t wade into politics outside of his tribe, he thinks Trump could make a good president.
And he did his research.
“He gave me some advice on some things, and you could tell that he gets totally informed before he’s there,” Billie said.
But while Billie said he and Trump spoke on the phone several times after each had visited the other’s home turf, the pair never got the chance to do business together because Trump’s gaming company operated licensed casinos in New Jersey, where laws prohibited Trump from doing business with unlicensed gambling operators such as Billie and the Seminole Tribe.
By the time Democrat Charlie Crist was elected to succeed Bush and the tribe was able to enter gaming, Billie was already plowing ahead with a partnership with Hard Rock and a former Trump associate, Richard Fields.
While Trump has since rejected the notion that he was trying to develop casinos in Florida, Trump sued Fields in 2004, alleging that the former associate stole his idea for developing casinos in Florida on Seminole land.
It’s that kind of brashness that has earned Trump his reputation as a hard-nosed businessman.
And Billie, who’s known both Trump the man and the alligator, gets it.
“I understand that bull gator, so I can understand the real man about the same way,” Billie said.