As Trump tried to buy Buffalo Bills, bankers doubted he'd get NFL's OK, emails show at fraud trial

NEW YORK (AP) — When Donald Trump tried to buy the Buffalo Bills in 2014, investment bankers doubted the NFL would allow it but encouraged him to stay in the running, according to internal emails aired Tuesday at the former president's civil fraud trial.

“Trump has little chance of being approved by the NFL," given that he had owned casinos and had a role in the rival USFL's 1980s antitrust suit against the NFL, then-Morgan Stanley executive K. Don Cornwell wrote to colleagues in April 2014. “That being said, his strong show of support doesn’t hurt the process.”

“He probably does have the dough" and claimed he'd been courting the NFL, another Morgan Stanley banker, Jeffrey Holzschuh, wrote back, adding: “but never know the real facts with him.”

Three months later, Trump offered $1 billion cash for the Bills, becoming one of three known finalists seeking to buy the team after the death of founder and Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson. The owners of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, Terry and Kim Pegula, ultimately bought the Bills for $1.4 billion. A group led by rock star Jon Bon Jovi had also been interested in acquiring the team.

A decade later, Trump's failed Bills bid is one of the business moves under scrutiny in the trial of a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James. She accuses the ex-president and current Republican 2024 front-runner of deceiving banks, insurers and others by giving them financial statements that massively inflated the values of his assets.

Trump denies any wrongdoing and says his annual “statements of financial condition” actually lowballed his wealth. He casts the lawsuit as part of an effort by James and other Democrats to choke his campaign.

Trump owned the USFL’s New Jersey Generals and led the upstart league to sue the NFL in the mid-1980s, alleging its established rivals had monopolized professional football. The USFL achieved a Pyrrhic victory, with a jury awarding just $1 in damages — multiplied to $3 via court rules and totaling $3.76 with interest once upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The USFL, which had sought $1.3 billion, folded shortly after.

Trump testified in the antitrust case that then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle floated the idea that Trump could own an NFL franchise and urged him not to sue. Trump said Rozelle also unsuccessfully urged him to abandon plans to switch the USFL's season from spring to fall. The schedule change, which Trump spearheaded, pitted the USFL against the NFL and was widely blamed for the newer league's demise.

In offering to buy the Bills, Trump cited his net worth as over $8 billion in an initial offer letter but never provided his financial statements. His then-lawyer Michael Cohen told the bankers that Trump wouldn't release his financial records until told he was “the final bidder,” according to an email shown in court Tuesday.

Instead, at a presentation to the bankers, Trump handed out copies of one of Forbes magazine's lists of wealthy celebrities, Cornwell testified. Trump was the star of NBC’s “The Apprentice” at the time.

Throughout the sale process, Cohen insisted Trump was serious about his bid and his commitment to keeping the Bills in Buffalo. Cohen disputed reports that Trump didn’t have the financial resources to pull off the deal, claiming his then-boss was worth billions of dollars and pointing to his many properties as proof.

“There’s nobody more serious than Donald Trump,” Cohen said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2014.

Once the bids were being formally submitted, Cohen conceded to the AP that Trump’s bid was not going to win. Cohen said the businessman wasn’t interested in paying more than market value for the Bills, a team that had an estimated worth of $870 million but was projected to sell for up to $1.2 billion.

In the early going in May 2014, some Morgan Stanley bankers and an NFL official met to talk about dozens of possible Bills buyers, according to an email shown in court Tuesday.

When it came to Trump, the upshot of the conversation was: “question his liquidity and ability to get votes” from other team owners in an approval vote, according to the email. It also said the league would want to examine management contracts for any Trump-branded casinos, to see whether he had any influence, even if not ownership.

Two months later, Trump hadn't provided his financial documents, and his bid wasn't the highest. Still, the bankers prepared talking points that told him his bid was below several others, but “you could prevail if during the diligence process you can move up in value.”

Separately, Cornwell wrote to colleagues in August 2014 that they “still want to keep him around” and said that Trump had asked to be “pre-vetted” privately, so the bank would do so.

“Well… he will stay in process,” Holzschuh wrote to Cornwell a week later, adding that Trump “is very sensitive about his rep” and didn't want to spend money on the process if the price was going to be too high. But, Holzschuh added, “I encouraged him to put his best offer forward and let the process work.”

Cornwell testified that since the sale was an open process, the bankers “had to talk to all interested parties.”

But Trump lawyer Christopher Kise suggested the bank essentially strung the businessman along, saying: “They never considered him a serious bidder. They took him in to use his name to bid up the price."

Trump told the AP in 2016 that had he been able to buy the Bills, it’s unlikely that he would've run for president.

“If I bought that team, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing," he said.


Associated Press reporter John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.