Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

John Menard vs. Donald Trump

Their friendship and later feud gets titillating coverage from Indianapolis Monthly.

By - May 26th, 2016 12:47 pm
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Donald Trump. Image from campaign website.

Donald Trump. Image from campaign website.

“Money! Power! Sex! Trumps!”

Yes, the story of the falling out between Wisconsin retail-chain owner John Menard and Indianapolis businessman Steve Hilbert is catnip for a city magazine like Indianapolis Monthly, as this blaring lead-in to its recent feature makes clear. Never mind that much of what it has reported pulls information from a legal suit back in 2013, which was covered in our story, “The Strange Life of John Menard.”

Still, the section of the story tracing the connection between Menard and Trump has become far more timely now that The Donald is the presumptive Republican nominee for president and Indy Monthly and writer Evan West do their best to find any titillating details.

Menard got to know Trump through Hilbert, who had known Trump since 1998. Hilbert had become “fabulously wealthy,” as West reports, building a multibillion-dollar insurance and financial company in Carmel, Indiana. “In 1998… Trump, itching to buy Manhattan’s iconic General Motors Building but short on capital, saw in Hilbert a high-flying entrepreneur piloting a company on a buying binge. So Trump called Hilbert, and Conseco partnered with The Donald to acquire the property for more than $800 million.”

Years later, after Hilbert and Menard became business partners, they socialized together with Hilbert’s wife Tomisue and Menard’s then-fiance Deb Sands at their home in St. Martin and at Trump’s estate in Palm Beach, FL. Hilberts’ home in St. Martin, Le Chateau Des Palmiers, West writes, was described in one real-estate listing, as a world-class estate “that ‘embraced the spirit of the Caribbean with the elegance of a fine French hotel.’ Anna Nicole Smith and an E! network crew reportedly camped out there in 2004, and the guest list has included not only NBA stars, the ad boasts, but also ‘some of the world’s most powerful people, including Donald Trump… and of course, many Hollywood celebrities.’”

In those cozy times involving the three couples, Trump joined Menard in donating to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, the conservative dark money group that spent millions of dollars to help GOP Gov. Scott Walker and Republican state senators win their 2011 and 2012 recall elections. Menard gave $1.5 million and The Donald gave just $10,000 to Walker, the man he would not only defeat in the 2016 GOP presidential primary, but then rub salt in the wound, declaring “We sent him packing like a little boy.”

After the coziness between Menard and Hilbert ended, Menard would be accused by Tomisue Hilbert of groping and sexually harassing her, in one of the many suits and counter-suits by Menard and Hilbert. Tomisue, we learn from West, was 25 years younger than Steve Hilbert, and had met him after jumping out of a birthday cake at a party he attended.

Trump’s wife Melania Trump got caught in the cross-fire after Menard and Hilbert had a falling out over MH Equity Private Equity, a company the two had created. Melania Trump had worked closely with New Sunshine, a holding company created by Private Equity to market a line of high-end luxury skin products. Melania appeared on television promoting the product line, which was supposed to be sold in Lord & Taylor stores.

But in February 2013, Menard succeeded in convincing a Wisconsin court to oust Hilbert and turn the equity fund over to him. Menard then sent a letter to the Trump Organization canceling the contract with New Sunshine. Melania Trump in turn filed a $50 million claim for damages against Menard.

Naturally, this meant Donald had to start tweeting nasty things about Menard, like this riposte: “John Menard of Menards home improvement stores in Midwest treats employees horribly — should they form a union?”

Trump also helped out Hilbert, who needed money to pay for his legal battles with Menard, by buying Le Chateau Des Palmiers, which was listed for sale at $19.7 million.

West describes Melania Trump arriving for her last day of testimony in November 2013 for her suit against Menard. “She appeared to be dressed for a funeral, and, in a way, she was… Melania Trump descended a granite staircase in black stilettos, black overcoat, and black sunglasses. Behind her, a solemn procession of dour-faced briefcase carriers.” The trial “was also a kind of memorial for a friendship that had died a painful, spectacular death,” that being the Trumps relationship with good old John Menard. That may be overstating the importance of the friendship.

Melania would win the day, as a federal judge in Indianapolis “ruled that the supermodel and businesswoman had a valid contract to develop, market and sell skin-care products” and “can proceed with an arbitration hearing in New York where she is seeking up to $50 million in financial damages from Menard-run companies associated with the deal,” as the Indy Star reported at the time.

At that point the dispute disappeared from the media, the anti-Menard comments by Trump ended and whatever agreement was worked out by the lawyers for Menard and the Trumps has never been reported. But what about that skin-care company; did Melania use her settlement money to turn it into a success?

The idea behind the company was to market a line of high-end creams, lotions, toners, peels and other skin-care products with the Trump name on them, albeit with the first name of Melania. That included a series of $150 caviar-infused anti-aging creams. “It’s the Cristal of the face cream,” the New York Daily News raved at the time. Melania Trump claimed she doused her seven-year-old son Barron “from head to toe” in the cream “made from real caviar that’s harvested from sturgeon farms in the south of France,” the Daily News reported. “It smells like exotic flowers and costs $150 an ounce.”

Alas, the idea apparently wasn’t a great success, and by the time The Donald was running for president, The Daily Beast delighted in noting that “Melania Trump’s Luxe Moisture with Caviar Complexe C6™” is half-off at Lord and Taylor. The story grouped Melania’s failure with The Donald’s many business fiascos, including Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, and Trump’s Atlantic City casinos.

Not to be outdone, Racked.com ran a story that quoted Donald Trump’s many comments analyzing the skin quality of various female celebrities (all — surprise! — fell short in some way of his exacting standards) and juxtaposed this with the failure of Melania’s skin-care line. And the coup de grace?” “A Lord & Taylor rep tells Racked that the department store hasn’t done business with the Melania Beauty brand for more than two years.”

All of which leaves just one question: will Menard vote for Trump for president?

6 thoughts on “Back in the News: John Menard vs. Donald Trump”

  1. Casey says:

    “Hilbert had been become ” Just proof reading for the good people at UM.

  2. K2 says:

    Conseco is the name of Hilbert’s company,

  3. Bill Kissinger says:

    The real question is when Melania’s products turn up in the impulse buy zone at Menard’s checkiout?

  4. ARTHUR HACKETT says:

    I can only quote Sam the Lion, a character in The Last Picture Show written by fellow Texan Larry McMurtry. After learning of what can only be called a despicable act, Ben Johnson, as Sam the Lion,, said “I’ve been around that kind of trashy behavior my whole life and I’m sick of it.”

  5. Kate Miller says:

    It also begs the question what kind of person douses a seven-year-old boy head to foot in caviar-infused face cream? My heart goes out to that poor kid. Yikes.

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