Ward: What did Trump want with a USFL team in the first place?
Pearlman: The only reason he bought a USFL team was to get in the NFL — there’s no debate about that. He tried buying the Baltimore Colts, but it didn’t work, but he made it very clear that he wanted a team in the NFL. To him, the NFL was old money. It was all-American, kind of dynastic families. Trump really wanted that, and they had no interest in him … Not that long after he bought the Generals, he had a secret meeting with the commissioner of the NFL, Pete Rozelle, where he basically said, “I’ll throw the USFL under the bus if it gets me an NFL franchise,” and Rozelle said, “There’s no chance I will ever give you an NFL franchise.”
So he saw the USFL as a vehicle to wedge his way in. That’s really what it was. He never gave two shits about the USFL as a league. He showed no interest in its growth or potential. He just saw it as a way [into the NFL] — “You don’t want me in the NFL here. I’m gonna find another way to do this.”
Ward: How did he ultimately try to make the jump from the USFL to the NFL?
Pearlman: The USFL sued the NFL, and the whole league came down to a lawsuit. The lawsuit was led by Trump and Roy Cohn — the infamous Roy Cohn — who hatched a plan to sue the NFL in an antitrust lawsuit, claiming that the NFL had a monopoly on TV in the fall, that it was deliberate, and that it gave the USFL no competitive chance. If the USFL won this lawsuit — and it was for an insane amount of money — the idea was the NFL would have to settle and would probably have to merge [with the USFL].
But the lawsuit was a disaster. I interviewed one of the jurors in the case, and she said that Trump made it all about himself. He testified repeatedly, and he was nothing short of abhorrent and disgusting and unlikable. And when the jury came back, they said, “You guys are right: the NFL has a monopoly, the NFL has [control of] TV, the NFL was trying to kill the USFL. But you guys have fucked up your own league so badly that we’re not giving you any money.” So the USFL ended up winning one dollar, which was tripled to three dollars as an antitrust suit. So they lost the lawsuit, and Trump washed his hands of it. He later called it “small potatoes,” and he moved on.