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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump vs. Veteran Vendors

An ad from a pro-Marco Rubio super PAC claims Donald Trump “bans disabled veterans from his high rise.” But the ad may leave a misleading impression.

Trump has not banned veterans from Trump Tower in New York City, but rather, he lobbied local politicians to ban street vendors — including those with special disabled veteran’s licenses — from operating on Fifth Avenue, where Trump Tower is located.

The ad from Conservative Solutions PAC is running in Florida — which is Rubio’s home state, but where he trails Trump in the polls. The Real Clear Politics average of polls showed Trump leading Rubio by nearly 20 percentage points on Feb. 26, the day the ad debuted. The Florida primary will be held on March 15, and it is shaping up as a key battle in the Republican race.

The ad begins with Trump declaring, “I love the poorly educated,” a line that even the most casual political observer could have predicted would end up in an attack ad.

The narrator goes on to say that Trump “bans disabled veterans from his high rise.” The ad shows a picture of Trump Tower, with a tear sheet from the Daily Beast with the headline “Donald Trump Wanted Vets Kicked Off Fifth Avenue.”

Viewers may be left with the impression that Trump has banned disabled veterans from his building, or perhaps that it was built in a way that makes the building inhospitable to them. That’s not what happened.

Update, March 8, 2016: The ad has since been amended, and the narrator now says, “He [Trump] bans veterans from in front of his high rise.” (emphasis is ours).

Rather, though it doesn’t say so, the ad is referring to Trump’s involvement in decades-long tension between street vendors and the operators of tony businesses along New York’s Fifth Avenue. At issue is a statute that dates back to 1894 providing peddling exceptions for disabled veterans of the Civil War. According to the New York Times, “It provided for unrestricted peddling privileges for disabled veterans on any commercial street or in any park anywhere in the state.”

But in the early 1990s, store owners began to complain that a growing number of vendors were clogging the sidewalks in front of their businesses, sometimes selling knockoffs of the very items sold in their stores, and generally, as the Times put it at the time, “detract[ing] from the allure and cachet of one of the most famous shopping streets in the world.”

One of the owners complaining about vendors was Trump.

Trump finished construction on the 68-story Trump Tower, a retail and luxury condominium building, in 1984. The Daily News reported that several years later in 1991, Trump wrote a letter to John Dearie, then-chairman of the state Assembly Committee on Cities, advocating that the city ban vendors on Fifth Avenue, including veterans.

“While disabled veterans should be given every opportunity to earn a living, is it fair to do so to the detriment of the city as a whole or its tax paying citizens and businesses?” Trump wrote in the letter. “Do we allow Fifth Ave., one of the world’s finest and most luxurious shopping districts, to be turned into an outdoor flea market, clogging and seriously downgrading the area?”

The dispute was settled with a deal that restricted the number of veteran vendors allowed in midtown Manhattan and prohibited vendors on some of the most high-traffic streets, including Fifth Avenue. In exchange, the Fifth Avenue Association contributed $400,000 to veterans’ programs and agreed to offer jobs to local veterans holding a peddler’s license at that time.

The issue arose again in 2004 when the regulations came up for renewal, and Trump continued his appeal, this time to then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“Whether they are veterans or not, [the vendors] should not be allowed to sell on this most important and prestigious shopping street,” Trump wrote to Bloomberg, the Daily Beast reported. “The image of New York City will suffer. … I hope you can stop this very deplorable situation before it is too late.”

The Daily Beast notes that “[p]eddlers were largely banned from Fifth Avenue, but they continued to sell their wares on the side streets.” The story includes a photo of a row of planters installed in front of Trump Tower to discourage vendors from setting up shop outside his building.

Some may take issue with Trump’s opposition to street vendors — including disabled veterans — on Fifth Avenue. In fact, the New York Times published an opinion piece by sociologist Mitchell Duneier on Jan. 4, 2004, arguing to “Let New York’s Veterans Vend.”

Mitchell Duneier, Jan. 4, 2004: No one is arguing to protect the scores of unlicensed vendors who sell counterfeit goods. But cracking down on them should not come at the cost of stripping away the longstanding right of disabled veterans to make a living.

We take no position on that, of course, but the ad summarizes the entire issue by saying Trump “bans disabled veterans from his high rise,” leaving out crucial details and presenting an incomplete — and misleading — account of what this issue is all about.