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Donald Trump was always a con man, and that includes his time in the USFL

The truth was, in his arrogance, Trump unwittingly had followed a secret blueprint the NFL owners had developed, showing the way the USFL could be destroyed.

Donald Trump and Herschel Walker
In this March 8, 1984, file photo, New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump, left, shakes hands with Herschel Walker in New York after Walker agreed to a 4-year contract with the USFL football team. A spring football league, done the right way, could work. The United States Football League came up with the most feasible concept back in the 1980s, only to crumble after just three seasons.
Dave Pickoff/AP

I knew Donald Trump was a con man long before most people.

To begin with, I spent a good part of 1973-75 in New York City as a novice writer, and I occasionally would read in the papers there about this young, big-talking, real-estate developer running his rich family’s Trump Organization.

New York City was almost bankrupt back then. In fact, President Gerald Ford saved it from default in 1975 by reluctantly approving a massive federal stay-afloat loan. Still, this brash Trump guy was betting big on its future, especially if he got deals on the cheap.

And he seemed to be saying the things city fathers wanted to hear: ‘‘I can do the best, build the best, make everything great!’’

Flash forward to 1986.

Now I was talking with mogul Trump, who was also the owner of the U.S. Football League’s New Jersey Generals. I was working on a magazine piece on the team’s star quarterback, Jim Kelly.

The USFL, which had formed four years earlier to play only spring games, was in trouble. It basically had bet everything that an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL and a move to the fall would solve its money woes.

Funny thing is, the USFL actually had a chance in the spring, with no other live football to compete against. Playing in the fall, going head-to-head against the NFL, had been considered insane from the start.

Guess who almost singlehandedly talked the USFL owners to go against sanity? Trump. He secretly wanted his Generals team to get absorbed into the NFL and screw all the rest.

But he made it sound as though the move and lawsuit would be best for all.

‘‘The case is almost foolproof, 100% for us,’’ he had said after the USFL’s winter meetings in 1986. ‘‘We’re going to get a great victory.’’

He kept telling me how terrific his team and, yes, the league were.

‘‘We have teams that would beat most NFL teams,’’ he said.

Teams such as the Memphis Showboats and Orlando Renegades, presumably.

And if the USFL won its antitrust suit against the NFL?

‘‘We will have more money than they do!’’ he crowed.

Somehow, he conned the majority of the USFL owners to go with what they knew was wrong. That’s how irresistible his pitch was.

The truth was, in his arrogance, Trump unwittingly had followed a secret blueprint the NFL owners had developed, showing the way the USFL could be destroyed.

‘‘It was a hard thing to watch unfold,’’ then-Generals executive and Trump partner Dr. Jerry Argovitz said. ‘‘Everyone let Donald Trump take over. It was our death.’’

Sure was. The USFL won the suit — and was awarded $1. Because of antitrust laws, the amount was trebled to $3. Yup, Trump won.

A juror in the trial later would say of Trump on the stand: ‘‘The so-called business genius ruined it for them. He was not believable in anything he said.’’

Later that summer, I was walking with Bears chairman Michael McCaskey on a sunny day in Lake Forest. The Bears had won the Super Bowl in January, and life was good.

Trump wanted a team in the NFL, I mentioned. What did the grandson of George Halas think of that?

McCaskey, who died last spring, was quite refined and proper. But he cleared his throat, hocked and spat a loogie in the grass. That’s what he thought.

I bring all this up because Trump has done more damage as president of the United States than any president in modern history (and, yes, I was alive for Richard Nixon). And he will be gone from office in less than 36 hours. I have held my writer’s tongue for four years. No more.

Yes, I write about sports. But the subjects of sports and democracy coalesce.

The man who has lied all his adult life; who cheered on the violent assault on our nation’s Capitol; who has cheated at most everything he ever has done, including golf, taxes, contracts and marriage; who boasts and preens like a dictator and would bring down our democracy rather than admit he lost an election — this man has done incalculable harm to our republic.

Trump said former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was a danger for kneeling silently. He has destroyed trust in facts. He said my profession, the free press, is ‘‘the enemy of the people.’’

Not anymore, Don. Nope. You yourself are the enemy of the people.

Own it, con man.