WASHINGTON — Billionaire Las Vegas casino owner Phil Ruffin has never been to the White House. On Thursday, he'll have dinner there with his friend, Donald Trump.
"It's a lonely job, and I have been friends with him for a long time. It'll be nice to catch up," Ruffin said.
Trump has had a rough few weeks, with fellow Republicans dooming a White House-backed health care plan, questions persisting about possible ties between his campaign and Russian interference in the election, and distracting feuds among some of his senior officials.
In short: This president could probably use a friend.
Trump is living alone in the White House while his wife stays in New York where their son is in school. And he's a newcomer to Washington with few close allies, even within his party, and an especially small social circle.
Few know Trump as well, or in as many capacities, as Ruffin, who described their friendship in two recent interviews with The Associated Press. They're business partners and social friends who enjoy talking about corporate jets and golf games and business deals their acquaintances have made — the usual billionaire stuff, Ruffin said.
"He's somebody who wants everybody's opinion. He'll summon people over and say, 'What do you think about this? What do you think about that?'" Ruffin told AP at Treasure Island, his casino. "Then he compiles it all in his mind and makes his own decision."
Both are prone to superlatives. Ruffin calls Trump "brilliant" with "unparalleled business acumen." Scrawled in gold on a photo of the pair aboard a corporate jet is a note from Trump to Ruffin: "You are the greatest."
The two met when Ruffin travelled to Trump Tower in the early 2000s when he was thinking of adding a Trump-branded hotel to his Treasure Island casino on the Las Vegas Strip. That deal never worked out, but they stayed in touch.
One night in Las Vegas, after dinner, Ruffin took Trump to a Nordstrom parking lot to show him a parcel of undeveloped land. "I said, 'This is where you ought to be,'" Ruffin recalled. "And he instantly made a decision."
Trump International Hotel Las Vegas opened in 2008 — timing that put Ruffin and Trump in the business of selling condos as the recession took hold.
One course of action would have been to declare bankruptcy, but Ruffin said Trump decided to "tough it out."
"Donald's words were, 'This is not New Jersey, this is not Atlantic City, this is Vegas, and it will recover," Ruffin said. "And it did." They haven't sold more than 300 units, though.
Ruffin also owns a 4-acre parcel next to the Trump building and says he'd like to develop it "at some point" with the Trump Organization.
Forbes Magazine has reported that Ruffin wants to open a casino on the site, but Ruffin says he's yet to discuss any plans with the Trump Organization's leaders, now Eric and Donald Trump Jr. and Allen Weisselberg.
Another idea for the land is to dust off the pre-recession plan of building a second residential tower, although Ruffin says that's probably not the best way to make money there.
During their business dealings, Ruffin and Trump developed a friendship. Ruffin, now 82, and Trump, 70, were single together. "He would approve my girlfriends at the time," Ruffin said.
Their wives — Eastern European immigrants decades younger than themselves — are close, trading parenting tips by text message, Ruffin said. They've been on double dates, including one in Florida to see the movie "Lincoln," Ruffin said.
Trump, in fact, was Ruffin's best man when he married Oleksandra Nikolayenko in 2008 — at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort. Trump paid for the guests' accommodations as his wedding present, Ruffin said, though he drew the line at footing the bill for their hired entertainer, Lionel Ritchie.
Nikolayenko will travel with Ruffin to the White House, though Melania Trump isn't expected to join them for dinner.
Beginning in the summer of 2015, the two men's friendship took an interesting twist when Trump said he was running for president. Ruffin wondered if it was the right move, but he said whatever doubts he had were erased by his time on the campaign trail with Trump.
Ruffin said he saw a "fanatic" interest among Trump supporters. At one campaign stop in Las Vegas days before the election, Trump pointed to Ruffin and called him "one of the great, great people."
Ruffin said his upcoming overnight trip to Washington is purely a social call. The two have not seen each other since inaugural weekend, when Ruffin and a handful of other top Trump supporters had prime access to the swearing-in ceremony on the Capitol steps.
While Ruffin says he shelled out $18,000 a night to stay at Trump's Washington hotel during the inauguration, his accommodations this time will be free: He'll be at the White House.
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Julie Bykowicz, The Associated Press