Kempner: Trump’s ‘wonderful guy’ in Georgia wrestled with vote

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Frank Argenbright, who Donald Trump once described as "a wonderful guy" in the book "The Art of the Deal," faced a bit of conundrum this election.

To Trump or not to Trump.

Argenbright built sizable Atlanta-based security, passenger screening and airport services companies from scratch. Real scratch; not daddy's-money-and-backing scratch.

He grew up in a speck of a Florida town, got cruddy grades in school and pursued a job administering polygraph tests, often on potential job hires. Screening people turned out to be a big jumping off point for him.

In business, as in presidential politics, everyone worries about whether they’re going to get stuck with a bad apple.

Argenbright’s connection with Trump was short-lived and mostly in the distant past. But it influenced his decision on who to vote for.

In the late 1980s, during the farm crisis, Argenbright got involved in helping Annabel Hill, whose husband killed himself in hopes that his wife could use the life insurance payout to keep their Burke County farm. The life insurance money never materialized.

The story reached all the way to Manhattan, where Trump’s then-wife Ivana urged him to call Argenbright to offer assistance.

A hotel freebie

As Argenbright recalls it, Trump invited Hill and her family up to meet him and put them up in his hotel for free. He ended up giving lots of his time to the cause and helped capture media attention to raise contributions from others. It's an episode recounted some during the latest campaign season, including by my colleague Jim Galloway.

“He didn’t commit a lot of money,” Argenbright said. “He was upfront in the beginning: ‘I will help you save your farm, but I’m not just going to write a check and pay off the farm.’”

If he had, Argenbright said, everyone would have been clamoring for him to do that for them as well.

“It was fascinating to watch how he operated,” Argenbright recalled.

Trump, apparently a billionaire by that time, focused on details behind a press event organized to symbolically burn Hill’s mortgage after it had been paid off. He made sure to have a fountain in Trump Tower turned off so it wouldn’t drown out voices during the event. He had paper tested to see if it would burn with sufficient vigor for the cameras. He had three lighters tried to make sure they’d work on cue.

Argenbright’s company later landed contracts to provide security at two or three small Trump buildings as well as at the Trump Shuttle airline. Unfortunately, the airline went belly up a short time later.

While Trump was lambasted on the campaign trail for stiffing many of his contractors, Argenbright said his company was paid in full.

Trump “was as nice as he could be,” Argenbright said. “He was fair and tough.”

Dove hunting in Argentina

After the election, I called Argenbright, who now leads a company called SecurAmerica. He called me back while on a dove hunting trip with clients in Argentina.

He told me he had seen coverage of “awful” stuff from Trump (and Clinton) on the campaign trail. Argenbright told me he was “ashamed” for Trump.

“The majority of my employees are minorities and first-time immigrants,” Argenbright said. He gets, he said, why they wouldn’t vote Trump.

For both Trump and Clinton, he wondered, “could there be a broken moral compass there?”

(Argenbright has been raked over the coals himself. He faced criticism that one of his former companies, Argenbright Security, wasn't rigorous enough in screening airport passengers prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He had sold the business months before the attack.)

In the end, Argenbright voted Trump.

“I thought his attention to detail and his business savvy would be better for America going forward, whether you like him or not.”

Trump got through Argenbright and America’s screening process. We’ll see if he turns out to be a good hire.