In the spring and summer of 1991, a handful of state watchdogs in Atlantic City, New Jersey, considered whether to put an end to Donald Trump.

The members of the Casino Control Commission, in a series of hearings in the Arcade Building on the corner of Tennessee Avenue and Boardwalk, had to determine whether or not Trump was sufficiently “financially stable” to merit renewals of his licenses to own and operate his three casinos in the perpetually ground-down regional gaming capital. The stakes hardly could have been higher.

Trump was in his mid-40s and only four years earlier had published the pure brand boost of The Art of the Deal, but now he was in trouble. He needed the licenses to keep his casinos open to have any shot at staving off personal bankruptcy and potentially permanent reputational stain. No licenses would have meant no casinos would have meant less collateral for the banks as Trump tried to dig out from under billions of dollars of debt. And the regulators had overwhelming reason to question his financial stature and overall fitness to continue. In addition to Trump’s dismal individual straits, the cash flow at his debt-riddled casinos wasn’t enough to make them profitable as the industry sagged in the throes of a recession. Trump’s “financial viability,” Steven P. Perskie, the chairman of the commission, stated at a meeting in May, “is in serious peril.” He and his fellow commissioners had a choice to make: renew Trump’s licenses and hope his bottom line improved—or strip him of them and risk delivering a debilitating blow to Atlantic City’s wheezing economy.