President Donald Trump arrived Friday evening at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, for his first working vacation as president—but he may not find much peace once he gets there.
Protesters are expected to march Saturday in opposition to Trump’s executive order on immigrant vetting, just as Trump heads to the annual International Red Cross Ball at Mar-a-Lago. The organization is scrambling to help refugees that the president has temporarily banned from entering the United States.
The protesters will be in West Palm Beach, across the water from Mar-a-Lago, but they’ll serve as tangible example of how life is changing for Trump as the controversies and limitations of occupying the White House.
Before he became president, Trump would vacation at Mar-a-Lago to clear his mind, play golf on the 17-acre grounds and enjoy the oceanfront view. At dinner, he would shoot the breeze with members and guests and act as backslapper in chief, often recommending his favorite item on the menu: “Donald Trump Meatloaf.”
“He talks to everyone and has the chitty-chatty talk. He just works the room, he walks around and talks to everyone,” said Bo Dietl, a longtime club member. “But this is before he was running for president … I don’t think he’ll be as accessible as he was.”
Indeed, Secret Service needs access to the president limited. When Trump is in, members and guests enter through a side parking lot. They’re questioned and screened for weapons by magnetometers. Cars are checked for bombs. Coast Guard Defender boats with mounted machine guns patrol the waters. Nearby airports are closed.
Before Trump landed at Palm Beach International Airport on Friday, Democrats demanded that Trump release a list of Mar-a-Lago’s membership, and questioned whether the members-only-club constitutes a conflict of interest for Trump. In an open letter to Trump, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) noted that club dues were reportedly doubled to about $200,000 a year soon after Trump was elected.
“Presumably demand for memberships has increased dramatically since you were elected President with the expectation that a membership at your Club will offer special access to you when you are there,” they wrote. “Indeed, as of today, the ‘Private Membership’ page on the Mar-a-Lago Club website still refers to it ‘Donald J. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club,’ and you are renowned as being a gracious, and present, host for all Club guests.”
But, while some members note that more people are coming to Mar-a-Lago, they point out that membership to island clubs are capped by Town of Palm Beach ordinance, that few open memberships were available this year, and the $200,000 membership is lower than other more exclusive Palm Beach clubs.
Also, members say, Mar-a-Lago is a bad place to lobby Trump.
“As far as contact with Trump there, you can get your photo and you can talk to him. You’re never really getting into any deep conversations. You’re never really bending his ear as president,” said one member who did not want to be identified as someone who talks to the press.
Said another: “It’s a mistake for anyone to think that they’re going to be able to make a deal w trump at Mar-a-Lago. Everyone knows that he doesn’t talk business there. He’s there to relax.”
Trump doesn’t relax the way most people would. He rarely stops moving. He doesn’t sit by the pool or stand by the tennis courts. He either stays in his private quarters where he likes to watch TV, golfs and chats up people about politics and even his Cabinet picks.
Some members said they’ve grown increasingly concerned about talking to reporters because they don’t want to raise suspicions with Trump’s political team. Aside from being a gracious host, they fear Trump’s vindictive streak. During the GOP presidential primary, for instance, Jeb Bush’s campaign found that members of Mar-a-Lago were scared to back the former governor publicly.
“We don’t want to lose our seats,” one longtime Bush supporter told a Bush campaign hand. “He could give us a bad table or stick us in the kitchen with the help.”
Mar-a-Lago is more than just a real-estate holding for Trump. He claimed he polished up his inaugural address at the Winter White House, the second president to do so on Palm Beach after John F. Kennedy. It stands as a tribute to his moxie as a dealmaker and it was a necessary acquisition for Trump to be a full-fledged member of New York high society, whose captains of industry and heirs to great fortunes winter on Palm Beach. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago battles are a key to understanding his style.
In his Art of the Deal best seller, Trump bragged about how he acquired the historic property – completed in 1927 by Post cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post – for less than he initially offered. In all, he paid about $7 million for the property in 1985 and about $3 million more for the furniture. Trump then got in a tussle with the Palm Beach County tax assessor over the taxable value of the land and he squabbled with the town of Palm Beach as he turned the mansion into a club that accepted any paying member – a shock to the segregated island where Jews for years were confined to just one club and even President Kennedy’s family caused a stir years ago at another because they were Catholics.
“Palm Beach is very WASP and back then it was even worse,” said one former Republican official from the area who has been a frequent guest of Trump’s in the past. “The problem with Donald in their eyes is he’s a boor, nouveau riche. He’s Vegas, Jersey, Outer- Borough. But they’ve come to accept him. He’s part of Palm Beach. And he is Mar-a-Lago. He’s a big draw and has been for years.”
Trump restored the mansion in painstaking and classy fashion. He took officials on tours of its grounds, and told them the provenance of the furniture and described the meaning or patterns of the drapes and wallpaper.
And just as Trump did in New York Society earlier and later in the Republican Party during his presidential bid, Trump prevailed in Palm Beach. By winning the presidency, he’s the man in full on an island of billionaires where two sometimes-feuding Koch brothers live.
“These are rich people. They respect power. And Donald Trump is the most-powerful man in the world as president of the United States now,” said another Republican involved with politics on the island.
Longtime Trump friend and club member Chris Ruddy, founder of the conservative NewsMax media enterprise, said Trump had another motive in mind in running for president.
“The joke is that he wanted to become president so he could stop the airplanes flying over Mar-a-Lago from PBIA,” Ruddy said, referring to Trump’s longtime battle with Palm Beach International Airport, whose flight path is directly over the estate.
In between the airport and the estate, on the eastern edge of West Palm Beach where it borders the Intracoastal Waterway along Flagler Drive, protesters plan to march to the bridge leading to Palm Beach from Trump Plaza condominiums, which are so named for a long-ago real-estate failed real-estate deal for the former developer. Some residents want the name of the plaza changed.
The original protest organizer only expected to have a few hundred demonstrators for his “March to Mar-a-Lago for Humanity” where the demonstrators would end up in front of the Palm Beach estate. But the town’s demonstration-permit applications nearly prohibit large noisy crowds on the island. And, when Facebook RSVP’s exceeded 2,000, the organizer quit and handed the reins to two experienced organizers who decided not to march people across the bridge, which would be a safety hazard owing to the size of the crowd.
Alex Newell Taylor, a march organizer, acknowledged that Trump might not hear or see the protests first hand. But he’ll see it on television and their voices will be heard.
“We’re not going to let Trump relax at Mar-a-Lago,” she said. “There are huge groups of people who don’t get to relax because of his executive orders, people fighting for their lives and their rights.”
She said they’re not intentionally targeting the Red Cross for having its gala at Mar-a-Lago, but noted the irony of the organization having to fight Trump’s refugee ban while raising money at his estate. The event is the biggest gala of the year on Palm Beach, an invitation-only affair of billionaires in white ties and tiaras, ambassadors and foreign dignitaries.
Trump’s longtime but occasional adviser, Roger Stone, said he’s not sure if the protests will bother Trump or not. A Richard Nixon-era operative and author of “The Making of the President 2016: How Donald Trump Orchestrated a Revolution,” Stone said Trump could use the demonstrations to his advantage if they get out of hand.
Stone, however, wondered if the unpleasant trappings of the presidency will wear on Trump at Mar-a-Lago and beyond.
“Donald used to come and go as he pleases, and now he can’t and he has protesters on top of that. He’s a man who does not like to be contained,” Stone said. “Mar-a-Lago is like an oasis for him. But if feels he can’t go there to unwind, I wonder if it will make him go crazy.”