Mar-a-Lago: Trump's Winter White House takes over Palm Beach

Mar-a-Lago: Trump's Winter White House takes over Palm Beach
Posted at 8:15 PM, Feb 20, 2017

President Donald Trump, a newcomer to the White House, is still developing his relationship with the people of Washington. But that's far from the case with the people of Palm Beach -- now the location of his so-called Winter White House -- the long spit of land off Florida's East Coast that the real estate mogul has been frequenting for decades.

Since he purchased the Mar-a-Lago property in 1985 for $5 million, Trump's relationship with the tony city and its residents has ebbed and flowed. He's sued the city, fought with the town leadership and turned local issues into nattional controversies. Traffic caused by Trump's motorcade is the most recent sore spot for the people of Palm Beach and the surrounding area.

But the businessman also saved the iconic estate -- now a private club -- that once sat in disrepair, and his new status is driving attention and business to the town.

It's complicated

Before Trump was elected president, club members "were excited to see him," said Emily Pantelides, the owner of Pantelides PR and Consulting, who helps put on events at the Mar-a-Lago. But now that he spends most of his time at the White House "people are clamoring to see him."

"He got into arguments with Palm Beach -- over his flag and how the airports could fly their planes. He was just Trump," she said. "But then, when he threw his hat in the ring, it changed things. Every time something happened with him, the mood at the club and the mood in Palm Beach County was different toward him."

Not everyone is thrilled with the new Winter White House, however. Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, in a letter sent Friday to the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General, took issue with the arrangements Trump has made to separate his private assets from his public life.

"While he may have a residence at Mar-a-Lago, it remains a for-profit business and allows members access to the club while the President is there," Udall wrote.

Trump has visited his winter retreat for three straight weekends. And while he is planning on staying in Washington next weekend to prepare for his first joint address to Congress, businesses in the area say they have been told to expect the President every weekend until May.

The frequent visits allow members access to the upper echelons of America's government. Visitors snap photos of Ivanka Trump, the President's daughter, reading by the pool; take selfies with Steve Bannon, Trump's top strategist, and even get access to the officer who carries the nuclear football, a briefcase that allows the President to launch a nuclear attack at a moment's notice.

Many members relish a Trump sighting now, fawning over the President and his cadre of advisers as they walk by.

And Trump reciprocates the love: When groups host events at his club, the extroverted President could always stop by. Earlier this month, Trump crashed a wedding on the property, offering a toast to the bride and groom.

Trump, after rallying his supporters a few hours north in Melbourne, Florida, on Saturday, swung by a Dana Farber Foundation fundraiser at night, snapping pictures and thanking attendees for coming.

At a time when courts have stalled part of his agenda, NBC's "Saturday Night Live" has mercilessly mocked his administration and protests seem to pop up every weekend, Mar-a-Lago has become a safe haven for the President.

"It is hard to be president, no matter what your philosophy, and I think he has been incredibly gracious with the club," said Page Lee Hufty, a Palm Beach socialite and Trump supporter who sits on the town's Landmarks Preservation Commission. "He dines with the members, he sits on the terrace with all of the members ... I admire (him) for that."

Hufty and her other commission members recently approved a request to build a helipad at Mar-a-Lago.

The hearing for the helipad, though, became a venue for Palm Beach residents to air their grievances with Trump's frequent use of Mar-a-Lago. Some complained of the traffic around the club, largely caused by Secret Service checkpoints, while others complained about the prospect of the noise that would be caused by the helicopters.

Hufty confirmed she told one person at the meeting that they needed "an attitude adjustment" and dismissed concerns about traffic and noise around the President's visits.

"I think Palm Beachers need to realize this is an honor," Hufty said, noting that she sometimes paddleboards out to the Coast Guard boats protecting the club to thank the guardsman. "It is historic. We need to keep our eye open that. So you miss something. Who cares?"

Friends describe Trump "ultimately accessible" in Mar-a-Lago, but that doesn't come without ethical pitfalls.

Democrats and ethics watchdogs questioned how the membership fee doubled to $200,000 after Trump's election. The club could turn into a way for Trump to sell access, watchdogs say, allowing members to pay for the luxury of sharing everything from a terrace to a lobby with the President of the United States, access that most lobbyists would salivate over.

Sarah Sanders, a Trump spokeswoman, responded to questions about selling access Sunday by saying that Trump's visits to Mar-a-Lago make him accessible to "regular Americans," even though the membership fee is roughly four times the median family income, per the US Census Bureau.

Exclusive club

One group of people you won't hear complaining about Trump's Mar-a-Lago visits: Members of the club.

Members have been reticent to criticize their club owner publicly once he launched his political career. CNN attempted to contact one dozen members of the club, none agreed to be quoted for this story, and many did not respond to calls and emails.

The reason: Trump is the judge and jury at Mar-a-Lago, and members have grown worried that running afoul of the President could get them on the outside looking in.

"If you are a member there, you aren't going to take a negative position (on Trump), because you would soon be an ex-member," said Jack McDonald, the former mayor of Palm Beach and a former member of the club.

McDonald, who was in nonpartisan elected city office from 1995 to 2011, tussled with Trump time to time, but remained a member of his club, using it as a way to entertain dignitaries that visited his city.

McDonald, whose campaigns Trump supported, was at the center of possibly the most notable recent story about Mar-a-Lago: The city's demand that Trump move and lower a 80-foot flag pole the businessman erected in 2006. Palm Beach rules dictate no flag poles can be taller than 42 feet. Trump was fined $1,250-a day to fly the flag. He sued, and the national headlines ensued.

"The day you need a permit to put up the American flag, that will be a sad day for this country," Trump said. His lawyers said a smaller flag would look silly, given the "massive" size of Mar-a-Lago.

For McDonald, who was then mayor, the story meant constant negative attention, including for him personally.

"I would get lots of negative emails from veterans around the country who thought the town was being unpatriotic," McDonald said, himself a veteran. "He is very good at spinning those kinds of things and all of the sudden it became a national story."

The case was eventually settled, but the confrontation left some in Palm Beach -- a reliably Republican area of Florida -- with a negative view of the New York business mogul. But members now rarely talk about the confrontation, especially publicly.

"I can't imagine if I were a member of that club today that I would be making any criticism of Donald Trump," McDonald said bluntly.

Others backed up McDonald.

"They're almost kowtowing to (Trump)," said Pantelides, the publicist who has worked on events hosted at the club. "Part of that is they feel like they're on his turf, even people who maybe don't feel positively about him, they tell him how great he is."

Historic estate

Marjorie Merriweather Post, the late owner of General Foods, Inc., opened Mar-a-Lago in 1927 after four years of construction, using it as a private residence for decades. When Post died in 1973, she willed the property to the government, hoping it would become the "Winter White House," a place for presidents and government officials to vacation and entertain.

The government, unable to pay for the property's opulent upkeep, let the home fall into disrepair and eventually gave it back to the Post Foundation.

Enter Trump, in 1985, then a New York businessman with money to spend and a profile to raise. He bought the property, used it as a private residence for a handful of years and eventually turned it into a private club in 1995.

Since then, the club has sat as a crown jewel in Trump's real estate empire. Longtime friends and advisers say while Trump loves Trump Tower in New York and his various golf courses around the world, Trump feels most at ease at Mar-a-Lago, where the gregarious business mogul can constantly surround himself with people.

"Mar-a-Lago is as much home to Trump as Trump Tower," said Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump adviser. "In Trump Tower, he is on a high floor, away from people. But Mar-a-Lago is the one place where, if he so chooses, he can be constantly interacting with people."