PALM BEACH, Fla. – President Donald Trump doesn’t need to be at Mar-a-Lago for his glitzy private club to feel like the winter White House. The reminders are pretty much everywhere.
Stacked high at the front desk, just through the wrought-iron door at the main entrance, are copies of the latest issue of the seaside resort’s glossy promotional magazine, complete with a two-page photo spread celebrating the club owner’s biggest triumph yet.
“Road to Victory,” reads the article’s headline. “Eric Trump walks us through some of the memorable moments on his father’s path to the White House.”
On most weekends since Trump’s inauguration, the president and his entourage have been spotted in the club, loading up plates at the breakfast buffet, mingling with dues-paying members, turning up in photos on guests’ Facebook and Instagram feeds.
Melania Trump’s turn came Friday night. The seldom-seen first lady and her son Barron are there for spring break, and she made a brief cameo to greet a cocktail reception hosted by the county Republican party.
More than 700 Republican power brokers, fundraisers and foot soldiers paid $300 for a seat or as much as $5,000 for a table to enter the latest gala of the season inside the gold-painted Donald J. Trump Ballroom. Attendees said it was the most overtly political shindig at Mar-a-Lago since its host moved into the White House.
Over an open bar, filet mignon and scallops, guests mostly shrugged off the collapse, just hours earlier, of legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, marking Trump’s biggest loss in the early days of his presidency. “I’m trying to focus on the positive,” Adam Putnam, the Republican former Florida congressman who now runs the state’s Agriculture Commission, told POLITICO. “Maybe a better product will come out of it by not having it be quite so hasty.”
Instead, attendees celebrated their party’s dominance in Washington. Florida Gov. Rick Scott regaled the crowd with stories about his trip last month to see Trump in Washington, where they had lunch and watched “La La Land” in the White House theater. “He doesn’t eat the most healthy foods, by the way,” Scott said. A video clip from the campaign trail played on two giant overhead screens showing Trump on the stump with “Silk & Diamond,” the North Carolina sisters who gained fame thanks to their viral YouTube videos talking up the then-billionaire presidential candidate.
The night ended with a raffle. Prizes included an Apple Watch, a 14-karat gold and diamond necklace and a return ticket to the president’s club for a seafood dinner.
For the last four years, the annual Lincoln Day gala has been held at Mar-a-Lago. Donald Trump has been to a couple of them, including last March, just days after winning the Florida primary and knocking the hometown star Marco Rubio out of the race.
This go around, local party officials pleaded personally to Trump to make another trip to Mar-a-Lago. “That’s why I’m going to the airport. To get in his ear one last time,” Michael Barnett, the GOP county chairman, said in an interview earlier this month while driving to the West Palm Beach airport for a tarmac greeting of Air Force One.
But the health care bill, teetering all week on the verge of collapse, meant the president had to stay in Washington, missing both the dinner and a chance to connect with his wife and youngest son while they are on holiday. Instead, the group channeled the president in other ways. Every guest got a red hat with his famous “Make America Great Again” slogan. An image of Abraham Lincoln on the front cover of the dinner program also wore a Trump cap.
“Much better being here under this president than under president Clinton,” James Golden, the talk radio producer for Rush Limbaugh’s show, and known to his conservative audience by the pseudonym “Bo Snerdley,” said as the emcee opening the dinner. “Much better being here saying you are at the White House.”
Local Republican officials said they would raise $300,000 for the night after paying the rental and catering fees to Trump’s club. They credited the president with helping them increase their bounty.
“It seems that all boats go up in a rising tide,” said Peter Feaman, a local attorney and Republican National Committeeman. “And of course you have the Trump yacht going up in a rising tide. That means all the dinghies and the little boats go up as well.”
In Democrat-dominated, celebrity-obsessed South Florida, Trump’s in the lead as its most famous part-time resident. But his popularity here is also mixed. Among Republicans, Mitt Romney did far better in 2012 in both the town of Palm Beach (11 points) and the precinct where Mar-a-Lago (14 points) is located. Every Trump visit leads to more headlines of local and county officials struggling to pay overtime and security costs. Traffic snarls are commonplace when his motorcade travels to and from the airport. A nearby airport has estimated tens of thousands of dollars in losses because of grounded flight-school planes on the weekends.
“The whole thing is wrong,” said Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel, whose district includes Mar-a-Lago.
But it’s also been good for Trump’s bottom line. Interest in the charity and political events at his club is up. So is the demand to join the club, which has a 500-member cap established long before Trump’s political career took off but nonetheless recently raised its initiation rates to $200,000. “It makes the desirability of his club a lot higher,” said Feaman.
Trump is expected to make several more trips to Mar-a-Lago before the South Florida humidity comes in full force. China President Xi Jinping will be here early next month for bilateral talks, and club members say Trump historically comes down through the Mother’s Day weekend. That’s the traditional final sendoff party before the private club shutters for the season as its snowbird members return north.
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