PALM BEACH, Fla. — Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago is having trouble transforming from a ritzy hangout for millionaires and billionaires into a more rigid enclave with new security measures to protect the president from prying eyes and more significant threats.
After photos surfaced on social media networks recently of Trump dealing with a North Korean missile crisis right out in front of his dues-paying members and guests on the dining terrace, his private club issued new rules prohibiting pictures or videos of the president when he’s on the premises so that the world can’t follow along on Twitter if it ever happens again.
But that’s easier said than done. On Saturday night, The Palm Beach Post published a picture of Trump inside the club shaking hands with members and guests near the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute-University of Miami charity gala.
Concrete is being poured for a helipad to land Marine One at the president’s oceanfront retreat. But a local police official said it may not do much to stop the traffic snarls, street closures and flight pattern restrictions that have disrupted everyday life for residents whenever Trump comes to his winter home in South Florida.
Members also are bothered. They can’t get into Trump’s club on Saturday nights anymore without booking dinner reservations weeks in advance, and that’s becoming more of a challenge as the commander in chief keeps coming down from Washington and people keep pouring in to see him.
“Everyone wants to be close to the president,” a new member who joined Mar-a-Lago last spring told POLITICO.
Many longtime members, who paid anywhere from $25,000 to $150,000 in upfront fees for the privilege of getting into Mar-a-Lago, aren’t happy with the extra security and media attention that come with a club owner who also happens to be a sitting president of the United States. But the changes have been great for Trump’s bottom line. His club, which under a 1993 agreement with the town of Palm Beach must cap membership at 500, recently raised initiation rates to $200,000.
“You can’t buy a membership to Camp David,” said Jack McDonald, a former Mar-a-Lago member and former Palm Beach mayor, referring to the Maryland presidential retreat that Trump has yet to visit. “I can’t think of any other president where you could join a private club and actually see him fairly consistently.”
Another side benefit: Charity and political events booked in the ornate gold-infused ballroom or other parts of Trump’s 20-acre estate are benefiting from the expectation that the president might drop in, as he did for a recent wedding. For example, the annual Lincoln Day Dinner gala on March 24 planned by the Palm Beach County GOP, with single seats going for $300 or tables for as much as $5,000, sold out a month and a half ago.
“That was without confirming a speaker,” said Michael Barnett, chairman of the county GOP. “People want to just come to Mar-a-Lago. They want to be able to say ‘I had dinner at the president’s house.’”
Lynn Aronberg, the owner of a local public relations firm and former Miami Dolphins cheerleader, said that on her recent visits as a guest to Mar-a-Lago she’s encountered many new faces to the philanthropy scene. “I’ve never seen them at anything, not even the Breakers or the Boca resort, and all of a sudden I saw them at an event at a Mar-a-Lago charity. Yeah, I think it’s definitely drawn people there,” said Aronberg, whose Facebook profile features a selfie she took with Melania Trump at the club’s New Year’s Eve party.
To become a part of Trump’s club membership, or even to catch a glimpse inside it as a guest, is to join an elite and exclusive society of wealthy Americans and foreigners, many of whom are longtime Trump friends and who made fortunes in real estate, like the president, and other investments.
Membership lists obtained by POLITICO counted at least 25 current or former company CEOs, as well as dozens of lawyers, doctors, investors and philanthropists. There are bold-faced names that would draw mentions in pretty much every section of the newspaper, from the society page, to politics, sports, media and business.
Just a few examples: Howard Stern’s wife, Beth Stern; author James Patterson; estranged Koch brother and Trump fundraiser William Koch; retired Coca-Cola CEO Douglas Daft; Dom Telesco, the U.S. distributor of Tommy Hilfiger; former Reagan White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick; Avram Glazer, part of the family that owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and controls the English soccer club Manchester United; James Dolan, the CEO of Cablevision and owner of the New York Knicks; and Debbie “White Dove” Porreco, a descendant of Pocahontas.
While Trump has risen to the pinnacle of politics as a Republican, he once was a prominent Democratic donor, and his club membership list, when matched against federal election contribution data, shows people who have supported candidates on both sides of the aisle.
Among the major GOP donors: Christopher Ruddy, the Newsmax CEO who last week visited Trump in the Oval Office; recycling mogul Anthony Lomangino; and billionaire trader Thomas Peterffy. Prominent Democratic fundraisers include shipbuilding CEO Frank Foti, private investor Cynthia Friedman and Howard Kessler, a financial services executive.
Trump’s club members also include longtime friends who appear headed for plum ambassador assignments inside his administration, including Robin Bernstein, an early Trump booster who is expected to get a slot representing the U.S. in the Dominican Republic; Brian Burns, a real estate developer who Trump has reportedly tapped to serve as ambassador to Ireland; and Patrick Park, a philanthropist who according to The Palm Beach Post received a hand-written note from Trump indicating he’s been picked for Austria.
As interest in Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club surges, Democrats and outside groups have raised ethical questions about who the president is associating with. Two senators wrote a letter to the White House last month demanding the public release of the membership list at Mar-a-Lago, and others say Trump should be pressed to say whether lobbyists or diplomats are forking over expensive initiation fees to join there or any of the other dozen private golf clubs across the country to which Trump’s name is attached.
Preparations are already being made for the president to go to his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, as warm weather returns up north. Mar-a-Lago, after all, is a seasonal private club that shutters during the summer and early fall, though Trump, as its owner, can return at any time.
“I think it’s legitimate to say the burden is on him to promise he’ll reveal if there’s an increase on any of those people,” said Barney Frank, the former Massachusetts Democratic congressman.
With South Florida still basking in the presidential limelight, though, it’s Mar-a-Lago that’s experiencing the bulk of the growing pains — ethical, logistical and even financial — from being associated so closely with an unprecedented presidential connection.
The New York Post’s Page Six reported last week that the Palm Beach club had stopped hawking $85 tennis shirts emblazoned with the number “45” on the sleeve — they were reportedly selling well — because it was a violation of a ban the Trump Organization had promised on presidential memorabilia being sold at the president’s private properties.
Locals are hoping a new helipad that’s being built on the Mar-a-Lago grounds will help to alleviate some of the traffic jams that have become routine when Trump’s motorcade travels to and from the nearby West Palm Beach airport. But a local county police official said there are no guarantees the Secret Service will use the helicopter for every presidential trip to the airport.
Some residents are also concerned about the noise associated with a military-style chopper flying near their homes, and the Palm Beach Town Council has determined the helicopter arrangement will end when Trump’s presidency does.
At Mar-a-Lago, visitors in recent days have been told they must keep their phones in their pockets when Trump is on the premises. That’s the byproduct of a major public relations and national security backlash after photographs circulated on social media showing the president, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and their staffs responding last month to the North Korean missile launch.
The photo and video ban was first reported last week by Jose Lambiet, a South Florida society writer, and current members of Mar-a-Lago confirmed they’re now being informed of the new rule. Whether it can be implemented is another story — the Palm Beach Post reporter who published the picture Saturday night did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether there had been a public notice of the prohibition.
Mar-a-Lago was built in the 1920s by Marjorie Merriweather Post, the heiress to her family’s cereal company and one of the wealthiest women in the country at the time. She willed the property to the federal government upon her death in 1973, stipulating it be used as a winter retreat for the president. But the government couldn’t afford to maintain the property and returned it to her trust.
Trump purchased the estate in 1985, and he’s made it one of his primary homes ever since. One of the most popular dishes in the dining room is his mother’s meatloaf recipe. Pictures of Trump with golfing legend Arnold Palmer and running with a lit Olympics torch adorn the walls of the men’s restroom near the lobby.
White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks referred questions about the changes at Mar-a-Lago to the club and Secret Service, though she referenced the property’s history too. “Generally speaking, Mar-a-Lago is one of the most successful private clubs in the world and the president looks forward to using the property as the Southern White House, as it was intended to be,” she said in an email to POLITICO.
Membership at the Trump club appears mixed on the hoopla surrounding the president’s frequent visits. More than a dozen members contacted by POLITICO either refused to comment or insisted their names not be used when discussing their views of the club.
“Good luck please keep reporting the reality,” one member replied via email before declining further comment.
With so much heightened security and the added need to make Saturday night reservations two or three weeks in advance to secure a dinner table, many complained they weren’t getting their money’s worth, especially when they must pay a minimum each year on food and beverages at the club.
Several Mar-a-Lago regulars told POLITICO they had contemplated ending their ties to the club, though the terms of their membership agreement mean they must wait 30 years from when they joined before they get a refund. McDonald, the former town mayor who left Trump’s club in 2011, said he must wait until 2024 to receive the $25,000 he put down when he signed up. “If I’m around,” he said.
Other members said they were unfazed by the club’s changes.
“The security is definitely challenging, and you do have to make reservations well in advance now,” Gary Burton, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based hotel executive and Mar-a-Lago member said via email. “But I did not find it so challenging that I would not do it again.”
Other members aren’t thrilled that Trump keeps drawing so much attention to a place they would otherwise frequent for the gym, tennis and seeing longtime friends. They worry about the security risk that the club has become when the president isn’t there, when the Secret Service protection dramatically dwindles.
“My view,” said one longtime Mar-a-Lago regular, “is if you’re a member of a private club, it shouldn’t be the White House.”
Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.
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