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Trump’s Palm Beach
The forty or so billionaires who winter in Palm Beach want everything done their way in their time. When they play golf, they insist on teeing off as soon as they arrive at their golf course. When they go out to dinner in the exclusive Florida resort community, they expect to be shown immediately to a table, and not just any table, but one of the best in the house. When they drive in their Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, they take it for granted they will be able to glide around the barrier island without interruption. And when they fly into Palm Beach International Airport in their private planes, they consider it their right to land immediately and to be driven to the island without delay. The fact that the drawbridge might be up is a terrible imposition.
But on the first Friday of February 2017, these billionaires who waited for no one had no choice but to wait for one of their kind. President Donald J. Trump was coming to town. For most of his three decades in Palm Beach, he had railed against the planes that flew over Mar-a-Lago interrupting the tranquility and fouling his estate. That was no longer a worry. In advance of Trump’s arrival, everything airborne had been shut down. No planes would fly anywhere near Mar-a-Lago until he headed back to Washington.
After Air Force One landed at Palm Beach International Airport just after 4:30 P.M., the president walked down the ramp, where he kissed his wife, Melania, who had arrived on an air force Gulfstream from New York City. Melania was continuing to live in New York until their son, Barron, finished his school year, and for the most part, she saw her husband only on weekends.
A welcoming crowd of about fifty supporters, donning the trademark red Make America Great Again hats, had come to the West Palm Beach airport to welcome and cheer the seventy-year-old leader. A parade of thirty-one vehicles sat on the tarmac ready to take Trump’s party to Mar-a-Lago. This was his first presidential trip out of Washington, and an extraordinary number of advisers and staff had accompanied the president aboard Air Force One.
Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon were by Trump’s side, constantly jockeying for position to be nearest. They represented two poles of power in the White House, and each man tried to keep as close to the president as he could. Each had his own aides and other staffers, and they all wanted to be present and not to miss anything.
Southern Boulevard had been emptied so the presidential cavalcade could speed eastward from the airport without slowing. Although the vehicles only briefly traversed I-95 over a bridge, traffic on the state’s crucial north-south highway had been stopped. Even trains traveling through West Palm Beach had been halted. The drawbridge onto the island of Palm Beach stayed down for Trump, backing up a number of boats as he zoomed right through in his armored black Chevy SUV.
South Ocean Boulevard had been shut down for half a mile north of the estate, effectively blocking north-south traffic on the island. It would stay this way until the president flew back to Washington. Secret Service agents positioned themselves around the buildings, grounds, and surrounding areas. A patrol boat sailed slowly back and forth past Mar-a-Lago on the Intracoastal Waterway and a coast guard ship sat offshore on the Atlantic Ocean, ever vigilant on the far horizon.
Stores, restaurants, and gas stations along Southern Boulevard and Dixie Highway were empty because customers couldn’t get to them. Business owners who voted for Trump saw this as a minor price to pay to have their stalwart in the White House. Those who opposed him were outraged that he was adversely affecting their businesses.
This was Trump’s first visit to Palm Beach, Florida, since he was sworn in as president only two weeks earlier. His Mar-a-Lago estate was so important to his sense of well-being that he was not willing to wait any longer to spend time there.
Trump has owned the estate for more than thirty years, and he spends most of his cold-weather weekends there. The long presidential campaign had caused him to give up those visits a lot more often than he’d liked. But after his victory in November, he was determined to get back to this routine.
Mar-a-Lago is Trump’s spiritual home, the place where he can be himself. Many presidents have had winter retreats, a number of them in Florida. Richard Nixon flew down to his waterfront home in Key Biscayne. John F. Kennedy took over the family estate in the north end of Palm Beach as his winter White House. Harry S. Truman turned a house in Key West into his Little White House. But these were private residences, and Mar-a-Lago is a club where people flow in and out by the hundreds.
It’s hard to imagine any of these other presidents wanting to be inundated at their Florida retreats with all kinds of people whose only commonality is that they have paid the money to be there. But Mar-a-Lago energizes the president, with its wealthy members who these days pay two hundred thousand dollars for the privilege to dine at the club’s upscale restaurant, lounge by its pools and beach during the day, play tennis on the red clay courts, and, if they cough up a couple of hundred thousand more dollars for a second membership, play a round of golf at the nearby Trump International Golf Club.
Right after his election, Trump let the Secret Service know he intended to visit Mar-a-Lago regularly, and with all the people who would be running in and out of the club, they quickly recognized the immense challenges his request would create. Trump didn’t seem to care what problems he presented to the Secret Service. He was used to getting whatever he wanted, and now, as president, he had near-limitless power to ensure things were precisely as he wanted them.
The new president was unconcerned about the costs or disruptions of his visits. The Washington Post estimated that if Trump flew down to Mar-a-Lago most cold-weather weekends over his first term as president, the costs to the U.S. government for his trips would run around $130 million.
As the presidential SUV drove through the gates of Mar-a-Lago, Trump was back where he belonged. The estate is the most grandiose statement of his success, the symbol of his life and its myriad challenges. He had almost lost Mar-a-Lago once and had saved it only by turning it into a club. Mar-a-Lago means so much to him that he fought an unyielding battle against the Palm Beach elite, who had at best always been suspicious of the flashy real estate tycoon and at worst despised him.
In so many ways, the island was Trump’s training ground, a place where he learned techniques that he used in his race for the White House. The relentless, combative style he perfected in this enclave of billionaires would ultimately be part of his appeal to the common man and a key to how he won the highest office in the land. It was at Mar-a-Lago that he served his apprenticeship for the most unlikely victory in presidential history.
Not only did Trump beat the Palm Beach establishment the way no one ever had, but he marginalized them, pushing them back and making room for the ascendency of a new moneyed class of which he is the acknowledged leader. “I’m the king of Palm Beach,” Trump boasted to author Timothy L. O’Brien. “They all come over, they all eat, they all love me, they all kiss my ass. And then they all leave and say: ‘Isn’t he horrible.’ But I’m the king.”
Even within the protected confines of Mar-a-Lago, some members of the club abhorred him. Trump didn’t care. Love. Hate. They were just words. What mattered was that people paid attention to him. All was right with the world when controversy swirled around him, just as long as he stood in the eye of the hurricane.
Trump had hardly been in the White House long enough to know where all the rooms were, and already the critics were describing his administration as drowning in chaos. A mark of this disorder was Trump’s executive order halting visitors to the United States from seven largely Muslim nations. The document was so ineptly written and legally flawed that as Trump was flying to Palm Beach, a federal judge in Seattle ordered the government to stop enforcing the ban.
His first full day in Palm Beach, Trump sent out a barrage of tweets attacking the judge’s decision. Then he went over to the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach for a round of golf before returning to have a phone call with President Petro O. Poroshenko of Ukraine late that afternoon. In between that and getting ready for dinner, the president found time to talk to any number of Mar-a-Lago members, bathing in their tributes to his greatness and also putting them in the unique position of advising the president on whom he should appoint to positions within his administration.
That evening Trump was slated to attend the sixtieth annual International Red Cross Ball, long regarded as the most prestigious charity event in Palm Beach. The event was to be held in the Donald J. Trump Ballroom on the estate grounds. The massive hall is Trump’s personal creation. The exterior looks like a perfect adjunct to Mar-a-Lago’s Moorish exterior, but the interior has what he calls “the feel and look of Louis XIV, and that’s my favorite style.”
Trump spent forty million dollars on the ballroom—four times what he paid for Mar-a-Lago and all its possessions—building the twenty-thousand-square-foot structure in 2004. His model was the magnificent Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. The whole thing was about showing the money, laying out what he had in all its glorious excess. He spent seven million dollars alone on twenty-four-karat gold sheets that shimmered from the ceiling, which was also adorned with seventeen crystal chandeliers. Even the bathrooms were mini palaces with golden basins, and everywhere one looked the gilded palace screamed out its affluence. Gold. Gold, and more gold.
That night, the president stood at the entrance to the ballroom in black formal dress beside Melania in a long, red sleeveless gown, perfectly rendered for the regal scene set out before them. When Trump looked out on the vast ballroom, he saw a splendid assemblage. The ladies wore gowns of every description, and the gentlemen were impeccably garbed in tuxedos.
The waiters wore powdered wigs and satinlike knee breeches, while the waitresses dressed in period dresses. No peasants tried to storm the barricades outside the ballroom, but roughly three hundred protesters marched along the road to Mar-a-Lago, their shouts fitting into the royal theme.
Trump’s aides may have flown down with the president, but that did not mean they joined him at the ball. This evening Trump was alone with his Palm Beach world, and for a few hours, he appeared to want nothing to do with the problematic world of Washington.
The social elite of Palm Beach had regarded Trump as a vulgar interloper when he first came to the island. The Red Cross Ball was their event, and they didn’t like having him play much of a role. But things were different now. The old establishment had lost its hold on things, overwhelmed by new money, and it was these new-money people who filled the ballroom this evening. As for Trump, he had gone from being barely tolerated at the event to becoming its central figure.
In Palm Beach, there is no higher social honor than chairing the Red Cross Ball, and this year’s chairman, Janet Cafaro, was emblematic of how much the island had changed since the days it was run by a WASP elite. Her husband, John “J. J.” Cafaro, is a convicted felon who in 2001 pled guilty to conspiracy to bribe a U.S. congressman. In 2010, he again pled guilty to siphoning illegal campaign contributions to his daughter’s race for the Ohio legislature.
The old Palm Beach would not have been so accepting of the Cafaros, but after the Ohio mall developer contributed $50,000 to the Trump Foundation in 2016, Trump said that Cafaro was a “fantastic man.” The president appeared to view these crimes as no worse than a couple of speeding tickets. As long as the Cafaros had enough money to make a substantial contribution to the Red Cross, what was wrong with Janet Cafaro speaking for a few minutes before the president of the United States while her felon husband looked on proudly?
In Trump’s world, money spoke. It spoke louder than truth, louder than culture, louder than class, louder than manners. It simply overwhelmed.
Seated next to Trump at his table was fellow Palm Beach winter resident Wilbur Ross, whom the president had made his choice for secretary of commerce in part because Ross claimed he was a billionaire. One of the speakers this evening was another of Trump’s wealthy Palm Beach friends, the ball’s honorary chairman, Patrick Park. Trump planned to make Park his ambassador to Austria.
Finally, Trump got up to speak at a dais, which had affixed to it the presidential seal. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the room looking more beautiful—perhaps at our wedding—right, Melania?” he said, looking over at his wife. “We’re very proud of Mar-a-Lago and all the money we’ve raised in this room and in this wonderful house.”
The Red Cross spent $436,125 putting on the event, a substantial portion of that going to Mar-a-Lago. Like every other charitable event at the estate, it was a profitable venture for Trump. There was no reason why this couldn’t continue during his presidency. Trump did make his own donations at charity events, but close inspection usually revealed he had done so with someone else’s money.
The president stayed late that evening, appearing to savor each moment. The Secret Service was omnipresent, warding off any unwanted well-wishers, but Trump accepted accolades from scores of the attendees at the ball. This was his golden ballroom and his golden night. He and Melania danced to “Old Time Rock and Roll,” in what truly was now, undisputedly, Donald Trump’s Palm Beach. The president was home.
Copyright © 2019 by Laurence Leamer