Inside Mar-a-Lago: the secret history of Trump’s Florida retreat

For many years, the elite pri­vate mem­bers’ club has sus­tained the out­go­ing US pres­i­dent. But is it all about to fall apart?

Donald Trump greets sup­port­ers at an air­port in Lansing, Michigan, dur­ing the 2020 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign | Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal/USA Today Network/Sipa USA/PA Images

As Donald Trump leaves office, the place that has come to sym­bol­ise Brand Trump is Mar-a-Lago – his 20-acre, 128-room pri­vate mem­bers’ club in Palm Beach, Florida. With much of the Trump busi­ness empire heav­i­ly indebt­ed and los­ing mon­ey, Mar-a-Lago is one of its few gen­uine cash cows.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the US tax­pay­er has paid $1m a day for each of the days Trump has spent at Mar-a-Lago. “How much US tax­pay­ers’ mon­ey was spent on ‘non-secu­ri­ty improve­ments’ to Mar-a-Lago and Trump’s Bedminster [anoth­er pri­vate mem­bers’ club in New Jersey] res­i­dence?” the pres­i­den­tial his­to­ri­an Michael Beschloss recent­ly asked, sug­gest­ing that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment could ask to be reim­bursed, as it did with Richard Nixon’s California man­sion after he left office.

Mar-a-Lago is what first made Trump ‘respectable’ in high soci­ety, and it has sub­sidised his lifestyle since well before he reached the pres­i­den­cy. All the while, as a pri­vate member’s club with hun­dreds of mem­bers and guests milling around dur­ing Trump’s vis­its, it has been cloaked in secre­cy. Trump now plans to move back there – but is the dream about to fall apart?

Trump’s Golden Egg

It is often said that the Trump Organization isn’t real­ly a coher­ent busi­ness, rather a hotch-potch of dif­fer­ent bou­tique inter­ests that have lit­tle in com­mon. And as Trump’s leaked tax returns showed, most of those busi­ness­es are in the red. Even his lux­u­ry Washington DC hotel, used by Nigel Farage to launch his new UK polit­i­cal par­ty, and favoured by diplo­mats seek­ing to lob­by the pres­i­dent, has lost at least $32m in four years, accord­ing to a recent inves­ti­ga­tion by Forbes. The same report showed that Trump had lost a fur­ther $70m on his Doral Miami golf course.

Against this stands Mar-a-Lago. Since it opened as a pri­vate mem­bers’ club in 1994, the build­ing has been a rare gold­en egg for Trump. While the Trump Organization’s account­ing is shroud­ed in secre­cy, recent rev­e­la­tions have start­ed to shed light on how Mar-a-Lago under­pins Brand Trump. The New York Times analy­sis of his leaked tax returns not­ed that join­ing fees for the club yield­ed $6m in 2016 – up from $664,000 two years ear­li­er – and that between 2015 and 2018, the pres­i­dent took $26m in pay­ments from Mar-a-Lago.

Mar-a-Lago’s dual sta­tus as a busi­ness and as Trump’s res­i­dence also allows him to sub­sidise his lifestyle. The New York Times elab­o­rat­ed on how this can be done with his taxes:

Mr. Trump may be report­ing busi­ness loss­es to the gov­ern­ment, but he can still live a life of wealth and write it off … As a busi­ness, [Mar-a-Lago] is also the source of mil­lions of dol­lars in expens­es deduct­ed from tax­able income, among them $109,433 for linens and sil­ver and $197,829 for land­scap­ing in 2017. Also deduct­ed as a busi­ness expense was the $210,000 paid to a Florida pho­tog­ra­ph­er over the years for shoot­ing numer­ous events at the club, includ­ing a 2016 New Year’s Eve par­ty host­ed by Mr. Trump.

The opu­lent man­sion is not only invalu­able for writ­ing off tax oblig­a­tions, it is also a reli­able source of income – espe­cial­ly at a time when oth­ers are dry­ing up. Trump’s pres­i­den­cy has been good for Mar-a-Lago’s busi­ness. Since 2015, accord­ing to the New York Times, Trump is under­stood to have tak­en an addi­tion­al $5m a year from Mar-a-Lago.

This isn’t the first time a president’s pri­vate res­i­dence has ben­e­fit­ed from tax­pay­ers’ money

Trump has also refined the art of prof­it­ing from sum­mit meet­ings held at his club. When lead­ers like Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe have flown in, gov­ern­ment records show that Trump has booked out all the gue­strooms at Mar-a-Lago for the US secret ser­vice, billing the gov­ern­ment. As the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning jour­nal­ist David Fahrenthold com­ments, “they fig­ured out what is the max­i­mum you can charge the US gov­ern­ment for a hotel room, and charged that.” At times, gov­ern­ment web­sites have open­ly pro­mot­ed the club.

This isn’t the first time a US president’s pri­vate res­i­dence has ben­e­fit­ed from tax­pay­ers’ mon­ey. Notoriously, Richard Nixon main­tained both a “Winter White House” in Key Biscayne, Florida, and a “Western White House” at La Casa Pacifica, San Clemente, California. In addi­tion to the usu­al enhance­ments around secu­ri­ty and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Nixon made con­sid­er­able addi­tions to the prop­er­ty, includ­ing the addi­tion of a heli­pad to his Florida house, the full cost of which was not dis­closed until well after he had left office.

Previous cov­er­age of Mar-a-Lago has focused on these finan­cial ben­e­fits. Yet in oper­at­ing his res­i­dence as a pri­vate member’s club, Trump enjoys oth­er priv­i­leges, beyond mon­e­tary gain. He taps into a wider world based on secre­cy and infor­mal contacts.

The exclusive world of private members’ clubs

Trump bought Mar-a-Lago very cheap­ly in 1985. He orig­i­nal­ly want­ed it to be a tro­phy home, not a club. The sprawl­ing man­sion, cur­rent­ly the 18th-largest house in the US, was built by the cere­al heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in the 1920s, but has always been unfea­si­bly expen­sive to main­tain. She tried donat­ing it to the US gov­ern­ment in her will, for use as a ‘win­ter White House’, but the par­si­mo­nious Jimmy Carter admin­is­tra­tion gave it back to her foundation.

Enter Trump in the 1980s, at the time build­ing unglam­orous but prof­itable tow­er blocks in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and keen to escape his father’s shad­ow. Already stung by a 1973 fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tion for breach­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion laws against his ten­ants, Trump was eager to strut onto the nation­al stage. The 1980s saw him make a series of flam­boy­ant acqui­si­tions – a string of casi­nos, a yacht, an air­line, New York’s land­mark Plaza Hotel – and the com­ple­tion of the first of his increas­ing­ly out­landish Trump Towers.

Mar-a-Lago was the icing on the cake – for decades, New York’s ‘old mon­ey’ had been win­ter­ing in man­sions on Palm Beach island, off the Florida coast. Trump’s neigh­bour Laurence Leamer shows in his book on Mar-a-Lago that after sev­er­al years of hag­gling, the Mar-a-Lago estate, which had been adver­tised for $90 mil­lion, was sold to Trump for under $9m. Only $300,000 of that was his own mon­ey – the rest was from a secret $8.5m loan from the Chase Manhattan Bank, although in pub­lic, he invari­ably boast­ed he paid cash upfront.

Unfortunately for the hope­less­ly over­lever­aged Trump, his 1980s acqui­si­tions were unsus­tain­able, and as he sank deep into debt in the ear­ly 1990s, sev­er­al of his com­pa­nies went bank­rupt. The casi­nos, the yacht, the air­line, the Plaza Hotel – all were sold off. Mar-a-Lago, a crip­pling­ly expen­sive van­i­ty pur­chase, looked set to go the same way.

The pres­i­den­tial heli­copter Marine One takes off from Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida on 3 January, 2020 | Greg Lovett/Palm Beach Post via USA TODAY NETWORK/Sipa USA/PA Images

What saved Mar-a-Lago for Trump was the deci­sion to turn it into a pri­vate mem­bers’ club. As Leamer revealed, this was not Trump’s own idea, although he often bragged that it was. It was that of his trusts and estates attor­ney, Paul Rampell.

Trump ini­tial­ly need­ed much per­suad­ing about the plan. He instinc­tive­ly hat­ed the world of Palm Beach’s snooty clubs – some of the most elit­ist clubs in the world, whose mem­bers had long looked down on him as an arriv­iste. Mar-a-Lago’s orig­i­nal founder had so loved this world that she had built her own next door to the man­sion, the Bath and Tennis Club, even dig­ging a pri­vate under­ground tun­nel link­ing it to Mar-a-Lago. When Trump tried to join the Bath and Tennis Club as Mar-a-Lago’s new own­er, he was black­balled by Palm Beach high society.

The idea of own­ing his own club grew on Trump, though – it would become his own world, where he could stride in as the cen­tre of atten­tion, and decide who to admit and who to keep out. In 1994, the Mar-a-Lago Club opened its doors for the first time.

The main advan­tage of a pri­vate mem­bers’ club is in the name: it’s pri­vate. It pro­motes con­nec­tions in a pri­vate space, free from scruti­ny. The mon­ey charged for American clubs, par­tic­u­lar­ly those with coun­try club facil­i­ties like Mar-a-Lago’s ten­nis courts and near­by golf course, can be eye-water­ing: $20,000 a year is quite nor­mal, and a one-off join­ing fee of $50,000 or even $100,000 is not unheard of. Mar-a-Lago is there­fore one of the most expen­sive clubs in the world – in the UK, for instance, mem­ber­ship of the most secre­tive and his­toric pri­vate clubs costs around £1,500 a year, still less than many gyms.

These sums don’t only exist to keep America’s clubs in strong finan­cial health. They pre­vent the poor, or peo­ple demo­graph­i­cal­ly more like­ly to be poor, from ever join­ing. In past decades, it’s been quite can­did­ly under­stood that high entrance fees helped to keep out non-white appli­cants – although that has some­what been rolled back, with the grow­ing diver­si­fi­ca­tion of the American workplace.

When Trump turned Mar-a-Lago into a club, he was in the right place at the right time. The major Palm Beach clubs of the 20th cen­tu­ry were noto­ri­ous for their exclu­sion­ary poli­cies – ‘No Blacks and no Jews’, effec­tive­ly – although they were care­ful to nev­er invite a pros­e­cu­tion by enshrin­ing these con­ven­tions into writ­ten rules. Instead, it just hap­pened to be that amongst thou­sands of mem­bers, not a sin­gle Black or Jewish can­di­date had ever been elect­ed. Apart from the Palm Beach Country Club, set up for Jewish mem­bers who had been exclud­ed else­where, the eth­nic and reli­gious minor­i­ty bil­lion­aires of Palm Beach had nowhere else to go – and in the 1990s, Palm Beach was becom­ing less Waspy, while Trump her­ald­ed a wave of new mon­ey, keen to flash their cash.

An unlikely rebel

In the 1990s, Trump was the some­what improb­a­ble ‘inclu­sive’ face of Palm Beach. He made much of this when the Mar-a-Lago Club opened, boast­ing to the town coun­cil that if he “could leave one lega­cy to Palm Beach, it would be the cre­ation of a non-sec­tar­i­an club”. Of course, Trump is scarce­ly a paragon of inclu­siv­i­ty – there are report­ed­ly tapes of his using the n‑word in pri­vate – but it suit­ed his pur­pose in get­ting plan­ning per­mis­sion to turn the man­sion into a club. No one want­ed to be pub­licly seen oppos­ing Palm Beach’s first non-sec­tar­i­an club, espe­cial­ly as the prices ensured that only the super-wealthy would join anyway.

Mar-a-Lago boasts the elite con­nec­tions of pri­vate clubs, only with an even rich­er and more exclu­sive mem­ber­ship than most. While pres­i­dents have long appoint­ed cam­paign donors as US ambas­sadors, the Trump pres­i­den­cy has seen a new twist on this, with at least five cur­rent or for­mer mem­bers of his clubs hav­ing been giv­en posts in coun­tries includ­ing the Dominican Republic, Hungary, the Vatican, South Africa and Romania. Some of these have proved to be high­ly con­tro­ver­sial appoint­ments: David Cornstein, Trump’s ambas­sador to Hungary between 2018 and 2020, expressed strong sup­port for the country’s far-right prime min­is­ter, Viktor Orban.

The club’s mem­ber­ship remains a close­ly-guard­ed secret

But influ­ence can flow in more than one direc­tion. Prospective mem­bers are not asked to pro­duce any proof of the source of their $200,000 join­ing fee – a loop­hole, com­mon to many clubs, that poten­tial­ly allows agents of for­eign gov­ern­ments to join with state-spon­sored funds. Members can also book pri­vate func­tions at the club – like last month’s con­fer­ence for the right-wing stu­dent organ­i­sa­tion Turning Point USA, where the 2,000 guests were pho­tographed at tables of ten with­out masks or social distancing.

The club’s mem­ber­ship list remains a close­ly guard­ed secret, although an aggre­ga­tion of news reports from major media out­lets lists 133 cur­rent or for­mer mem­bers. All are mil­lion­aires, and many are bil­lion­aires. Wealth seems to be the pri­ma­ry require­ment for mem­ber­ship: accord­ing to the Miami Herald, for­mer mem­bers include the dis­graced pae­dophile financier Jeffrey Epstein, although Epstein’s mem­ber­ship may have ben­e­fit­ed from his friend­ship with Trump – as Trump told New York mag­a­zine in 2002, “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years, he’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beau­ti­ful women as much as I do, and many of them on the younger side. No doubt about it – Jeffrey enjoys his social life.” After Epstein’s con­vic­tion, a source close to Trump claimed the two had nev­er been close.

Even with secret ser­vice pro­tec­tion, secu­ri­ty at Mar-a-Lago has long been con­sid­ered a joke, with gate­crash­ers com­mon on the estate. Recent incur­sions includ­ed two Chinese cit­i­zens found car­ry­ing cell phones and USB sticks con­tain­ing mal­ware, var­i­ous stu­dent pranksters, and an opera singer who bluffed her way in and plead­ed insan­i­ty after a car chase.

There is a strict cus­tom for approach­ing Trump at Mar-a-Lago – he enjoys impromp­tu walk­a­bouts, meet­ing and greet­ing mem­bers infor­mal­ly. Buying mem­ber­ship will not buy a pri­vate meet­ing with Trump, but it will buy a ring­side seat with his entourage, some­thing that was dra­mat­i­cal­ly high­light­ed in the first month of his pres­i­den­cy, when he dealt with a North Korean mis­sile cri­sis while din­ing al fres­co at his favourite table, with­in earshot of mem­bers milling around.

What happens now?

There are now clear signs that Trump intends to move full-time to the man­sion. He changed his res­i­den­cy to Mar-a-Lago in 2019, his pri­vate apart­ment at the club was ren­o­vat­ed last month, and Melania Trump is seek­ing out local schools for their youngest son Barron.

But the Trump fam­i­ly may have prob­lems with their very rich and influ­en­tial neigh­bours. Trump may have won Florida in 2016 and 2020, but Palm Beach is not Trump coun­try. In last November’s elec­tion, Palm Beach County vot­ed for Biden over Trump, by 56% to 43%. Four years ear­li­er, Hillary Clinton won the coun­ty by 57% to 41%.

Trump was only allowed to turn Mar-a-Lago from his pri­vate home into a club after the town coun­cil grant­ed per­mis­sion for a change of use, in exchange for a series of legal­ly bind­ing promis­es set out in a Declaration of Use Agreement. In the doc­u­ment, drawn up in 1993, Trump agrees to turn over own­er­ship of the build­ing to a hold­ing com­pa­ny, The Mar-a-Lago Club LLC (for­mer­ly the Mar-a-Lago Club Inc). The com­pa­ny, own­er­ship of which Trump trans­ferred to his son Donald Jr., is cur­rent­ly reg­is­tered at the White House.

In September 2019, Trump offi­cial­ly des­ig­nat­ed Mar-a-Lago his pri­ma­ry res­i­dence for the first time. But this presents a pos­si­ble legal mine­field. In the­o­ry, Trump is still con­strained by the orig­i­nal Declaration of Use Agreement, which sets out that no mem­ber, includ­ing Trump, shall reside at the Club for more than 21 days a year there – some­thing which he is plain­ly already doing.

Washington Post tal­ly records Trump as hav­ing spent at least 130 days of his pres­i­den­cy there. Other out­lets quote sub­stan­tial­ly high­er fig­ures. As ear­ly as December 2017, NBC News found that Trump had spent 133 days (over 4 months) of his first 10 months of his pres­i­den­cy at Mar-a-Lago.

Last month, lawyers for Trump’s next-door neigh­bours deliv­ered a for­mal let­ter, stat­ing that they would hold him to the 1993 agree­ment, and mak­ing it clear they did not wish him to reside there. Another stip­u­la­tion of the agree­ment is that the club is only licensed to have a max­i­mum of 500 mem­bers: accord­ing to Leamer’s book, Trump’s neigh­bours have argued that he’s long been well over that limit.

An openDemocracy analy­sis of the mul­ti-mil­lion-dol­lar spike in join­ing fee income shown in Mar-a-Lago from Trump’s leaked tax returns sug­gests at least 100 new mem­bers signed up between 2014 and 2017, at a time when the join­ing fee was still only $100,000. (Trump dou­bled the fee on becom­ing pres­i­dent.) This in itself may be a seri­ous under-esti­mate – not only because we have yet to see fig­ures after 2017, but also because Trump has long been known to offer spur-of-the-moment dis­counts for friends, or for famous indi­vid­u­als he is keen to see become mem­bers. All this rais­es the ques­tion of just how many mem­bers Mar-a-Lago actu­al­ly has.

Palm Beach is not Trump country

Trump’s depar­ture from the White House may well prompt a new bat­tle over his use of Mar-a-Lago. But there may also be more triv­ial irri­ta­tions in store. He has long fought a rear­guard action against fly­overs from the pri­vate planes of Palm Beach’s bil­lion­aires, spend­ing 30 years try­ing to reroute flights away from Mar-a-Lago. The land for the near­by Trump International Golf Course West Palm Beach is leased from Florida’s Department of Airports, in no small part to pre­vent its use for air traffic.

Upon becom­ing President, Trump had this long-fes­ter­ing griev­ance resolved in his favour: due to nation­al secu­ri­ty, all flights around Mar-a-Lago are ground­ed when the President is in res­i­dence. Now, he faces hav­ing to put up with one of his biggest bug­bears once again.

This year’s annu­al black-tie gala New Year’s Eve par­ty at Mar-a-Lago went ahead despite the pan­dem­ic, draw­ing com­plaints for the hun­dreds of mask­less mem­bers and guests milling around. In its wake, Omari Hardy, a mem­ber of Florida’s House of Representatives and for­mer Palm Beach Town Council mem­ber, has called for Mar-a-Lago to be shut down. Trump can expect this to be only the first of many attempts to remove his club licence.

The Trump Organization and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Mr Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

openDemocracy

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