A re­sort with the pres­i­dent as a perk

Mar-a-Lago’s new ca­chet is a cash boon for char­ity galas and owner Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY DREW HAR­WELL AND DAVID A. FAHREN­THOLD

The women of the Palm Beach Ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter had whis­pered among them­selves that Pres­i­dent Trump might pop in for their Hab-a-Hearts Lun­cheon at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s lux­u­ri­ous pri­vate club.

“It was Pres­i­dents’ Day at the pres­i­dent’s house and the pres­i­dent was in town. Then, by golly, he showed up,” said Tina Philips, pres­i­dent of the cen­ter, a char­ity that pro­vides job train­ing and other ser­vices to adults with dis­abil­i­ties. “He took the mi­cro­phone and talked to the group, and the ladies all went wild. He was in a very sup­port­ive crowd.”

It was a lu­cra­tive guest ap­pear­ance for the group, which sold about 30 ex­tra tick­ets, at $250 a pop, to ad­di­tional at­ten­dees ex­press­ing ex­cite­ment about a po­ten­tial Trump sight­ing, Philips said. The group took in about $13,000 ex­tra.

Trump’s club also made more money, since, ac­cord­ing to groups that hold events there, its charges are based on the num­ber of guests. The char­ity paid about $46,000 for food and to rent the Don­ald J. Trump Grand Ball­room, up about $4,000 from last year, Philips said.

Mar-a-Lago will soon close for the sea­son, as Palm Beach’s wealthy snow­birds re­turn north. That will bring an end to one of the odd­est ex­per­i­ments in mod­ern Amer­i­can pol­i­tics — in which a sit­ting pres­i­dent has be­come a mon­ey­mak­ing at­trac­tion for his

pri­vate busi­ness.

In the six months since his elec­tion, Trump’s pres­ence, or pos­si­ble pres­ence, be­came a ticket-sell­ing draw gen­er­at­ing ex­tra cash for his cus­tomers and him­self. The sea­son also showed that the Trump ef­fect can cut both ways, with one char­ity that faced crit­i­cism for host­ing an event there ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a de­cline in ticket sales.

The Wash­ing­ton Post iden­ti­fied more than 45 events since Elec­tion Day in which out­side groups paid to rent space at Mar-a-Lago. Hedge-fund in­vestors noshed by the pool. Zoo an­i­mals prowled for the en­ter­tain­ment of donors. Men in mil­i­tary gear dropped from a he­li­copter near the lake­front cock­tail bar and stormed a lawn full of so­cialites as part of a ben­e­fit for the Navy SEAL Foun­da­tion.

In at least 10 of those cases, the events turned out to be a lit­tle big­ger, and to raise a lit­tle more money, than in past years, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with event or­ga­niz­ers. That of­ten meant that they paid Trump’s club a lit­tle more money.

The rea­son, some or­ga­niz­ers said, was that Trump’s event cus­tomers could of­fer the grandeur of the pres­i­dency as an added at­trac­tion for po­ten­tial at­ten­dees. The trend is likely to con­tinue next year, as some char­i­ties plan­ning Mar-a-Lago events for the 2018 sea­son are hop­ing the dates they book co­in­cide with times that Trump is staying at the club.

“Now that you have all this se­cu­rity, it just cre­ates [this sense of], ‘You’re spe­cial by be­ing there,’ ” said Jennifer McGrath, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the char­ity Hear­ing the Ovar­ian Cancer Whis­per. The group’s late-Jan­uary lun­cheon at Mar-a-Lago drew 75 more peo­ple than last year, McGrath said.

“Now that it’s the pres­i­dent’s win­ter home, there’s that great chance that he might pop into your event,” she said. “And that’s kinda good, too.”

The Trump con­nec­tion has not been all good for some of Mar-aLago’s char­ity cus­tomers.

The Dana-Far­ber Cancer In­sti­tute’s Fe­bru­ary gala, which at­tracted crit­i­cism be­cause Trump’s ex­ec­u­tive or­der on im­mi­gra­tion had af­fected so many doc­tors, drew about 100 fewer peo­ple than in 2016, mak­ing the in­sti­tute the only char­ity con­tacted by The Post that re­ported a de­crease in at­ten­dance from its Mar-a-Lago event a year ear­lier. Pro­ceeds from the an­nual event dropped by $50,000, the group said.

The in­sti­tute’s lead­ers promised to avoid “con­tro­ver­sial” venues in the fu­ture, and on Fri­day, a spokes­woman said the group is moving next year’s gala to the Break­ers, the only other ma­jor venue in tiny Palm Beach.

Also Fri­day, the Palm Beach Daily News, the is­land’s pre­mier chron­i­cler of gos­sip and so­cial events, re­ported that three ad­di­tional char­i­ties that have held events in the past at Mar-a-Lago, in­clud­ing the Mi­ami-based Bas­com Palmer Eye In­sti­tute, have opted for other lo­ca­tions next year. Of­fi­cials from Bas­com Palmer, whose guests for an ear­lyMarch gala at Mar-a-Lago were greeted by Trump out­side the event en­trance, con­firmed that it would hold its two events next year at the Break­ers.

Trump’s pri­vate com­pany, the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion, did not an­swer a list of de­tailed ques­tions about the sea­son’s events. White House of­fi­cials did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

The prom­i­nent role Trump has taken at the cen­ter of his pri­vate club’s events busi­ness il­lus­trates the ex­tent to which he stands to make money from the pres­i­dency, a key con­cern that has been raised by ethics ex­perts and Demo­cratic law­mak­ers. Although the pres­i­dent says he has given up day-to­day man­age­ment of the com­pany, his de­ci­sion to re­tain own­er­ship means he re­mains its ben­e­fi­ciary as Mar-a-Lago mem­bers, event hosts and at­ten­dees pay for the op­por­tu­nity to at­tend events where they might well en­counter the pres­i­dent.

Mar-a-Lago, the pala­tial 1920s es­tate that Trump bought in 1985 and turned into an ex­clu­sive club 10 years later, has al­ready be­come a point of con­tro­versy in the early months of this un­usual pres­i­dency.

Soon af­ter Trump won the elec­tion, the club dou­bled its ini­ti­a­tion fee to $200,000, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports, restor­ing the amount to its pre-re­ces­sion level. As pres­i­dent, Trump has taken seven trips to the lux­ury wa­ter­front re­sort, of­ten for a quick weekend get­away and a few rounds of golf, with his staff, mo­tor­cade and Se­cret Ser­vice de­tail in tow. In ad­di­tion to the travel costs, tax­pay­ers have footed the bill for se­cu­rity around Trump’s club so it can dou­ble as a sec­ondary pres­i­den­tial of­fice and home.

Dur­ing the busy so­cial sea­son of glitzy dances, din­ners and galas that runs from De­cem­ber to March, Trump or his wife, Melania, at­tended at least nine char­ity events, by The Post’s count.

At some of the big­gest events, Trump was the cen­ter of the night’s at­ten­tion. At the Amer­i­can Red Cross’s Ver­sailles-themed ball in Fe­bru­ary, Trump stood at a lectern with the pres­i­den­tial seal as wait­ers and mu­si­cians milled about in Marie An­toinette-era wigs.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the room look­ing more beau­ti­ful — per­haps at our wed­ding — right, Melania?” Trump told the crowd.

This was a fa­mil­iar scene for Trump at Mar-a-Lago, where the for­mer re­al­ity-TV star had loved play­ing the role of owner, a bona fide star among the merely wealthy. This year, he was far more than that.

At the Dana-Far­ber gala, Trump and his en­tourage en­tered just as mu­si­cian David Fos­ter was start­ing his per­for­mance, draw­ing a huge ova­tion and forc­ing the singer to pause and ac­knowl­edge a big­ger star.

“Well, ei­ther I have the best tim­ing in the world, or the worst tim­ing in the world,” Fos­ter quipped, ac­cord­ing to a re­port on the health news site Stat­news.com. Fos­ter car­ried on, the site re­ported: “In spite of the one hun­dred armed men that are now in the room, we’re go­ing to try to have some fun.”

At other events, Trump made much briefer ap­pear­ances. He and Melania Trump dropped in to see vol­un­teers set­ting up for the Amer­i­can Cancer So­ci­ety ben­e­fit in Fe­bru­ary, pos­ing for pic­tures but leav­ing be­fore the event be­gan, ac­cord­ing to the group.

Other Trump fam­ily mem­bers have stepped in at times to help boost events’ pres­tige. The Big Dog Ranch Res­cue’s “Wine, Women and Shoes Lun­cheon” in March in­cluded not only a dog fash­ion show but a speech from Lara Trump, the wife of the pres­i­dent’s son Eric. She is to co-chair the event next year with Ge­orgina Bloomberg, the eques­trian daugh­ter of bil­lion­aire for­mer New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.

Lara Trump did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment. Bloomberg said the al­lure of Trump could be a wel­come draw for a good cause look­ing to raise more money. “It’s nice to get some peo­ple, who wouldn’t oth­er­wise go to a dog res­cue, to come to your event just be­cause some­one’s gonna be there,” she said.

Even when he was not around, the pres­i­dent’s un­pre­dictable sched­ule im­bued the club with a will-he-or-won’t-he mys­tique that Palm Beach’s event-hop­pers found dif­fi­cult to ig­nore.

“It’s the pres­i­dent’s home. It’s the ‘win­ter White House.’ And peo­ple are ob­vi­ously hop­ing that he will show up,” said Michael Bar­nett, the chair­man of the Palm Beach County Republican Party. The lo­cal GOP’s Lin­coln Day din­ner was held at Mar-a-Lago, where of­fi­cials had hinted that Trump might ap­pear — send­ing an on­line in­vi­ta­tion show­ing Abra­ham Lin­coln wear­ing a “Make Amer­ica Great Again” hat with the mes­sage: “Speaker to be an­nounced.”

Trump didn’t show. The healthown bill was suf­fer­ing a neardeath ex­pe­ri­ence, and the pres­i­dent stayed in Wash­ing­ton. Melania Trump at­tended in­stead, although her pres­ence was fleet­ing: She stayed for about 15 min­utes at a VIP re­cep­tion fea­tur­ing Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and pro-Trump YouTube stars Di­a­mond and Silk.

Still, the event sold out, draw­ing 692 peo­ple who paid at least $300 per ticket, Bar­nett said. At­ten­dance was up a lit­tle from last year, and Trump’s club made a lit­tle more, too. The GOP paid $150,000 for the din­ner, about $10,000 more than in 2016, Bar­nett said.

But, Bar­nett said, the Florida GOP saves money in other ways. Be­fore Trump ran for of­fice, the group had to spend $5,000 a year send­ing out in­vi­ta­tions to the din­ner. Now that the event is at the pres­i­dent’s house, the group doesn’t have to, he said. “We sent out an email blast. We put out no­ti­fi­ca­tions on Face­book,” Bar­nett said. “We sold out within a cou­ple of weeks, and we had about 300 on the waiting list.”

Some or­ga­niz­ers de­scribed their Mar-a-Lago events as apo­lit­i­cal, say­ing the space is too lovely and the staff too friendly for them to stay away. The Break­ers, a fives­tar ho­tel a few miles north of Trump’s club, is the only other gala-size fa­cil­ity on the is­land. Un­like Mar-a-Lago, how­ever, it does not come with a pres­i­den­tial seal of ap­proval. A spokes­woman for the Break­ers said the ho­tel’s busi­ness has not been af­fected by Mara-Lago.

Trump’s club can­not al­ways avoid its link to the high­est rungs of Amer­i­can power. Af­ter a North Korean mis­sile test in Fe­bru­ary, Trump, Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe and their top aides con­vened a strat­egy ses­sion on the club’s open ter­race as nearby din­ers snapped pho­tographs. “Wow ..... the cen­ter of the ac­tion !!!! ” club mem­ber Richard DeAgazio wrote on Face­book.

Trump’s first ap­pear­ance of the sea­son at Mar-a-Lago was shortly be­fore Christ­mas, when the pres­i­dent-elect popped into an event that the World Af­fairs Coun­cil of Palm Beach was host­ing in the club’s White and Gold Ball­room.

“Is he do­ing a good job?” Trump asked the crowd, re­fer­ring to David Shedd, the re­tired De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency act­ing direc­tor who was a guest speaker at the event, ac­cord­ing to the Palm Beach Daily News. “He bet­ter be; he’s on my com­mit­tee,” as in his tran­si­tion team, Trump said.

That or­ga­ni­za­tion’s event at Mar-a-Lago drew about 20 per­cent more peo­ple than in past years and raised an ex­tra $6,000 or $7,000, said its chair­man, Dou­glas Evans. Evans said he was not sure how much more the group paid Mar-a-Lago.

Sev­eral events touted their own Trump-size theatrics. A Sal­va­tion Army gala fea­tured an in-pool per­for­mance by a synchronized-swim team, the Palm Beach Daily News re­ported. A Navy SEAL Foun­da­tion ben­e­fit show­cased a mil­i­tary sim­u­la­tion near the club’s pris­tine palms, dur­ing which seem­ingly armed troops in ar­mored ve­hi­cles took down faux ter­ror­ists driv­ing a car with “Wee Khill You” scrawled on the side, ac­cord­ing to the Daily News. Of­fi­cials from those groups did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

But no spec­ta­cle com­pares to the pres­i­den­tial-style up­grades that have trans­formed the club into a high-se­cu­rity fortress, with metal de­tec­tors, pa­trol dogs and Se­cret Ser­vice agents on alert.

“It’s tremen­dous en­ergy there. Tremen­dous en­ergy,” said Lois Pope, whose foun­da­tion hosted its “Lady in Red” gala at the club in De­cem­ber. “My daugh­ter said, ‘Mom, it’s sur­real. There’s the pres­i­dent, sit­ting two ta­bles away.’ ”

Many of the up­per-crust events seemed to clash with the pop­ulist sales pitches Trump de­liv­ered to mid­dle-class sup­port­ers on the cam­paign trail. On Jan. 12, Mar-aLago hosted a $1,000-a-per­son, in­vi­ta­tion-only wine auc­tion. The event was hosted by the Ray­mond F. Kravis Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, named for the fa­ther of Henry Kravis, the pri­vate-eq­uity bil­lion­aire and buy­out artist chron­i­cled in the book “Bar­bar­ians at the Gate.” The Kravis Cen­ter did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Wall Street also had a siz­able pres­ence at Trump’s club. Al­care though the pres­i­dent has con­tended that “hedge-fund guys are get­ting away with mur­der” when it comes to taxes, his club played host to the Palm Beach Hedge Fund As­so­ci­a­tion and a Dis­tressed In­vest­ing Sum­mit within three days of each other in March. An in­vi­ta­tion to the sum­mit de­scribed Mar-a-Lago as “one of the most highly re­garded pri­vate lairs in the world.” Nei­ther the sum­mit’s or­ga­niz­ers nor the hedge­fund as­so­ci­a­tion re­sponded to re­quests for com­ment.

And while Trump as a can­di­date ar­gued that low-wage over­seas la­bor was un­der­min­ing the U.S. work­force, say­ing that “our jobs are be­ing stolen like candy from a baby,” Mar-a-Lago seeks for­eign work­ers to fill many jobs serv­ing the needs of its guests, ac­cord­ing to U.S. Depart­ment of La­bor data. Records show that the Trump com­pany filed Mar-aLago visa ap­pli­ca­tions for 15 house­keep­ers (start­ing at $10.17 an hour), 19 cooks (start­ing at $12.74 an hour) and 30 restau­rant servers (start­ing at $11.13 an hour, with no tips) to work at the club through the end of this month.

Like his old cam­paign ral­lies, many of the events at Mar-a-Lago of­fered Trump a refuge of adu­la­tion away from the tra­vails of gov­er­nance. At the Hab-a-Hearts Lun­cheon, Trump en­tered the ball­room to a stand­ing ova­tion and held court in front of a gi­ant Amer­i­can flag, call­ing the as­sem­bled at­ten­dees “the finest group of peo­ple you’ll ever meet,” a video shows. “He’s the best!” a woman screamed as Se­cret Ser­vice agents swept the pres­i­dent and his red “USA” hat through the door.

Be­fore the elec­tion, Philips, the Palm Beach Ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter’s pres­i­dent, said she would con­sider the po­ten­tial so­cial fall­out be­fore book­ing the club again. But af­ter Trump won, she reaf­firmed her group’s con­nec­tion to what she called Palm Beach’s best venue. The group is plan­ning to host another big event at Mar-a-Lago next spring.

The char­ity Hear­ing the Ovar­ian Cancer Whis­per did not get a visit from Trump him­self. But it still did well. Its event brought in $425,000 that day, up from $371,000 last year, ac­cord­ing to McGrath, the group’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor. Mean­while, McGrath said, the char­ity paid Mar-a-Lago about $60,000 to hold the lunch, up from $45,000.

“I got a lot of peo­ple com­ing in from Mi­ami, which I hadn’t in the past, and I think they just kind of wanted to see what Mar-a-Lago was all about, and with this be­ing the pres­i­dent’s win­ter home,” McGrath said. Mi­ami is more than an hour south.

Next year, though, the group has higher hopes that Trump will ap­pear. This year’s lunch was on a Thurs­day. For next year, it has re­served a Fri­day, a more con­ve­nient day for guests but one that comes with the bonus that Trump is more likely to be in town.

Next year, “if Trump is com­ing in Fri­day af­ter­noon, I would guar­an­tee he’s go­ing to pop in,” McGrath said. “I mean, he’s just up­stairs.”

DA­MON HIG­GINS/PALM BEACH POST

ABOVE: The pres­i­dent and first lady Melania Trump ar­rive for the 60th an­nual Red Cross Gala at Mar-a-Lago on Feb. 4. Many char­i­ties stag­ing ben­e­fit events at Mar-a-Lago now count on the chance of a pres­i­den­tial sight­ing to boost their ticket sales.

SU­SAN WALSH/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

TOP: A rear view of Don­ald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Fla., in De­cem­ber 2005. Since Trump won the pres­i­dency, the club’s pri­vate­mem­ber ini­ti­a­tion fee has re­turned to its pre-re­ces­sion level of $200,000.

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