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  1. Florida Politics

Greetings from Mar-a-Lago: Donald Trump's presidential paradise

On Wednesday, a U.S. Coast Guard boat passes through the Mar-a-Lago Resort where President-elect Donald Trump spent Thanksgiving in Palm Beach. The Trump family has spent many of their holidays at their South Florida home and security was expected tight in the area. [Photo by Gerardo Mora for Getty Images]
Published Nov. 24, 2016

The 35-year-old vacationing New Yorker had to have it: Mar-a-Lago, a spectacular Mediterranean mansion in Palm Beach set on 17 lush acres spanning the Atlantic to the Intracoastal Waterway.

"Almost immediately I put in a bid of $15 million, and it was promptly rejected," Donald Trump wrote in The Art of the Deal. Three years later, in 1985, he snagged the historic estate for $5 million plus $3 million for furnishings.

"It just goes to show that it pays to move quickly and decisively when the time is right," Trump mused.

DONALD TRUMP, FLORIDA MAN: How Trump bought a mansion, bucked Palm Beach and made the Sunshine State his second home.

President-elect Trump, whose political timing shocked the world, spent Thanksgiving at Mar-a-Lago, closing the loop on a cosmic fate. When the original owner, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, willed it to the federal government in 1973, she envisioned a winter White House. Upkeep costs forced it on the market and into Trump's eager hands.

"It really is over-the-top architecture," said Wes Blackman, who worked on restoring and converting Mar-a-Lago into a members-only club. "Someone can wear an expensive suit and look good while another person doesn't. It takes a certain personality to wear the house. Marjorie Merriweather Post was a larger than life figure, ahead of her time. Some might say that about Donald Trump."

Scott McIntyre | New York Times

The Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, where President-elect Donald Trump spent the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Trump adds to a legacy of presidents who have found escape in Florida. Up the road from Mar-a-Lago, John F. Kennedy relaxed at his family's estate while crafting his inaugural address.

"It's almost a return to Camelot," said Robin Bernstein, a Palm Beach resident and founding member of The Mar-a-Lago Club. "I imagine that instead of hopping in the Trump plane, he'll hop on Air Force One and come on down."

Long before Trump upended politics, the businessman bulldozed his way through sleepy, stuffy Palm Beach, displaying trademark flamboyance — and appetite for confrontation and outlandish lawsuits over airplane noise and flagpoles.

Controversy followed him on the campaign trail. Late in the race, several women emerged to say Trump made unwanted advances at Mar-a-Lago, accusations he denies. Now, Trump's business there and around the globe raise questions about conflicts with his presidential duty.

But hard-charging Trump has prevailed by doing things his way.

"As little as I am interested in relaxing, I enjoy Mar-a-Lago almost in spite of myself," he wrote. "It may be as close to paradise as I'm going to get."

•••

Florida's sun, water and relative privacy have beckoned presidents for decades.

Warren G. Harding vacationed in St. Augustine after his election in November 1920, and often returned to Florida. Ordered by his doctor to get some rest, Harry S. Truman took over a Naval residence in Key West in November 1946 and spent 11 working vacations (spanning 175 days) at the "Little White House," meeting with top officials and discussing legislation, including the Marshall Plan.

Kennedy frequented the family estate in Palm Beach and worked on Profiles in Courage there. In December 1960, a man loaded his Buick with dynamite and waited for the president-elect to walk out of the estate, intending to ram Kennedy's limousine. He aborted because Kennedy was with his wife and children. Three years later, Kennedy spent the weekend in Palm Beach before being assassinated.

Richard Nixon, an avid golfer, purchased a home in Key Biscayne from Democratic Florida Sen. George Smathers and visited at least 50 times. He discussed the Watergate break-in there and when the crisis deepened in Washington, Nixon retreated to Florida.

"It's individualized to a great extent, but there's also a political reason connecting the presidents," said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. "They all looked at making a real connection with Florida voters under the guise it would help in future elections."

Trump brings a unique story, having been a part-time resident for decades. Since buying Mar-a-Lago, which in Spanish means "sea-to-lake," he has expanded his business footprint to commercial real estate and golf courses.

"Florida is just a place I love. My second home. I'm here all the time. I might know Florida better than you do," Trump said before a crowd of several thousand at a rally in Tampa days before the election. He won the Sunshine State, which his predecessor had done twice.

Damon Higgins | Palm Beach Post (2011)

Donald and Melania Trump pose for a photo in front of their favorite spot at Mar-a-Lago.

Mar-a-Lago is Trump's prized possession — and source of legendary battles with Palm Beach. The original plan was to subdivide the property and build homes but that was blocked, leading to the members-only club that carries a $100,000 initiation fee and $14,000 annual dues.

Trump fought town officials on everything from hedges to overflowing crowds at events and parties. He drew fines after putting up an 80-foot flagpole — nearly twice as tall as local ordinance allowed — to fly a massive American flag, also too big. The case was settled and Trump made a $100,000 donation to a veteran support organization.

The money came from Trump's nonprofit foundation, one of several payments it made that raised legal questions. The Washington Post reported last week that the foundation's 2015 IRS filing acknowledged it had engaged in acts of "self-dealing" in prior years, which is prohibited.

Trump had for decades complained about planes from nearby Palm Beach International airport flying over Mar-a-Lago and argued in a 2015 lawsuit that it hurt the value, even though a financial disclosure he filed as a presidential candidate showed he made $15.6 million from the club the year before.

The lawsuit has been dropped now that Trump's president. There will be flight restrictions over Mar-a-Lago while he is there, eliminating the noise.

"I can just imagine he's smiling a lot right now," said former butler Anthony Senecal. "When you were there you would never hear the airplanes until he was there and he would hear them. He'd say 'Call the control tower.' It annoyed the hell out of him."

•••

Trump's visits could bring headaches for residents, though traffic delays were minimal on Tuesday when Trump flew in and motorcaded to his home for Thanksgiving. He was joined by 10-year-old son Barron and his wife, Melania, who was treated to an extravagant wedding reception at Mar-a-Lago in 2005, an affair attended by, among many others, Bill and Hillary Clinton. "Five violinists serenaded guests chatting over caviar, lobster and truffle appetizers," People magazine reported.

Photo by Maring Photography via Getty Images

Newlyweds Donald Trump and Melania Trump talk Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton at their reception at the Mar-a-Lago resort on Jan. 22, 2005.

"Palm Beachers are notoriously finicky and they don't want hassles or inconveniences whatsoever," said Jose Lambiet, who chronicles the scene at gossipextra.com. "Dog poop is a big deal there."

Secret Service agents have already begun checks on Trump's staff and club guests will face security checks when the president is around. "He used to walk around and greet everybody," said Bernstein, the club member. "Unfortunately life as we know it around the club is going to change. But it comes with the territory."

It's unclear what security installments may be coming, though the property was built with three bomb shelters. They have been used as storage for the bakery and banquets. Senecal said he utilized one as an office. "It's great. It's basically soundproof."

Scott McIntyre | New York Times

Reporters gather near the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, where President-elect Donald Trump spent the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

To some, the hassle is worth the extra cache of a president next door.

"Palm Beach is already on the map and it may now be in outer space," said Bill Diamond, a former town council member who was chairman of Palm Beachers for Trump. "I wouldn't be surprised if real estate values go up. We're thrilled to have him near us.

(Not everyone, it seems. In the voting precinct that includes Mar-a-Lago, Trump got 64 percent of the vote; four years ago, Mitt Romney got 78 percent, the Palm Beach Post reported.)

Because Mar-a-Lago is much more than a personal residence, it factors into questions about business conflicts facing Trump. He has eschewed calls from the Wall Street Journal editorial board and other prominent voices to liquidate his assets or establish a true blind trust. Trump says he'll transfer control to his children.

"In theory I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly. There's never been a case like this," he said Tuesday in an interview with the New York Times in which he called the Trump name "certainly a hotter brand than it was before."

However it shakes out, it seems likely Trump will fulfill Marjorie Merriweather Post's desire that Mar-a-Lago become a White House down south. Where President George W. Bush would head to his Texas ranch to clear his head, and clear brush, Trump could relax in luxury. Ten minutes from his club is Trump International Golf Club-West Palm Beach.

"I don't think he's going to be a workaholic president," said Paul George, a history professor at Miami Dade College who has studied presidents in Florida. "When he wants to take off, he's going to take off. You're going to see a lot of (reporter) bylines from Palm Beach."

Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Michael LaForgia contributed to this report.

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