Trump retreats to Mar-a-Lago over and over, but at what cost?

President Donald Trump, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pause in their walk after their meetings at Mar-a-Lago on April 7 in Palm Beach. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Donald Trump, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pause in their walk after their meetings at Mar-a-Lago on April 7 in Palm Beach. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Published April 16, 2017

PALM BEACH — A light, warm breeze rolled off the ocean a block away. The pianist at Café L'Europe, a standard poodle at his feet, entertained a capacity crowd, dressed in blazers and pastels, buoyant with champagne. Out front, black and red Ferraris were lined up with a vintage Bentley and a Rolls.

A typical Friday night in Palm Beach, the winding down of "season."

Amid the luxury and esprit de corps, one could overlook the surreal: Six minutes down the road, the 45th president of the United States was decompressing after a high-stakes meeting with his Chinese counterpart, a summit jolted by missile strikes against Syria.

Adding to a decadeslong saga with a town that spins with excitement and resentment over his steady presence, Donald J. Trump is redefining the season.

He returned Thursday for Easter, his seventh visit since taking office, a mix of pleasure and work that fulfills a Winter White House vision for Mar-a-Lago.

Trump appears unbothered by the millions of dollars the visits are costing for security and in lost business, the traffic snarls or the hypocrisy, given his past criticism of former President Barack Obama's travel and golfing.

"The national press is portraying him as half-cocked. But he's just a creature of habit. He's done this since the mid 1990s, coming about every weekend from mid November to Easter," said Gossip Extra writer Jose Lambiet. "He can relate to the place. I think he sees himself as some kind of king."

Unshackled from Washington's controversies and learning curve, Trump retreats to a club that nearly 500 people have paid up to $200,000 to join, affording unprecedented access — and raising objections from Democrats and ethics watchdogs.

Here, he is not just president but socialite-in-chief, mingling with guests or crashing a wedding in the Grand Ballroom with the Japanese prime minister. While Trump's motorcade zooms past the hordes of protesters that turn out for each visit, he sometimes stops for smaller groups of fans. Last month, he dispatched a van to retrieve seven of them. They gazed across the gold-speckled ballroom, a waiter with a tray serving bottles of Trump Natural Spring Water.

"At first we didn't believe it, but then he strolled in with Steve Bannon and a couple security guys. He shook everybody's hand and said, 'What is your name, where are you from?' He was just so nice," said 45-year-old Jennifer Eady of Wellington.

Keep coming, Mr. President, she says. "He doesn't work for any salary. It's also his home. I hope that my home value will go up." Eady didn't drink the water, displaying it next to a framed photo of her and Trump giving a thumbs-up. He's grinning and wearing a red Make America Great Again hat.

Florida helped send Trump to Washington, but its siren has proven irresistible. By Sunday, he will have spent 25 days here out of 86 in office. He has yet to visit New York City, home to Trump Tower.

"I don't know if this was originally the plan, but now it's like, 'Every weekend, I'll come down here, recharge myself and feel like people love me and then go back to the hell of D.C.,' " said Alexander Ives, a third-generation Palm Beacher and former president of the town's Preservation Foundation.

"There's a bit of civic pride in how this has been handled," Ives said. "But it's a grin-and-bear-it situation. The joke around here is hopefully Easter will be his last visit."

• • •

Air Force One landed at Palm Beach International on a Thursday afternoon, and Trump emerged with his wife, Melania, waving to a couple of dozen supporters who had been chosen by the local GOP to watch. Occasionally, he greets them, but this time, Trump rushed off to begin the summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose plane rested across the runway, a stunning illustration of the role Florida is having in the presidency.

When the motorcade is on the move, roads from the airport in West Palm Beach to the island of Palm Beach are closed off, sheriff's deputies lining the way. A 2-mile section of South Ocean Boulevard, where Mar-a-Lago sits, is blocked to traffic throughout Trump's stay, splitting the island in two. Flight restrictions kick in.

On this afternoon, it took minutes for Trump to arrive home and soon he was eating dry-aged prime New York strip steak with Jinping, leaning over during dessert — "the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake," Trump recounted to Fox Business — to inform his guest of the missile strikes in Syria. The setting is opulent and formal but less forced than Washington. Trump is more at ease, deploying a charm offensive.

But outside the resort, his presence is divisive and costly.

Palm Beach is one of the richest places in America, its main business thoroughfare a monument to the 1 percent, dotted with galleries, jewelry shops and boutiques. Palm trees line the way, their lean, towering stalks wrapped in white lights as if every day is a holiday. At one end of Worth Avenue, a 1907 Tiffany lamp can be had for $1.1 million. At the other, $495 velvet slippers are on display at Stubbs & Wootton. Wilbur Ross, a Trump Cabinet member and one of the town's 25 billionaire residents, has a custom pair sporting the Commerce Department logo.

Like the White House's "alternative facts," one can find a dizzying set of reactions to Trump's visits, one proprietor saying things aren't that bad, if not better, and another complaining the situation is unsustainable.

"For us, it's been great," said Javier Gonzalez, general manager at Pizza al Fresco, which was packed on a Friday night, a violinist moving from table to table in an open-air courtyard. "People really want to come to Palm Beach to see the scene."

Others insist customers are staying away due to the south end of the island being closed off to through traffic on Ocean Boulevard. Drivers must take a long and more circuitous route through West Palm Beach.

"It brings nothing. It brings journalists and tourists, but they aren't shopping," said Pascale Duwat, who sells French antiques. "He's spending too many weekends here. It's kind of selfish. He should pay with his own dime for a big bulletproof glass shield, something to protect the house and let us live normally."

"I'm sorry," Duwat added from her shop, empty of patrons, "can't he go to Camp David?" Trump answered that in January, telling foreign reporters: "Camp David is very rustic, it's nice, you'd like it. You know how long you'd like it? For about 30 minutes."

A number of other shopkeepers confirmed business is down but declined to go on the record, half joking Trump would retaliate. Sympathy may be hard to muster beyond the manicured contours of Palm Beach, but the ramifications run deeper than Worth Avenue.

The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office has spent $3.5 million since the election, including $1.5 million for the Chinese president's visit, which attracted a couple of thousand demonstrators. The town of Palm Beach and city of West Palm Beach are grappling with escalating and unbudgeted security costs.

Losses at the county airport in Lantana have hit $1 million, due to the airport effectively being shut down when Trump is in town, because no private flights are allowed within a 10-mile radius of Mar-a-Lago.

There also is the cost to the federal government. Estimates of the trips range from $1 million to $3 million per weekend, which on the high end would mean more than $20 million has been burned. Judicial Watch, a conservative group in Washington that obtained records to determine Obama's travel over eight years cost nearly $100 million, is seeking details on Trump's travel but has gotten nothing so far.

"I just hope they start giving us the records so we don't have to sue," Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton said. He noted reporters are far more interested in Trump's travel than other work the group has done, including Benghazi. "But it's a rather obvious use of taxpayer resources for seemingly unnecessary purposes."

The White House shrugs at the criticism. "The president's very clear that he works seven days a week," press secretary Sean Spicer said during a briefing. "This is where he goes to see his family. He brings people down there. This is part of being president." Some Palm Beach officials, confident federal reimbursement funds will be secured, say the president has brought prestige money can't buy.

"We have to understand we're getting a big win in terms of extraordinary visibility. President Trump has basically taken over our marketing and public relations strategy," said Kelly Smallridge, head of Palm Beach County's business development board. "It puts Palm Beach in a good light rather than the hanging chads and voter issues we've had."

Several financial services companies have discussed relocating to the area, she added.

• • •

A vacationing Trump first saw Mar-a-Lago in the early 1980s. The estate was built decades earlier by Marjorie Merriweather Post and had fallen into disrepair, rejected by the federal government despite her dying wish it become a winter retreat for presidents.

"It smelled. The roof leaked," said Roger Stone, Trump's longtime friend. "I said, 'This is like a haunted mansion.' But he said, 'This could be incredible.' I couldn't see it. It was really beat up."

Trump got the property for about $10 million in 1985, and in 1995, he turned it into a members-only club. Years of fighting between the town and Trump ensued over a range of issues. Some cast it as old money vs. new.

"They hated him. He didn't come over on the Mayflower and neither did his relatives," said Sherry Frankel, who arrived in 1975 and owns a gift shop in town. She counts herself among those who think the president should spend less time here. She voted for Hillary Clinton but says Trump's dedication to Mar-a-Lago has earned him acceptance. "He made it a palace."

For members, proximity to the president has made for some interesting moments. Trump recently ran into famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz and gave him a message for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has told three members they'll get ambassadorships. "Brian, are you ready to go to Ireland?" Trump asked businessman Brian Burns, who hails from Massachusetts but now lives in Palm Beach, according to the Boston Globe. A week ago Saturday, Trump met with billionaire brothers David and Bill Koch, both of whom have homes in Palm Beach.

The less affluent can get close to the action, too. "Since I can't afford a big estate home on the beach, it's like having one," said Albert Levy, 51, who runs an auction house on Worth Avenue where Trump used to shop. Levy and his wife went to the club for dinner last weekend. Their car was scanned by Secret Service dogs and then the couple went through metal detectors. While eating crab cocktail and meatloaf, prepared to Trump's mother's recipe, they saw Trump and the first lady at their table, which was roped off.

"I can't even put it into words," Levy said. "He was being really nice and gracious and talking to people."

Trump maintains a private wing of the estate for his family.

The casual atmosphere has led to questionable situations. In February, Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Over dinner on the terrace, the two scrambled to react to a provocation by North Korea, using cellphones to illuminate documents as Mar-a-Lago members looked on.

"HOLY MOLY !!!" a club member captioned photos he put on Facebook. "Wow.....the center of the action!!!" It drew widespread criticism over the handling of national security issues. "You can't make it up," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

When Trump and his team held discussions on Syria, they were in a secure room, tweeting a photo to show a situation under control.

The mix of business and pleasure has led to questions from Democrats and watchdog groups, who question the influence Trump's friends may have over his decisions and have demanded the White House release Mar-a-Lago's private member list, last week filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that also seeks visitor logs for the White House and Trump Tower in New York.

"Your Winter White House will provide an audience with you for those who can afford it, not to mention an increasing cash-flow into your family-run organization," read a letter from Democratic senators. Trump reported making $15.6 million off the club in 2014.

For Trump, the creature of habit, dealmaker and affection-seeker, Mar-a-Lago embodies his business savvy and appetite for the fine life. "It may be as close to paradise as I'm going to get," he said many years ago.

And he's not about to go away. As Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw recently told a local TV station: "I think we'll see him a little bit more than you might imagine, even during the summer time."

Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports.