With each of President Donald Trump’s trips to the Mar-a-Lago Club — and there have been four in the last five weekends — questions mount about who, exactly, is there with him.
Those wealthy enough to spend $200,000 for a club membership don’t have to try to schedule a meeting with Trump in Washington when they can bump into him at the winter White House and bend his ear for a moment or two.
It’s partly a matter of security, which the Secret Service is scrambling to deal with. But critics say it also is the public’s right to know.
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And, it turns out, it’s not just club members and their guests that can mingle with Trump at what appears to be his favorite getaway; it’s also members of Trump’s many domestic and international golf resorts, who also are allowed to stay at Mar-a-Lago.
Trump is a man who likes to be liked, and reports that he is rubbing shoulders with those who have anted up to join one of Palm Beach’s havens of exclusivity don’t come as much of a shock. Last weekend, for example, Trump was spotted mixing with club members and guests by someone from the hometown newspaper. And Trump wasn’t the only VIP who had flown down from D.C. — dining with him one night were three cabinet secretaries and several top White House aides.
On Monday, eight Democratic senators wrote to Trump and Secret Service officials urging the administration to continue the practice that began in the Obama era of posting White House visitor logs online. And, given the amount of time the president is spending at Mar-a-Lago, they argued, those in attendance at the so-called “pinnacle of Palm Beach” when Trump is there should be disclosed as well, since these wealthy club members have far-better-than-average access to the president.
And visitors to the ornate former estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post can also include individuals who have paid their fees at other clubs in the Trump network.
There’s the Hudson Valley club, for instance, with its “breathtaking” mountain views. Or the Trump National Bedminster (N.J.), which is hosting the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open (and is where Trump may — or may not — want to be buried), or the one outside Washington, D.C., where the Senior PGA Championship will tee off this year.
And then there are the properties abroad: the Trump Doonbeg in Ireland, which dramatically hugs the Atlantic Ocean; the Trump International Golf Links, Scotland, draped along the North Sea; and the recently opened club in Dubai, among others.
“We do have reciprocity with other Trump National and International clubs,” a Mar-a-Lago spokeswoman told OpenSecrets Blog.
That’s a total of 13 other clubs, whose members can visit up to four times per year, according to another staffer at Mar-a-Lago. Which puts a much larger universe of people — thousands larger, in fact — in the position of potentially having conversations casual or substantive with Trump. And while the names of some (though far from all) Mar-a-Lago members have leaked out, the membership lists at the other clubs remain undisclosed.
“Those people don’t even need to buy membership in Mar-a-Lago to get the attention of the president,” said one Mar-a-Lago member, who asked not to be identified, in an interview.
“The American people deserve to know who is potentially paying to have the president’s ear,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in an email. “They must stop stonewalling requests to clarify who is able to interact with the president at Mar-a-Lago,” including members of other Trump properties. Van Hollen was among the senators who signed the letter this week urging Trump to be transparent about these contacts.
The Glitterati of Mar-a-Lago
The Florida paradise is now a place to relax and be seen for a wide array of new members, according to recent lists obtained by POLITICO. This new batch contains writers, CEOs, a Wall Street trader, real estate mavens and hedge fund executives.
It makes for quite the eclectic gathering. You might catch a glimpse of Thomas Peterffy, a Hungarian immigrant and Trump supporter who founded Interactive Brokers, making him the 36th richest person in the United States worth about $13.6 billion, according to Forbes. Or hedge fund executive John Sites and his wife, Cindy, who bought John Lennon’s former house for $23 million in 2016, or Lawrence Rolnick and Kimberly Sorrentino, who bought Trump’s nephew’s Palm Beach house for $8.9 million in 2015. Only a row of hedges separates the residence from Mar-a-Lago’s parking lot.) Carole Hankin is one of the highest paid superintendents in New York, while Martin “Buzzy” Schwartz, a Wall Street trader and dog and horse breeder, authored a book, Pit Bull: Lessons from Wall Street’s Champion Day Trader.
Best-selling author James Patterson is a member, as is well-known Republican lobbyist Ken Duberstein, whose clients include Alibaba, Amgen and America’s Health Insurance Plans, and William Koch, estranged brother of Charles and David.
A Center for Responsive Politics analysis found that the Mar-a-Lagians whose names have been publicized have spent a minimum of $4.9 million on federal-level political contributions since 1989. More than three-quarters of that has gone to Republicans.
Trump received only about $34,000 from this batch of members, appearing to receive the maximum of $5,400 from Katherine Carr, wife of journalist Howie Carr, and Peterffy.
Peterffy seems to have donated the most historically, around $570,000, to a mix of Dems and Republicans, including $16,000 to former Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.); $2,500 to Linda McMahon, Trump’s pick for the Small Business Administration who twice put a small fortune into trying to win a Connecticut Senate seat; and $5,000 to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Mica Mosbacher has given $286,000 to Republican politicians such as Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who got $8,000 and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who received $2,300. Mosbacher sent only $2,700 to Trump, despite being a national surrogate for him.
Myrna Haft of HHH Properties gave $145,500 to Dems like Hillary Clinton (she maxed out this campaign) and Sens. Murphy and Cory Booker (N.J.), while Gary Talarico — a specialist in “distressed investing” — gave $132,000 to Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), among others.
Clinton received at least $27,000 for her Senate and presidential runs from the combined donations of Joel and Cynthia Hirsch, Richard Horowitz, Andrea Schlossberg, Carole and Joseph Hankin and Haft.
Access Denied, but Evidence Contradicts
Two club members who spoke with OpenSecrets Blog denied that Mar-a-Lago membership gave them special access to the president.
One of them, though, already knows Trump well: Mosbacher was a national surrogate for him during the 2016 campaign and is the widow of former Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher — calls Trump “a family friend.”
Another member, who asked not to be named in this story, insisted that “Nobody is getting to influence the president by joining Mar-a-Lago.”
This member, who identifies himself as a progressive who didn’t vote for Trump, said he dined at the club on New Year’s Eve and that Trump was completely surrounded by Secret Service.
“I watched one man who has known Trump a very long time try to say hello and they would not let this person anywhere near him,” he said.
On the other hand, Lynn Aronberg, who owns a local public relations business, posted on Facebook a selfie taken with Melania Trump at the club that night. Plenty of fellow partiers are visible close by in the background.
And in February, club members were able to watch Trump, who was having dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and their wives, react to the unexpected North Korean launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile toward Japan. The administration’s response unfolded before the guests’ eyes; one club member snapped pictures of the president and his staff conducting official business from his ringside seat and posted them on Facebook.
Meanwhile, Mar-a-Lago’s standing as a private business creates a conflict-of-interest problem for Trump, ethics experts say, since the president is benefiting from club members’ initiation fees (which doubled to $200,000 at the start of the 2017) and dues. According to financial disclosure statements, Trump raked in $45.4 million in income from Mar-a-Lago from January 2014 to May 2016. Of course, it’s just one on a long roster of Trump businesses — including his hotel on Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington — that are fueling debate about thorny issues raised by Trump’s public and private roles. It has also been reported that the days Trump has spent at Mar-a-Lago since becoming president have cost taxpayers an estimated $10 million in security and travel costs.
It’s all served to keep demand for rooms and seats at the restaurant high. Mar-a-Lago members and those from Trump clubs elsewhere are now too late to book a weekend stay at the Palm Beach hideaway anytime soon, though: The club is taking reservations only for Mondays through Thursdays until it closes for the summer, a staff member told OpenSecrets Blog. The good news is that there is weekend availability after the re-opening in November.
But, said one member who requested anonymity, the mood has changed since Trump was elected. While Trump’s daughter Ivanka used to sit just a few feet away from him at the swimming pool, he has not seen her since her father was elected.
Staff reporter Ashley Balcerzak and researcher Doug Weber contributed to this post.