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Why Trump’s Mar-a-Lago is a magnet for grifters

A new book exposes the weird influence-peddling at Trump’s Palm Beach resort.

An entrance way to President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort is seen on November 1, 2019, in Palm Beach, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If you had to pick one place to symbolize the corruption of the Trump era, it might be Mar-a-Lago.

A gaudy resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Mar-a-Lago has become Trump’s home away from home over the past four years. It’s also become a hotbed of influence-peddling. This is the argument of a new book called The Grifter’s Club by a handful of Miami Herald journalists who have spent several years looking into the goings-on at Mar-a-Lago. It’s an eye-opening look at how the club fits into Trump’s world and why it’s such a magnet for well-heeled grifters and would-be movers and shakers (such as Guo Wengui, the Chinese billionaire on whose yacht Steve Bannon was arrested last week).

I reached out by phone to Sarah Blaskey, one of the authors of The Grifter’s Club, to talk about the environment at Mar-a-Lago, who goes there and why, how wealthy socialites and foreign dignitaries have exploited it, and whether Trump’s use of the property during his presidency violates the emoluments clause of the Constitution.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

For people who don’t know, what is Mar-a-Lago and what role does it play in the Trump universe?

Sarah Blaskey

Mar-a-Lago is a historic mansion on a 17-acre property in Palm Beach, Florida, which is a barrier island. The island is eight square miles packed with some of the wealthiest families that exist in our country. We’re talking about old wealth. And Mar-a-Lago is a kind of relic of the old American aristocracy that used to vacation in Palm Beach, Florida.

Trump wasn’t born into that kind of old wealth, though he obviously inherited a lot of money, so he tried to buy his way into Palm Beach society by buying Mar-a-Lago in the 1980s. But eventually it became too expensive for him to maintain, so he turned it into a country club. And now it’s Trump’s official residence (he changed it from New York to Palm Beach last year) and it’s known by him and his confidants as “the winter White House.”

Sean Illing

How many people are members of Mar-a-Lago? What does it cost?

Sarah Blaskey

There are 500 memberships available. It’s actually capped at 500. Prior to Trump’s presidency, there was a $100,000 entry fee, and then there are annual dues that you have to pay, which are much lower than that.

Sean Illing

And the entry fees after Trump became president?

Sarah Blaskey

After Trump became president, the price was hiked to $200,000 because there was a wave of people clamoring to join.

Sean Illing

You document in the book how by 2018 Mar-a-Lago’s revenue had more than doubled compared to the year before Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015. Is the explanation for that as simple as you had a bunch of people wanting to get closer to power?

Sarah Blaskey

I think that’s right. I mean, it’s anyone’s guess. The Trump Organization’s a private business, so we don’t have a look at the books. We just have the annual revenue. But I will say, with the increase in new memberships, you’re talking about maybe $5 million that first year in new membership fees alone. And you’re also talking about people who are now packing the dining room in a way that we’ve never seen before, that are hosting more and more events at Mar-a-Lago in an effort to be closer to the president. I think all of that has had a positive impact on his bottom line.

Sean Illing

But it didn’t last long, right? Trump’s response to the 2017 rally in Charlottesville was a turning point for the business.

Sarah Blaskey

Yeah, it appears there was a major backlash to that and it really hurt his business. The annual profits dipped substantially after that.

Sean Illing

What sort of people have joined the club since Trump took office? What do they think they’re getting out of it, and what are they actually getting out of it?

Sarah Blaskey

The membership list is private, and we don’t know everyone who has joined. But a lot of it is people looking to build brands off of being near the president. And you have billionaires from China and Dubai, people that are business partners of Trump, who are trying to boost their profile and leverage their proximity to the president.

But how close they are to the president is really unclear. Trump may breeze past your table if you’re a new member and say, “Hey, how’s it going?” but he’s not necessarily paying attention to your opinions in the same way he would some of his older members. The older members, like New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, have been friends with Trump for a long time and have been members since the club started. These are the sorts of people whispering into the president’s ears.

Sean Illing

Give me some of the most egregious examples of influence-peddling at Mar-a-Lago.

Sarah Blaskey

Probably the most talked-about example of that right now is Ike Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Comics, who ProPublica reported was basically shadow-running the Veterans Affairs Administration from Mar-a-Lago. And this was very much a relationship that had been established at Mar-a-Lago through a longtime friendship with Donald Trump. So there’s certainly that kind of thing. There’s also more traditional things like Trump handing out ambassadorships to Mar-a-Lago members.

There’s a Chinese billionaire named Guo Wengui who’s been a member for years, even before Trump was president. He’s a whistleblower and a wanted man in China, but he’s applied for asylum in the US. According to our reporting, Trump got a request from a friend in Vegas to deport Wengui and he was all ready to do it until he was stopped at the last minute by his staff. And they stopped him from deporting Wengui by reminding him that he was a Mar-a-Lago member, which sealed it. And Wengui still hasn’t been deported.

But everywhere you look at Mar-a-Lago, someone’s trying to make money off of their access, or their perceived access, or the brands that they’re building around their access. That’s not to say every member does that, but it is certainly common.

Sean Illing

How have foreign leaders used or exploited Mar-a-Lago?

Sarah Blaskey

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe very quickly realized that if he wanted to get in with the Donald, the place to do that was Mar-a-Lago. Especially early in his presidency, Trump was not very comfortable in Washington. But Trump and Abe would hang out at Mar-a-Lago and have dinners and play golf, and the relationship really softened up. Suddenly things were a lot easier. There have been allegations that Trump has actually tried to grease the wheels for some casinos in Japan at one of those dinners. But I think leaders like Abe know that is the place to get Trump feeling comfortable, where you can really play to his strengths.

Sean Illing

What happened the night of the North Korea missile launch when Trump was hosting a summit with Abe?

Sarah Blaskey

I think we all thought the weirdest part of the story was the fact that the guy carrying the nuclear football took a photo with a Mar-a-Lago member that night. But we learned when reporting on this that right before the call came in notifying the president of the missile launch, Trump had been showing off his favorite lounge singer to Prime Minister Abe and was asking her to twirl for Abe. But as she’s twirling, someone who witnessed the scene says that as the call comes she realizes something’s going on and says, “Mr. President, I shouldn’t be here.” And President Trump says, “It’s just nukes. Sing us a song.”

Sean Illing

Honestly, that strikes me as more funny than it is alarming, but I guess it does speak to the bizarre security situation down there. Does anyone even know who’s coming into the club and who’s leaving and where they are in the meantime?

Sarah Blaskey

Not really — it’s the Wild West down there. Let me give you an example. First, every Saturday night, especially when the president is there, maybe 1,000 people will either be attending an event or guests of members who are going to dine at the club. Those guests of members who go to dine on that same terrace where the president of the United States dines each Saturday night that he’s at Mar-a-Lago, they are not background-checked by Secret Service at all. The only thing that they need to get in is they need to be on a list. The member has to call up the club and say, “Hey, I want to bring my friend on Saturday night. Their name is this.” Then they drive through a Secret Service checkpoint.

So, of course, there are bomb-sniffing dogs, that kind of security. They show their ID, proving that they are that name on that list, and then they get in. That list is never screened for terrorists. That list never goes through a background check. And that list isn’t preserved over time anywhere, according to the Trump Organization. It’s just something they have each weekend, and it gets recycled.

And so there’s no log of who has even been there over time. The staff know who are coming, but they don’t know who’s been there. Furthermore, there have been half a dozen examples of unknown people who just sort of wandered into the property, even when the president was there, because the location is so porous that people walk the beach.

Sean Illing

Do we know how much federal money has been spent trying to secure Mar-a-Lago since Trump took office?

Sarah Blaskey

We do not know. There are ongoing lawsuits over the release of the entirety of those receipts. That is not something the government has wanted to release. But the number is big. I mean, the Secret Service has been charged up to $600 a room at Mar-a-Lago every time they go, every time the president goes. They have to rent rooms, to have their equipment to station it from, there’s the per diem, and all kinds of logistical costs. They end up spending these wild amounts of money on single rooms.

Sean Illing

Some of this stuff has to be a violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, right?

Sarah Blaskey

What I think is interesting when talking about emoluments is that usually experts look at something like the Trump hotel in DC, and they argue that foreign dignitaries staying at Trump DC is a violation of the foreign emoluments clause.

At Mar-a-Lago, what experts are talking about is the domestic emoluments clause, which says that the president can’t profit off of the presidency from the US federal government or state governments beyond his or her salary. At Mar-a-Lago, because of the expense of protecting a president, they have to stay there. And because a portion of that money goes back into the president’s pocket because he owns the property, there is concern from a lot of experts that that is a violation of the domestic emoluments clause.

Sean Illing

What do you think becomes of Mar-a-Lago after Trump’s political career is over?

Sarah Blaskey

It’s a fascinating question. I’ve been watching as the annual revenue has declined since Charlottesville. And it may just be that there are fewer new memberships coming in. And it may be that the initial surge of revenue after Trump’s election was never going to hold no matter what happened. It’s still higher than it was pre-presidency, though, and I’d guess that there will still be a fan base that’s interested in going there after his presidency. We’ll see soon enough.


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