A king in his castle: How Donald Trump ticks, according to his butler

The palace de Trump is not where the great man goes to get away from it all; rather, Mar-de-Lago is where it is all brought to him

 

Everything seems to sparkle here at the Mar-a-Lago estate on a recent afternoon. The sun glints off the pool and off the black Secret Service SUVs in the circular driveway. Palm trees rustle in a warm breeze, croquet balls click, and a security guard stands at the entrance to Donald Trump’s private living quarters.

“You can always tell when the king is here,” Trump’s longtime butler here, Anthony Senecal, says of the master of the house, a Republican presidential candidate. The king is returning today to his Versailles, a snowbird’s paradise that will become a winter White House if he is elected president.

Mar-a-Lago, with its 118 rooms, is where the Donald comes to escape, entertain and luxuriate in a Mediterranean-style manse, built 90 years ago by wealthy cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Few people here can anticipate Trump’s demands and desires better than Senecal, who is 74. He has worked at the property for nearly 60 years, and for Trump for nearly 30 of them. He understands Trump’s sleeping patterns and how he likes his steak (“It would rock on the plate, it was so well done”), and how Trump insists – despite the hair salon on the premises – on doing his own hair.

Senecal knows how to stroke Trump’s ego and lift his spirits, like the time years ago he received a warning from Trump’s soon-to-land plane that the mogul was in a sour mood. Senecal quickly hired a bugler to play Hail to the Chief as Trump stepped out of his limousine.

Most days, though, Senecal greets Trump with little fanfare, taking the suit he arrives in to be pressed in the basement’s full-service laundry. The next morning, before dawn and after about four hours’ sleep, Trump will meet him at the arched entrance of his private quarters to accept a bundle of newspapers, including the New York Times, the Daily News and the New York Post, as well as the Palm Beach papers.

Trump will emerge hours later, in khakis, a white golf shirt and baseball cap. If the cap is white, the staff has noticed, the boss is in a good mood. If it is red, well, it’s best to stay away.

Retire, expire

Senecal, with horn-rimmed glasses, a walrus moustache and a white pocket kerchief in his black jacket, seems to reflect his boss’s worldview. He worries about attacks by Islamic terrorists and is critical of Trump’s ex-wives.

And, like the man himself, Senecal is at ease among the celebrities who visit the estate. The butler’s up-close observations of Trump over the years have revealed not only the mogul’s quirks (Trump rarely appears in bathing trunks, for example, and does not like to swim) but also his habitual, self-soothing exaggerations.

In the early years, Trump’s daughter Ivanka slept in the same children’s suite that Dina Merrill, an actor and a daughter of Post, occupied in the 1930s. Trump liked to tell guests that the nursery-rhyme-themed tiles in the room were made by a young Walt Disney.

“You don’t like that, do you?” Trump would say when he caught Senecal rolling his eyes. The house historian would protest that it was not true. “Who cares?” Trump would respond with a laugh.

Trump is abundantly proud of his ability to drive a golf ball, once asking rhetorically during a news conference: “Do I hit it long? Is Trump strong?” Senecal suggested that Trump was perhaps not quite as strong as he imagined, remembering times they would hit balls together from the Mar-a-Lago property into the Intracoastal Waterway. “Tony, how far is that?” Trump would ask. “It’s, like, 275 yards,” Senecal would respond, though he says the actual distance is 225 yards.

Still, Senecal says Trump can be generous when the mood strikes him, sometimes peeling $100 bills from a wad to give to the groundskeepers, whom Senecal describes as appreciative. “You’re a Hispanic and you’re in here trimming the trees and everything, and a guy walks up and hands you $100,” Senecal says. “And they love him, not for that, they just love him.”

When she died, in 1973, Marjorie Post left the house to the US government with the intent that it would become a presidential retreat. But the upkeep proved too expensive, and ownership was transferred back to Post’s daughters, who unloaded it to Trump for less than $10 million in 1985. He turned it into a private club a decade later.

These days, what really seems to bug Trump is the sound of planes over the property. The continual roar of engines “drives him nuts,” Senecal says. “Tony!” Trump would often shout. “Call the tower!”

So the candidate is suing the county-run airport. He has also sued the town in a dispute over the size of his estate’s flagpole; the size of the banquet hall he added to the property; and the size of the club, which, to frighten the local gentry, he once threatened to sell to followers of the Rev Sun Myung Moon.

Controversy

“There are a lot of Romanians, there’s a lot of South Africans. We have one Irishman,” Senecal says of the staff, before echoing Trump’s defence that locals shun the short-term seasonal work. “They’re so good,” he says of the foreigners “They are so professional. These local people . . . ” he trails off, making a disapproving face.

Over the decades, Senecal has grown close to the Trump family. He recalls how Trump’s father, Fred, once stepped out of his limo on the club’s gravel driveway and remarked to Senecal: “Somebody better get that coin.” The butler went on his hands and knees and after a few minutes found a crusty penny. “His eyes were incredible,” Senecal says of Fred Trump. “Mr Trump has the same eyes.”

He also remembers Donald’s sons running through the library, panelled with centuries-old British oak and filled with rare first-edition books that no one in the family ever read. When the library became a bar, Trump put up a portrait of himself, posing in tennis whites. “I’ve been in other homes in Palm Beach: same exact painting,” Senecal confides archly. “Just a different head.”

Senecal says he adored the Trump children, but found Ivana, Trump’s first wife, a demanding presence. She would instruct him to “get that spot out of that rug” and then do it herself if he failed. She would occasionally tell Senecal to have the gardeners go inside because she wanted to swim naked in the pool.

Senecal took a sabbatical in 1990 to become the mayor of a town in West Virginia, where he gained some notoriety for a proposal requiring all panhandlers to carry begging permits. He says Trump wrote to him, “This is so great, Tony.”

Senecal returned in 1992 and took up his old butler’s residence, but was soon asked to move out after Trump married Marla Maples, who “really didn’t belong here,” Senecal says. Also, Trump wanted to rent the room out to club members.

A decade later, Trump put his own imprint on Mar-a-Lago by building the 20,000sq ft Donald J Trump Ballroom. The venue made its big debut with the 2005 wedding of Trump to the former Melania Knavs, whom Senecal described as exceptionally compassionate. Senecal greeted guests, including Hillary Clinton, at the door. (He offers a profane description of the Democratic presidential front-runner.)

Senecal’s admiration for his longtime boss seems to know few limits. On March 6th, as Trump made his way through the living room on his way to the golf course, Senecal called out “All rise” to the club members and staff. They rose. Trump was wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap. It was white, not red. He seemed to be in a good mood.

– (New York Times service)

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