Inside Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago: The Winter White House
After a year in office, the US president’s business and political worlds remain closely intertwined. Suzanne Lynch pays a visit
US first lady Melania Trump (L) and US president Donald Trump (third from left) pose with Chinese president Xi Jinping (second from right) and his wife Peng Liyuan (right) upon their arrival to the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, on April 6th, 2017. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Nestled behind the foliage and palm trees of the southern Florida coastline, the terracotta turrets of a grand residence gradually edge into view. The 128-room mansion overlooking the glistening Atlantic Ocean has long been one of the prime properties along this stretch of coastline.
Outside on this warm weekday morning in December, members of the private members’ club are playing croquet on the lawn. A gardener and member of the ground staff discretely work a few metres away – or so it appears, until a closer look shows they are wearing the signature secret-service wirepiece behind their ears.
This is Mar-a-Lago, the private members’ club owned by Donald Trump, America’s 45th president. More recently it has become known as the ‘Winter White House’ as the president spends more and more of his winter weekends in the southern retreat.
The property is situated in Palm Beach, an exclusive coastal town an hour’s drive north of Miami.
Palm Beach has long been a mecca for America’s rich. From the early 20th century, financiers and wealthy magnates began flocking south to the region during the winter months.
Today, the town has a refined elegance that sets it apart from many other parts of the United States. This is a world of long, expensive lunches served in tiled courtyards, and rows of exclusive boutiques. Glamorous shop assistants saunter along the exquisitely-manicured streets wearing expensive clothes and holding signs advertising their stores, stopping every now and then to chat to passersby. An upmarket surf shop serves cocktails to customers as they browse.
Donald Trump has already hosted an unrivalled number of foreign dignitaries at his private club
The pervasive atmosphere is one of leisure, luxury, and, above all, wealth. Along the tree-lined Royal Palm Way, boutique wealth management firms sit side by side with banking giants like JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch, a signal of the immense wealth that permeates a community that once counted fallen financier Bernie Madoff as a regular visitor.
It is here that Donald Trump arrived with a bang in the 1980s.
The future president first tried to purchase two apartments in the town but heard that Mar-a-Lago, the estate built in the 1920s by society heiress Marjorie Merriweather, was on the market.
After first offering $25 million for the property, he threatened to buy the beachfront land in front of Mar-a-Lago and build a property that would obstruct the view. The vendors sold for less than $8 million, a jaw-droppingly low price even for the time.
While Trump and his first wife Ivana spent their early years at Mar-a-Lago lavishly entertaining guests, by the 1990s Trump was in financial difficulty. As documented in Vanity Fair, local Palm Beach residents got wind of a proposal to subdivide the property into smaller units and were outraged, sparking the first of the firebrand tycoon’s legal battles with his adopted community.
Eventually, after launching a $50 million lawsuit against the town, he opened Mar-a-Lago as a private members’ club, much to the disdain of his haughty neighbours, who never fully accepted the brash New York property tycoon. Just as Trump the real estate developer bullied his way into a reluctant Manhattan high society, the future president successfully bought and sued his way into the Palm Beach community.
Today, a giant US flag soars above Mar-a-Lago, and the skies overhead are curiously quiet. One of the benefits of Trump’s ascension to the presidency is that commercial aircraft are banned from flying over the airspace of Mar-a-Lago – not a bad result for a man who waged a 20-year battle with Palm Beach County in a bid to stop flights from the nearby West Palm Beach Airport from passing overhead.
As recently as 2015, he sued for $100 million, accusing Palm Beach County of “creating an unreasonable amount of noise, emissions and pollutants at Mar-a-Lago”.
But the role of Mar-a Lago has also come into the spotlight for different reasons as the president has chosen to swap Washington for his southern home. Last month he celebrated Thanksgiving in Mar-a-Lago, traditionally the first weekend of the winter season.
While the idea of a “Winter White House” is not unprecedented – President Truman spent 178 days of his presidency in an old naval command headquarters in Key West in southern Florida – Donald Trump has already hosted an unrivalled number of foreign dignitaries at his private club.
Within weeks of his inauguration, Trump invited Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese leader Xi Jin Ping to meet him at his Florida getaway, raising uncomfortable questions about the boundaries between public and private and government and business within the Trump administration.
Pictures of the US and Japanese leaders apparently discussing their response to the latest ballistic missile test by North Korea on the patio of Mar-a-Lago in February while paying guests and a wedding party looked on, alarmed many.
In April, the president’s daughter and adviser Ivanka sat beside Chinese leader Xi Jin Ping at a banquet – the next day three Ivanka Trump trademarks were approved by the Chinese authorities.
Despite a court order in July directing the Department of Justice to release the identities of all the presidential visitors to the estate, only 22 names – all part of the Japanese prime minister’s entourage – have been released so far.
We don’t know where Trump’s business empire borrows his money
These potential conflicts of interest are part of a broader web of business and political entanglements that many believe leave the president compromised.
Richard Painter, a professor of law at Minnesota University and chief White House ethics lawyer under George W Bush, believes Donald Trump is one of the most ethically compromised presidents in modern US history.
“We’ve had other rich presidents – Roosevelt, Kennedy, Herbert Hoover – but there have never been conflicts of interest like this. Further, he is blatant about his conflicts of interest – he essentially believes as president he can do whatever he wants.”
Discussions of Trump’s potential conflicts of interests tend to cluster around several key areas.
Firstly, his refusal to disclose his tax returns, in keeping with previous presidents, has been a constant issue both during and after the campaign. It has become even more pertinent in recent months as the Republican party prepares to agree a huge tax-reform package, spawning legitimate questions about whether any of the proposed changes in tax loopholes, or treatment of foreign earnings, may benefit him personally.
In addition, Painter believes Trump’s refusal to disclose his tax returns shields critical information about how he finances his businesses. “We don’t know where Trump’s business empire borrows his money. We don’t have anything about his financial relationships, or how his businesses are financed. We need to know who are the counterparties of all these entities he deals with.”
Secondly, his decision not to divest himself of his businesses or establish a blind trust to manage his interests is also a break with precedent. Trump outsourced the running of the Trump Organisation to his two eldest sons and a business associate, a move that many ethics experts view as insufficient.
But much of the problem seems to be rooted in the system itself. While in practice, virtually all modern presidents have dissociated themselves from any private business interests, most of the federal laws setting out ethics requirements for members of Congress and the government do not apply to the president.
As a result, campaigners and organisation such as Crew (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), which counts Painter as a board member, have focused on a clause in the US constitution, known as the emoluments clause, which states that “no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign states”.
The several emolument lawsuits which have been launched, and continue to wind their way through the courts, have focused on Trump’s various overseas partnerships and his hotel in Washington DC, but have yet to yield results.
In recent months, attention has focused specifically on possible conflicts of interest that may underpin Trump’s relationship with Russia. There is speculation that Trump’s financial links with Russian-owned banks, perhaps through loans or investments, is emerging as a key focus of the ongoing Russian investigation being led by Robert Mueller.
For example, if it is proved that the Trump team’s Russian strategy during the election – we now know former national security adviser Mike Flynn discussed US sanctions with the Russian ambassador – was in any way influenced by Trump’s financial associations with Russian-owned entities, then the president could be in trouble.
Also at issue is Trump’s business brand, and whether the president’s own business interests and reputation are being enriched by the presidency.
Donald Trump amassed a multi-billion dollar business, involving hotels, casinos, golf courses and condominiums over his 40-year career. His first foray into the hotel business was at the age of 34 when he revamped the old Commodore Hotel near New York’s Grand Central Station. Today, the Trump Organisation, which spans approximately 500 business entities, owns more than 30 hotels, hotel developments or complexes including residential towers, and casinos, though many are leased out to third-party owners.
One of these is the Trump International Beach Resort in Miami, an upmarket hotel with adjoining residential condominiums located about 60 miles south of Mar-a-Lago.
Like many of the Trump hotels around the world, the Trump Miami resort is owned and managed by a third-party company which has licensed the Trump brand. Though stylishly designed in cool blue and gold hues, the Trump brand is everywhere, from the sugar sachets in the dining room to the slippers and bathrobe in the bedrooms.
Discreetly-placed advertisements in the hotel rooms advertise the nearby Trump condo-apartments for sale. “Own a Piece of Trump,” says one card advertising condos at ‘Trump Palace’ and ‘Trump Royal” with prices starting at $699,000.
Larry Chiagouris, professor of marketing at the Lubin School of Business in Pace University, New York, believes the Trump brand has benefitted from the presidency.
“One of the first principles in branding is to make sure that people know your name, that people are aware of you. Before he became president, a certain percentage of people knew Donald Trump; now that he’s president almost everyone is aware of who he is. Whether you like him or dislike him – and the world is split – there is no doubt that Donald Trump has a higher brand recognition than anyone on the planet.”
But while the Trump name continues to have commercial caché abroad, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, domestically there are growing signs the Trump brand may be hurting.
The Trump SoHo hotel in Lower Manhattan has recently become the latest property to demand the removal of the Trump brand. Three residential buildings in the city also voted to abolish the Trump name. Similarly, the Trump International Hotel in Toronto reached a financial agreement with the Trump Organisation to remove the Trump name and will reopen as a St Regis.
The Trump Organisation itself has also opted to omit its founder’s name on two new hotel lines that are being launched this year in Mississippi, which are being marketed under the names “Scion” and “American Idea”.
There are signs that Trump’s daughter Ivanka’s fashion brand may be feeling the heat domestically, though her stock continues to rise abroad. Earlier this year, upmarket department store Nordstrom announced it would discontinue her brand at its stores, prompting an outburst by her father on Twitter,who said Ivanka had been treated “so unfairly” by Nordstrom.
Ivanka, who works for her father in the White House and controversially took his place during a G20 meeting in Hamburg earlier this year, has argued she has taken steps to distance herself from her business interests, absenting herself from day-to-day management. Her company’s assets are now run by “independent” trustees – her sister-in-law and brother-in-law.
For some parts of the Trump empire, business continues to boom, however. A few blocks west of the White House stands the Trump International Hotel, which opened the month before last year’s election in the elegant Old Post Office building. Its iconic tower looms across the city’s skyline.
The hotel, which boasts an Ivanka Trump spa, has become the meeting-place of choice for lobbyists and foreign visitors in the city. So much so that the attorneys general of Maryland and DC have launched a lawsuit, citing the emoluments cause, attesting that other hotels and businesses in the area have been adversely affected by the surge in business at the Trump hotel.
In many ways, the hotel symbolises the uncomfortable proximity between executive power and commercial interest that characterises the Trump presidency.
Larry Chiagouris believes the real question is how the presidency will affect the Trump business model once he leaves office.
“When he retires from the presidency it is arguable that his brand will be even more valuable. Memory will dim. More people like Obama now than when he was president – similarly with Bush. It is likely that more people will like Trump, while his high standing abroad is likely to continue. It looks like Donald Trump will have a bright future for however he longs he lives.”