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Three fundraising giants cancel plans for galas at Mar-a-Lago

By Drew Harwell, David A. Fahrenthold

August 17, 2017 at 1:33 PM

Workers lay out the red carpet at Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., in 2016. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Three fundraising giants decided to pull events from President Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach on Thursday, signaling a direct blowback to his business empire from his comments on Charlottesville's racial unrest.

The American Cancer Society, a high-dollar client at the club since at least 2009, cited its "values and commitment to diversity" in a statement on its decision to move an upcoming fundraising gala. Another longtime Mar-a-Lago customer, the Cleveland Clinic, abruptly changed course on its winter event only days after saying it planned to continue doing business at Mar-a-Lago, a leading venue for charitable events in the posh resort town.

The American Friends of Magen David Adom, which raises money for Israel's equivalent of the Red Cross, also said it would not hold its 2018 gala at the club "after considerable deliberation," though it did not give a reason. The charity had one of Mar-a-Lago's biggest events last season, with about 600 people in attendance.

The cancellations will undoubtedly squeeze revenue for the private club Trump calls the "winter White House," where similar-size events have often brought in fees of between $100,000 and $275,000 each.

But the Florida club may face an even deeper crisis of confidence from the local business community. The head of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, of which Mar-a-Lago is a member, called the business "morally reprehensible" on Thursday and said she expected more charities to defect.

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President Trump on Aug. 15 said that “there’s blame on both sides” for the violence that erupted in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

"The glitter, the shine has gone from the club," chamber executive director Laurel Baker said, "and I can't help but think there will be more fallout from it."

The rapid rejections of one of the president's signature businesses revealed a possible financial vulnerability for Trump, who has been fiercely criticized this week for equating the actions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis with counterprotesters during a violent weekend in Charlottesville.

They also come days after Trump faced condemnations from corporate executives on two of the White House's top business advisory groups, which were disbanded in a stinging rebuke to Trump after his controversial message.

The White House referred questions about the charitable events to the Trump Organization, which did not respond.

At least seven other groups that frequented Mar-a-Lago — including the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in New York and the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami — have announced in recent months that they would choose other venues, citing reasons such as political differences and security hassles.

Related: [The banquet business was booming at Mar-a-Lago. Then Trump became president.]

Mar-a-Lago's upcoming winter season, the peak of Palm Beach social life, looks as though it will be the slowest period for charity events in at least a decade, according to a Washington Post analysis of upcoming events.

The Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation's leading medical centers, abruptly canceled its event plans Thursday, and spokeswoman Eileen Sheil told The Post that "there were a variety of factors" behind the cancellation. "We're not elaborating," she added.

Shortly afterward, the American Cancer Society announced that it was backing out, saying in a statement: "Our values and commitment to diversity are critical as we work to address the impact of cancer in every community. It has become increasingly clear that the challenge to those values is outweighing other business considerations."

Both health-related groups faced growing pressure to reconsider their support of the president's business amid Trump controversies. But the cancellations don't come without risk: The Cleveland Clinic said it had raised about $1 million a year for medical equipment over the past eight years at Mar-a-Lago.

Related: [At Mar-a-Lago, the star power of the presidency helps charities — and Trump — make more money]

Baker, head of the Palm Beach chamber, spoke vigorously against Mar-a-Lago on Thursday, saying that her directive to nearby charities was "If you're looking at your mission statement, can you honestly say having an event at Mar-a-Lago, given all that has transpired, is the best stewardship of your efforts?"

"The club is a member of the chamber. But right is right," she added in an interview. She said her mantra this week is " 'The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.' Especially for nonprofits. Especially for groups who help people who can't help themselves."

The Cleveland Clinic had still intended to host its ninth gala there as recently as last week. The move followed weeks of public turmoil, including a letter signed by 1,600 health professionals and others last month that said the Mar-a-Lago booking "symbolically and financially supports a politician actively working to decrease access to healthcare."

The clinic's chief executive, Toby Cosgrove, was among the business leaders on the president's Strategic and Policy Forum who agreed to disband Wednesday. Trump said on Twitter that he would end the forum and a separate American Manufacturing Council "rather than putting pressure on the busi­ness­peo­ple."

Mar-a-Lago has faced growing scrutiny from supporters of Trump's "buy American, hire American" agenda because of its recent requests for foreign workers. The club, which has sought dozens of H-2B visas for foreign employees because it argued that it can't find Americans to do the work, was absent last week at a job fair in West Palm Beach.

The charity moves are a welcome development for other venues, such as the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa, where spokesman Nick Gold said calls have increased from groups looking to hold fundraising events.

"There's a lot of concern from these charities, where their boards of directors are probably not wanting to be at Mar-a-Lago for a variety of reasons," including reasons related to Trump, he said."Right now we're just trying to see if space is available for them all."


Drew Harwell is a national technology reporter for The Washington Post covering artificial intelligence and big data. He previously covered national business and the Trump companies.

David A. Fahrenthold is a reporter covering the Trump family and their business interests. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered Congress, the federal bureaucracy, the environment, and the D.C. police.

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