November 18, 2017 at 4:00 PM
In years past, the Mar-a-Lago Club's White and Gold Ballroom hosted some of the finest events of Palm Beach's gilded winter season. Charity luncheons at $750 a plate. Quartets playing Mozart. Ambassadors in white tie and tails at the Red Cross Ball.
In years past.
Last week — as a new season began at the private club in Florida owned by President Trump — a speaker on the ballroom stage was talking up far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
"I'm watching Alex Jones nonstop!" Joy Villa said, according to a video she posted of the event.
Villa — a pro-Trump Internet celebrity — was speaking to a group of Young Republicans. "We are populist. We are nationalist," she said, as waiters served brunch. "We put America first and we're not afraid!"
This week, Trump returns to Mar-a-Lago for the first time since April. He will confront a changed social scene.
During the summer, 19 charities that had events scheduled this season at Mar-a-Lago abruptly quit after Trump defended participants in a violent rally in Charlottesville organized by white supremacists.
In their place, the club is turning to a different kind of customer.
Republican groups. Televangelist Pat Robertson, who started a gala in order to hold it at Mar-a-Lago. And a group called "Trumpettes USA," which is planning a dinner in January that costs $300 per person. They intend for Mar-a-Lago to keep most — or all — of the money they take in.
Once a retreat from the divisive business of politics, the Palm Beach landmark is now a place defined by those divisions — a dynamic the club is monetizing by booking events with Trump's political allies.
Mar-a-Lago is still hosting weddings and members for meals on the dining terrace. But the center of Palm Beach's traditional social scene has shifted to the Breakers, a club that Trump once mocked for getting his "leftovers."
"People will still put on their dancing shoes, and pay big money for their tickets, and go out for the night. [But] instead of going to Mar-a-Lago, they'll be going to the Breakers," said Shannon Donnelly, the society editor for the Palm Beach Daily News.
Before now, Donnelly said, Mar-a-Lago "wasn't political."
"Now," she said, "Donald is political."
Officials with Mar-a-Lago and the Trump Organization did not respond to questions about the new season. Last month, the club's general manager told the Palm Beach Post: "We are really doing fine. It will be a good season."
The Washington Post asked the White House if Trump himself had any contact with those now flocking to hold events at Mar-a-Lago.
"We have nothing to do with coordinating events. The idea that the President has time for event planning at [Mar-a-Lago] is insulting," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote in an email.
Trump has given up day-to-day control of his real estate and hotel businesses. But he still owns them, including Mar-a-Lago — an old estate that Trump transformed into a private club in the 1990s. Back then, Mar-a-Lago was Palm Beach's progressive club. It was open to Jewish members.
This year, in Trump's words, it became the "winter White House."
For a few months this spring, it was a splendid sort of bubble. The glamour of the presidency flowed in, but the country's curdled politics did not.
Trump visited seven times. Initiation fees doubled, according to a CNBC report. Charities held galas and couples held weddings, and Trump dropped in on both. He mixed his new job with his old job — the table-hopping host of Palm Beach's elite.
"Big night, Shannon. Big night," Trump said one evening in April, when he stopped by Donnelly's table to chat.
Donnelly didn't understand. She only knew it was prime rib night. Later, she learned Trump was talking about launching cruise-missile strikes against Syria.
There were some warnings that this winter season could be disrupted by the presidency. Earlier this year, seven charities decided to move their events, some blaming the security delays that came with a party in the president's house.
But there were still 25 big events on the schedule.
Then: Charlottesville, and the president's comments that there were "very fine people" in the crowd. In Palm Beach and around the country, his remarks roused a backlash.
Suddenly, Trump's charity clients found themselves under pressure from donors and strangers alike. Online, anti-Trump groups asked their members to contact charities and urge them to move. Even local Palm Beach officials jumped into the fray.
"Can you honestly say having an event at Mar-a-Lago, given all that has transpired, is the best stewardship of your efforts?" Laurel Baker, executive director of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, said in August. "The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis." (Days later, another chamber official apologized to Mar-a-Lago for her remarks.)
Some members of Mar-a-Lago found that their friends didn't want to be invited to galas there anymore.
" 'If it's at Mar-a-Lago, then we're not going,' " one former Mar-a-Lago member said he was recently told by a friend. The member quit recently, and he asked that his name not be used, to protect his friendships in Palm Beach. "It's not the charity that matters anymore. It's the venue."
Mar-a-Lago's 25 previously identified bookings fell to six, according to a Post survey of town-issued permits, public social calendars and interviews with charities. One of the groups that stuck with Trump was the Republican Party of Palm Beach County, which has held its Lincoln Day dinner at Mar-a-Lago since 2013. Before this year, it appeared to be the club's only overtly partisan gala.
Among those that left: the Red Cross, which canceled its Palm Beach gala outright, ending a 60-year tradition.
Another charity, Leaders in Furthering Education, switched to a new date at the Breakers and wound up in a fight with crooner Paul Anka, who couldn't make the new day and wouldn't return the group's $75,000 deposit.
The news was better for the Bethesda Hospital Foundation, which moved its Nov. 9 luncheon to a club in Boca Raton and had room for 100 more guests than it could fit at Mar-a-Lago. The lunch raised enough to buy a new physician-training tool: the Victoria S2200, a $60,000 robot woman who gives birth to a robot baby.
At the same time, Mar-a-Lago's calendar has also begun to refill.
The Republican Attorneys General Association booked Mar-a-Lago's Teahouse dining room last weekend for a dinner where some state attorneys general dined with top donors.
How did they choose the president's club, out of all the dining rooms in South Florida?
"It is a historic venue very close to where the AGs were staying," said spokesman Zack Roday. He said the group did not get a discount for being Republicans. The dinner was first reported by the news site MapLight.
The Young Republican National Federation, which hosted Villa in the White and Gold Ballroom, had never held an event at Mar-a-Lago before. Why now? "He's the leader of the Republican Party," said Matthew Thomas Oberly, press secretary for the Young Republican National Federation.
The Christian Broadcasting Network — whose chairman is Pat Robertson, a strong supporter of Trump — decided earlier this year to hold its first Palm Beach fundraiser gala for its charity Orphan's Promise.
And not just anywhere in Palm Beach.
This event was meant for Trump's club.
"Secure event date at private, exclusive Palm Beach 'winter White House,' " the charity instructed its event planner, according to documents filed with the town of Palm Beach. This event will be one of the biggest of any season at Mar-a-Lago: The town was told to expect 700 people.
The network said "a group of major donors" chose Mar-a-Lago as a venue. Through a spokesman, Robertson declined to be interviewed.
In two other cases, individual Trump supporters have come up with their own new events for Mar-a-Lago, with an aim of benefiting Trump.
Florida conservative activist Steven M. Alembik, for instance, is planning a 700-person "Truth About Israel Gala" at Mar-a-Lago in February. He plans to charge $600 a seat. He says he expects Mar-a-Lago will keep most of it, and that's fine.
"We're supporting our president, who supports Israel," Alembik said.
The "Trumpettes USA" — they add the "USA" because "Trumpette" is a brand of baby socks — are led by Toni Holt Kramer, a Mar-a-Lago member who has turned part of her home into a sort of shrine to Trump.
She has planned a dinner for Jan. 18. First, it was 700 people. Now, it's 800, she says. Two ballrooms and $300 per seat.
If there's money left over, Kramer says, it will go to a police charity. But she doesn't expect to have money left over, after paying Mar-a-Lago for the room and the food. And that's fine.
"I don't think any president has ever had such a rough nine months," Kramer said. She said the event, called "A Red, White, and Blue Celebration for We the People," is drawing Trump fans from around the country and the world. When the first ballroom sold out, she posted a photo of herself hugging the group's mascot: her poodle, Caviar Deux.
In recent days, Mar-a-Lago got another bit of good news.
To explain its reversal, the charity published a letter in the Palm Beach Daily News. It detailed how the politicization of Mar-a-Lago had torn its members apart.
The letter was written in the voice of a dog.
"My furry companions loved . . . The Mar-a-Lago Club and said they would only support us if we returned to our favorite yard," the fake dog wrote.
The fake dog called for a return to more tranquil times at Mar-a-Lago, when charities that did business with Trump's club didn't have to answer for Trump's politics.
"Arrffturall," the fake dog wrote, "charity and politics should never be mixed."
Fahrenthold and Harwell reported from Washington, and Rozsa reported from Palm Beach, Fla. Zane Anthony and Kathryn Sanders in Washington contributed to this report.