Digging into the catacombs of local records to build an argument against the dock, a small group of loosely aligned preservationists, disgruntled neighbors and attorneys have unearthed documents that they assert call into question the legality of Trump’s much-publicized decision late last year to change his official domicile from Manhattan to Mar-a-Lago and to register to vote in Florida using the club’s address. According to those documents, and additional materials obtained by The Washington Post, Trump agreed in writing years ago to change the use of the Mar-a-Lago property from a single-family residence to a private club owned by a corporation he controls.
The distinction is significant. The property is taxed as a private club — not as a residence, according to Palm Beach County property appraiser records. Trump’s own attorney assured local officials in Palm Beach before they voted to approve the club in 1993 that he would not live there. Mar-a-Lago’s website says only that Trump maintains “private quarters” at the club.
“It’s one or the other — it’s a club or it’s your home,” Reginald Stambaugh, an attorney who represents a neighbor opposed to Trump’s dock plan, said in a recent interview. “You can’t have it both ways.”
If Stambaugh and his client have their way and persuade Palm Beach to stand firm on its long-standing agreement, Trump will be forced to make a choice, he said: Stop operating Mar-a-Lago as a club and make it a single-family home again or change his official domicile to someplace else.
White House and Mar-a-Lago officials did not respond to interview requests.
The making of a private club
The saga traces back to another era in the president’s life, long before he occupied the White House. In the mid-1980s, a time when Trump was being celebrated as a business savant, he said he scooped up Mar-a-Lago at a bargain-basement price. The storied Mediterranean-style mansion was built in the 1920s by the cereal-fortune heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and her then-husband, the legendary financial mogul E.F. Hutton.
When Post died in the early 1970s, she left the estate to the U.S. government, envisioning it as a winter retreat for high-ranking officials. It was named a National Historic Landmark. But her plan to make it a government redoubt was never put into effect. As the cost of maintaining the property soared, the government gave it back to Post’s foundation.
Enter Donald Trump.
It seemed like a dream pairing for the businessman: a grand property now owned by one of America’s most aggressively self-promoting dealmakers. After buying the estate, Trump set about restoring the property. He hosted grand galas.
The halcyon days were short-lived. By the early 1990s, Trump’s business empire was in peril. His foray into the Atlantic City, N.J., gambling scene was a mess. In 1991 and 1992, four of his ventures filed for bankruptcy protection: Trump Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, the Trump Castle Hotel and Casino, and the Plaza Hotel in New York.
He began grumbling about the cost of maintaining the mansion and grounds of Mar-a-Lago, saying he was spending $3 million a year in upkeep. Ever the master of spin, Trump claimed he could afford the upkeep but quipped to the Miami Herald that “I just feel foolish doing it. You know, for $3 million you can buy the nicest house in Miami.”
Trump hit upon a solution to his ownership of a money pit that was true to his developer’s heart: Carve up the Mar-a-Lago property into pieces and sell as many as 10 luxury homes. But the notion of tampering with the landmark property angered preservationists and the moneyed denizens of Palm Beach.
The town council shot down his plan.
Trump, drawing from his well-worn smash-mouth playbook, sued the town. At the same time, he and his attorney were birthing yet another clever plan: He’d convert his personal residence into a private club. The town’s leaders were wary but slowly started warming to the idea as a way of preserving the historic mansion.
During lengthy talks with the council, Trump’s attorney, Paul Rampell, addressed a question on a lot of minds in those days: Would Trump live at the club?
“The answer is no,” Rampell said, according to a summary transcript of a 1993 council meeting, “except that he will be a member of the Club and would be entitled to use its guest rooms.”
In August 1993, Trump got his club, signing an extraordinarily detailed document called a “use agreement” that governs to this day how Mar-a-Lago can be used. The document makes clear that Mar-a-Lago would no longer be a single-family residence and was now a private club.
Trump agreed to convey the title of the property from his personal possession to a corporate entity he controlled named Mar-a-Lago Club, Inc. He promised he wouldn’t put up condominiums or co-op units. He also took care of a worrisome issue for some council members: the question of what would happen if the club failed. In that event, Trump agreed in writing to the same provision his attorney had promised: “The use of the Land shall revert to a single family residence.”
The deal he struck made it clear that no one could live permanently at the property. It stated that the guest suites could be used only by members for a maximum of three times a year for no longer than seven days at a time, and that those seven-day stays couldn’t be strung together consecutively.
Trump also made a promise that has come back to create problems for him in the fourth year of his presidency: He said he wouldn’t put up a dock.
But just because he’d made that pledge about the dock didn’t mean he planned to keep it.
In 1996, he told New York magazine: “Now at some point we are looking at building a marina out at the Intercoastal,” misidentifying the Intracoastal Waterway, the lengthy patchwork of navigation channels, natural bays and inlets that stretches across large swaths of the East Coast.
Aware that this plan would not be greeted with applause, Trump told the magazine reporter, “You are the first to know this because the world is going to crack when they read this.”
The dock request
Trump had his deal and his club, but he wasn’t satisfied.
He unsuccessfully sued the town in 1996, attempting to lift many of the restrictions he’d agreed to three years earlier. He wanted out of the limits on the guest suites, for instance, and he also wanted to drop a requirement that half the members of the club be Palm Beach residents or business owners.
With Trump always asking for more, his relationship with the town frayed.
At one point, Mayor Paul Ilyinsky told one of Trump’s attorneys who was working with Rampell — James Green — that “to listen to this trash coming from you and Mr. Rampell, frankly, is going to make me throw up,” according to a transcript included in Trump’s lawsuit.
When Green called his bluff, the mayor responded, “I may do so on you.”
Jack McDonald, a former Palm Beach mayor and councilman who was a charter member of Mar-a-Lago, said in an interview that the town was ever wary of taking on Trump because he is litigious. McDonald had figured Trump was living part of the year at the resort, but said “it’s one of those things that’s been able to slide by” because no one was willing to make a public fuss about it.
As for the provision about club members not using guest rooms more than three times a year, McDonald said, “if that’s what the agreement says, he’s violating the agreement.”
More than two decades after cutting his deal for the club, Trump still wants his dock. He asked for it in 2018, saying that it was necessary “for safety and security reasons to protect the President of the United States and his family.” His attorneys went on to say that the request had been endorsed by the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
That last part grabbed the attention of attorneys for Mar-a-Lago’s neighbors, who feared the appearance of rowdy booze cruises, loud boats and damage to precious underwater coquina rocks that they believe would be destroyed by dredging to deepen the channel and allow boats to pull up to the dock. The Palm Beach sheriff had weighed in to back the dock plan, citing similar security concerns. But the attorneys had seen nothing from either the Secret Service or the Coast Guard. A person familiar with the submission said the Secret Service and Coast Guard provided only oral endorsements. The Secret Service and Coast Guard declined to comment.
Stambaugh and others managed to stall the dock plan when it came up on the council’s agenda in February 2019. Among those who weighed in against the proposal — and has been fighting behind the scenes and helping develop legal tactics ever since — was Glenn Zeitz, a pugnacious Philadelphia-area attorney who owns a home in Palm Beach and had defeated Trump in the mid-1990s in an eminent domain lawsuit related to one of Trump’s Atlantic City casinos.
The dock request, not unlike others of its type, trudged slowly through the system in Palm Beach, a town with a population of just over 8,000. In the meantime, Trump made a surprise move. In early October, the New York Times reported that he changed his official domicile to Palm Beach, Fla. Trump quickly confirmed that he’d done so via Twitter.
The address he listed was 1100 S. Ocean Blvd. — Mar-a-Lago.
Reading about the switch, Jane Day — a respected preservationist in South Florida — screamed in frustration.
“That made me crazy!” she said in a recent interview.
Day knows practically every inch of Mar-a-Lago from more than a decade serving as Palm Beach’s preservation consultant. She’d developed a deep affection for the place. She’d climbed on ladders to show Trump the intricacies of 16th-century tapestries that were included in the sale when he bought Mar-a-Lago. She was there when Marla Maples, then Trump’s wife, brought home their baby, Tiffany, Day recalled.
And Day knew that Trump had promised not to live at Mar-a-Lago.
Trump’s switch to Florida also tossed a quirky legal puzzle into the mix. Trump — who has traveled to Mar-a-Lago repeatedly as president and has referred to the club as his Winter White House — has said that he voted by mail in Florida’s Republican primary last month. Florida law requires voters to register using their “legal residence” addresses under penalty of perjury.
What would happen to his voting status, some of his adversaries in the dock fight have begun to wonder, if Palm Beach declares that he doesn’t have the legal right to use Mar-a-Lago as his official domicile?
Zeitz called Trump’s possible violation of his agreement with Palm Beach “a substantial and serious potential legal impediment” to the president using Mar-a-Lago as his voter-registration address and official domicile.
In Florida, a state with a long, florid history of voting controversies, a person needs to cross multiple hurdles to legally register at a particular address, according to Ronald Meyer, a Florida lawyer and election law expert, who spoke about the law in general rather than the specifics of Trump’s situation.
First, voters have to state an intention to reside somewhere, Meyer said. But that’s not enough. They also have to demonstrate that the address they’re using for their voter registration is legitimate by taking concrete steps such as buying or renting the home at that address, registering a vehicle there, or using the address to apply for a driver’s license or for tax purposes.
“There is no litmus test; but there must be some confluence of the subjective intention to declare a residence with objective factors which demonstrate actual residency,” Meyer said.
While Day stewed about Trump’s moves, a local attorney was starting to craft a strategy to block Trump. Stambaugh is a fifth-generation Palm Beach native whose grandfather Gleason N. Stambaugh Sr. was the chairman of the Florida Inland Navigation District. He hoped to resolve the matter politely, without litigation.
News of the internecine battle of the elite in Palm Beach was soon overtaken by the coronavirus pandemic. A thousand miles to the north, Trump took to television on March 15 and encouraged people around the country to stay at home to help limit the spread of the virus. Businesses and government offices shut down or shifted to sometimes balky remote operations.
Four days after Trump’s stay-at-home announcement — with little fanfare — the president’s attorneys sent another dock plan to the town of Palm Beach, with the idea of it being heard by the town’s Landmarks Commission, which oversees historic properties and makes recommendations to the town council, on April 22. At that time, U.S. coronavirus cases had topped 830,000 and deaths surpassed 47,000. (The request was signed by Trump’s son, Eric, on behalf of Mar-a-Lago Inc. On the president’s financial disclosure forms, Donald Trump’s revocable trust is listed as the owner of Mar-a-Lago Inc.)
Stambaugh was furious.
“It’s unconscionable that Donald Trump and his club Mar-a-Lago would expect to have a proper public hearing during the coronavirus crisis,” Stambaugh said in an interview. “It’s obvious that Mar-a-Lago is attempting to subvert the political participation process.”
Trump’s Palm Beach attorney, Harvey Oyer III, declined to comment.
Amid the pandemic, the town’s historic properties oversight board delayed hearing the dock request until late May.
When they eventually get to it, the town’s leaders may encounter a new wrinkle. Trump, who’d previously argued that the dock was necessary for security reasons and made no mention of using the club as his home, has now pivoted to asserting that Mar-a-Lago is his “personal residence.”
“The request is simply to add an accessory structure, a dock for private family use only,” the application says.
That claim, Stambaugh argues, simply doesn’t match up with the agreements Trump has signed and the promises he’s made that Mar-a-Lago would be a club rather than his home.
And so, the Town of Palm Beach, Trump’s frequent foil, won’t just be faced with a decision about a dock. It’ll also be pressed to answer an existential question about Mar-a-Lago.
Just what is it?
Alice Crites and David Fahrenthold contributed to this report.