The splashy display, and opulent setting, befitted the showy sensibilities of Donald Trump, then a 47-year-old boom-and-bust real estate mogul who had been hemorrhaging money to keep up the place and had recently cut a deal with the Town of Palm Beach to convert the historic property from his residence to a private club.
But there was a little problem.
“Dear Mr. Trump,” began a gently chiding letter from a code compliance officer, who went on to remind Mar-a-Lago’s owner that in the future “you are requested” to get the town’s approval before setting off fireworks.
That same year, another “Dear Mr. Trump” letter went out, this time asking him to shut down a photo shoot involving pop music superstar Madonna at the estate, which was then being prepped for its club opening. Such frivolities as “magazine feature photography and the like” were against the rules in the moneyed enclave, Mr. Trump was reminded.
And so it has gone — year after year, in ways large and small, for more than a quarter-century — Trump forever pushing the bounds of patience and tolerance of a community where he can still be seen as a crass interloper. Hundreds of documents obtained via a public records request show, at a granular level, how Trump has frequently ignored basic rules and promises, steamrolled the locals and gotten away with it. The material also reveals Trump and his minions in all their Trump World glory — bullying, name-calling and framing the future president as a victim.
The love-hate relationship between Trump and Palm Beach — a history speckled with lawsuits, wars over everything from airplane flight patterns to a preposterously enormous American flag, and occasional periods of detente — is once again being tested this week as the town’s reluctant officials are being pressed to decide whether he can call Mar-a-Lago his home during his post-presidency. Horrified preservationists and Trump antagonists say Trump’s assurance long ago at a town council meeting that he wouldn’t live at Mar-a-Lago, and the agreement he signed to make the estate a private club, prevent him from living there, as he’s done since leaving the White House on Jan. 20.
“He knows no limit. He has no respect for the social contract,” Anne Pepper, a local community activist, said in an interview. “He has no respect for anything.”
The residency issue came before the town council on Tuesday — the same day that the former president’s Senate impeachment trial began in Washington — but no decision was made. As in Washington, where Trump seems to be on a glide path because many Republican senators are saying they’ll vote to acquit him, the former president has already wrangled a significant advantage in Palm Beach.
Under pressure from Trump, the town’s attorney has preemptively declared that the former president’s promise not to live at the club is meaningless. The attorney — John “Skip” Randolph — has handed the council just the sort of powerful tool it would need to let Trump have his way, opining that there’s nothing it could do to stop him from living at the club as long as he is determined to be a “bona fide” employee of Mar-a-Lago. Randolph asserts that the town’s zoning laws let employees live at clubs. His analysis was enough for the council’s president, Margaret Zeidman, who told the council audience via Zoom on Tuesday that she doesn’t think Trump has committed a violation.
That position is echoed by Trump’s own attorney, who penned a letter to the town on Jan. 28, just three days after Trump took over as the president of the limited liability corporation that owns Mar-a-Lago, a position held by his son, Donald Trump Jr., while the elder Trump was president.
“It’s silly that we have to waste the town council’s time even talking about it,” Trump’s attorney, John Marion, said in an interview. “He deserves to be treated with the dignity of any former president of the United States, and he absolutely has the right to live at Mar-a-Lago.”
Creating an 'equity club'
“Mar-a-Lago is indisputably one-of-a-kind,” Trump and his development team declared, with a showman’s flair for breathless hype, in their 1993 application to make Mar-a-Lago a private club. “No other property in Palm Beach, the United States or even the world is quite the same. To use the Latin, legal expression, it is sui generis.”
Trump needed to go big because — six years after writing “The Art of the Deal” — he had a megadeal to sell to Palm Beach, a town known for fiercely protecting landmark properties. His pitch to turn his home into a club came with a dire warning, laid out by one of his attorneys, in a lengthy meeting with the town council: “Mar-a-Lago cannot be preserved forever as a single-family home.”
The council members and some Palm Beach residents worried about Trump’s association with gambling in Atlantic City, where his casino and hotel operations had turned into epic fiascos. But Trump’s attorney, Paul Rampell, assured the council that Donald Trump “could be trusted.”
Trump initially wanted to make Mar-a-Lago an “equity club,” in which members would buy shares and essentially be co-owners. But that wouldn’t do, council members said. If the club flopped, the town didn’t want to deal with a horde of owners. It wanted a single person on the hook: Donald Trump.
So Trump started making promises. His attorney assured the council he wouldn’t live at Mar-a-Lago and would have use of the guest suites for only 21 days a year like any other member. In Trump’s application, he also placated preservationists by saying he wasn’t asking to build any new structures or erect any new signs.
The final agreement said there’d be no cabanas. No circuses either — at least the kind involving animals.
But barely a year after his much-hyped 1995 opening of the remodeled property, he was trying to get out of much of what he’d promised. He wanted the limit on guest suite stays — put in place because neighbors were concerned that they’d be living next to a hotel — eliminated. He also wanted the limit on 500 members abolished.
When he didn’t get what he wanted, he sued.
And even though he lost his lawsuit, as the years passed, he usually got what he wanted. The town caved to his request for cabanas. It let him build an entertainment pavilion.
When he couldn’t get permission, he often just went ahead and did what he wanted without official sign-off.
When he once again flouted the rule against magazine photography in 1999, the town convened formal proceedings to consider the violation.
He was fined $50.
One of Trump’s biggest promises was his pledge not to build a dock, but in the club’s second year of operation, he set in motion a sneaky plan to build one anyway. He went straight to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and to Florida’s state environmental protection department to seek permission for a 120-boat marina that would require dredging 600,000 cubic yards of material and impact 24 acres on the Lake Worth side of his club, including potentially damaging precious coral reefs.
All of this was news to the town of Palm Beach.
The town eventually blocked his marina plan. Nearly a quarter-century later, he’s making another attempt to build a dock, albeit this time he’s going through the town council, as he’s supposed to do. The plan was stalled last spring when he temporarily pulled his proposal after a Washington Post article about the restrictions in his original agreement. But he has vowed to resurrect it.
If there’s anything Trump loves to do, it’s put his name on buildings, and Mar-a-Lago is no different. Preservationists were appalled in 2003 when coats of arms appeared out of nowhere on the club’s beach cabanas: Ornate coats of arms emblazoned with the Trump name.
One preservationist sniffed to the New York Post that they were “unseemly” and “blatant advertising.” Trump hadn’t gotten permission from the regulators in town, who are famously zealous about blocking signs. But Trump protested that his would be hard to remove.
The coats of arms stayed up.
'A silly fight'
In 2005, locals noticed a shift. Robert Moore, one of the city’s most celebrated public officials, retired from his position as the town’s director of planning, building and zoning. Though they’d clashed at times, Trump and Moore had found a way to amicably coexist.
“I found [Trump] very easy to deal with,” Moore had told the Tampa Bay Times several years before his death. “Very realistic and very straightforward. And never dishonest. Now, did he push the envelope? Of course . . . that was part of the give and take with him. But he always was three steps ahead of us, that’s for sure.”
The new regime that took over in 2006 could be confrontational, and Trump was not pleased. He was at the height of his pre-presidency powers in those days, making millions as the star of the hit reality television show “The Apprentice.”
When Trump blew past attendance restrictions for a 2006 Elton John charity concert to raise money for AIDS research, the town fined him $5,000. Aggrieved, Trump complained about the town’s “harsh tone.”
“I am deeply disappointed that the Town would want to penalize my efforts to host one of the world’s foremost entertainers for a very worthwhile charity,” Trump wrote.
Trump and his attorney chafed at the town’s plans to require an annual form stating that regulations were being followed, and its announcement of possible random inspections.
“To our ears, there is a fascist echo in this warning,” Trump’s longtime attorney, Rampell, wrote in a letter. In another, he compared the reporting requirement to “a McCarthy-era loyalty oath.”
Relations were fast deteriorating, but Trump wasn’t going to stop being Trump. He put up an 80-foot-tall flagpole in 2007 without asking permission — nearly double the 42-foot limit — drawing sneers from annoyed locals that it made the club look like a car dealership.
It took the imposition of large daily fines and a lawsuit filed by the town to get Trump to take it down, lower the height and move it to a less conspicuous spot.
Trump was starting to run into roadblocks that he couldn’t get around. The county got tough with him when he filed a suit trying to change the flight path to West Palm Beach’s airport, arguing that planes were damaging his club. He dropped the lawsuit in 2016. But he knew he’d win a partial victory anyway: As president, planes would be banned from flying over Mar-a-Lago when he was there. (Trump is losing one of his presidential perks — a helipad at Mar-a-Lago — that will no longer be allowed now that he has left office.)
Now he’s changed his official domicile to Mar-a-Lago, registered to vote with the club address and taken up residence there — despite complaints from some neighbors and local activists, alarmed that he’ll be a magnet for violent supporters, such as those who attacked the Capitol in early January as Congress was about to formalize President Biden’s election victory.
What’s so quintessentially Trump about his insistence on calling Mar-a-Lago his legal residence is that there had been an easy solution to the spat: He owns three homes nearby. He could just as easily use them for purposes of his domicile, and pop over to Mar-a-Lago whenever he wanted. Even if he ended up spending all his nights at the club, it would take round-the-clock surveillance to prove he was residing there — an unlikely scenario.
But he isn’t budging.
Which is understandable, said Jeffrey Greene, a wealthy Mar-a-Lago neighbor, who called the residency tempest “a silly fight.”
Town Manager Kirk Blouin said in an email that the town is not intimidated by Trump’s litigiousness. Palm Beach’s mayor, Gail Coniglio, and members of the town council did not respond to interview requests.
A new opposition group composed of several attorneys — Preserve Palm Beach Inc., which was formed in the past few days — is building a legal case to attack Trump’s residency plans. The group’s attorney, Philip Johnston, told the council Tuesday that allowing Trump to live at Mar-a-Lago could make Palm Beach a “permanent beacon for his more rabid, lawless supporters.”
Another opponent, Glenn Zeitz — a pugnacious former mob attorney in New Jersey who owns a home in Palm Beach — said in an interview that making accommodations for Trump would “set a bad precedent” for similar “use agreements” between the town and clubs, including at least one use agreement that is currently being negotiated. Decades earlier, Zeitz had defeated Trump in an Atlantic City eminent domain battle.
Marion, Trump’s attorney, has tried to counter suspicions that Trump is not actually a bona fide employee of the club by telling the council that the former president now walks around the grounds acting as if he’s “the mayor of Mar-a-Lago.” He also showed the council a list of Trump’s jobs at the club, including the sort of greeter job that senior citizens take at big-box stores: “welcomes/thanks those attending” events.
With so many lawyers lining up to challenge Trump, the agreement he signed is sure to be parsed in excruciating detail — both for what’s in it and what isn’t. It doesn’t specifically say that Trump can’t live at the club; but it doesn’t specifically say he can, either.
The formal use agreement with the town makes clear that if Mar-a-Lago ceases to be a club it would revert to being a single-family residence — but it doesn’t say whose. The club is required to disclose that provision to its members, who pay up to $200,000 to join and in the neighborhood of $14,000 a year in dues, according to a member who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private transaction.
Mar-a-Lago’s membership agreement is even more explicit: It states that if Mar-a-Lago stopped being a club it would revert — specifically — to being Donald Trump’s residence, rather than simply saying it would revert to be a private residence, according to a membership agreement obtained by The Washington Post.
Trump’s opponents see this as a kind of riddle with no logical answer: If the club is Donald Trump’s residence already, how could it revert to being his residence if it were shut down?
The controversy is playing out while the future success of Trump’s club is uncertain, with rumblings about members potentially fleeing now that he is not president. It’s a situation made all the more precarious by disgust about his incitement of the rioters who stormed the Capitol.
“Like I would ever go to a club with a guy like that,” said Greene, a former member, who lives with his 94-year-old mother. “I don’t think it’s safe. They don’t wear masks in there.”
Greene is referring, in part, to a New Year’s Eve party Mar-a-Lago hosted at which many attendees did not wear masks, even as Florida’s coronavirus cases were spiking. Social media posts of maskless partyers caught the attention of a Democratic member of Florida’s legislature who called for Mar-a-Lago to be shut down.
Blouin, the town manager, shrugged off the issue, saying police officers responsible for enforcing a mask mandate can’t go onto private property “uninvited.” Instead, he told The Washington Post days after the party that he’s trying to educate businesses and the community about the mask mandate.
The county could have fined Trump and Mar-a-Lago up to $15,000. But it didn’t.
Trump had gotten away with it.
David Fahrenthold, Alice Crites and Lori Rosza contributed to this report.