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Under fire, President Trump drops his Mar-a-Lago dock plan — for now

Attorney Reginald Stambaugh stands for a portrait along the waterway near the Mar-a-Lago Resort. Stambaugh is the lawyer representing the family of Mar-a-Lago neighbor Nancy Demoss, who is opposing a new boat dock that would be built at Mar-a-Lago. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
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President Trump has temporarily withdrawn a controversial dock proposal at his Palm Beach resort that had raised larger questions about the legality of the change of his official residency from New York to Florida.

The decision, which was disclosed in a letter sent to the Palm Beach mayor and town council on Monday, comes three days after The Washington Post published a story that outlined assertions by local attorneys who argue that agreements Trump entered into with the town prevent him from living at the resort, and may have precluded him from legally registering to vote in Florida. (Trump has said he voted by mail in Florida’s Republican presidential primary this year.)

Trump had come under scathing criticism from his Palm Beach neighbors and their attorneys who accused him and his legal team of attempting to jam through the dock request at the Mar-a-Lago resort while the nation’s attention is focused on the coronavirus pandemic and the town’s council is only able to hold meetings electronically. In the letter withdrawing the proposal, Trump’s Palm Beach attorney, Harvey Oyer III, cited “the extraordinary circumstances that we find ourselves in” as a reason for the decision. But he makes no specific mention of coronavirus. The proposal had been scheduled to be heard on Wednesday by the Palm Beach Town Council.

Oyer added, however, that the president would revisit the proposal when the council resumes regular meetings in Palm Beach, a city of 8,000 known for its heavily attended civic meetings. The letter gave no timetable.

Glenn Zeitz, a Trump critic who owns a winter home in Palm Beach, said Tuesday in an interview that he interpreted the vague wording of the letter as an attempt to not directly link a decision to pull back the proposal to the ongoing pandemic because that rationale might conflict with Trump’s stated desire to reopen the economy and for businesses to begin resuming normal activities.

“The proposal was noticed during the crisis and it was going down the train track, and it got derailed by the facts and the law,” Zeitz said. “It’s a lawyer practicing semantic surgery. I have to believe that the letter is written so as to not have to put in a letter that the coronavirus is the reason.”

Reginald Stambaugh, an attorney who represents one of Mar-a-Lago’s neighbors, said he is hopeful that the president will now permanently drop the dock proposal.

“One prevalent issue remains lingering, whether President Trump still considers Mar-a-Lago Club his residence,” Stambaugh said Tuesday. “He still can’t have it both ways. It’s either a club or a residence — not both. Florida’s voting laws apply to citizen Trump. If he resides there, he will have to close the club.”

Oyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump made Florida his official residence. He may also have created a legal mess.

Mar-a-Lago isn't just Trump's vacation spot; it's his second White House (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

The battle over the dock proposal stretches back to 2018, and appeared, at the time, to be a mundane local matter focused on complaints about the possibility of disruptive party boats and potential environmental damage. But it was given a jolt of national significance late last year when Trump made headlines by changing his domicile from New York to Florida using the Mar-a-Lago address.

Attorneys and historical preservationists in South Florida immediately began digging into town records, unearthing an agreement that Trump made in 1993 to convert Mar-a-Lago from a single-family residence to a private club owned by a corporation Trump controls. The agreement includes a provision that bans members from using the club’s guest rooms for longer than seven days at a time three times a year. Trump’s attorney at the time, Paul Rampell, assured council members that he would not live at the club.

The agreement also banned construction of a dock, but Trump was asking for that condition to be waived. Trump’s attorney originally argued that the dock was necessary for the president’s protection. That claim was included in an application that made no mention of Mar-a-Lago being the president’s home. In a later application, the rationale was changed, with Trump asserting that the club is his “personal residence.”

“The request is simply to add an accessory structure,” his attorney wrote. “A dock for private family use only.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.