PALM BEACH, Fla. — The big bash at Mar-a-Lago this weekend had all the signs of a high-season gala: women in glittering gowns, men in sharp suits, tuxedoed wait staff in constant motion serving flutes of champagne and chardonnay, and sprays of white orchids, roses and hydrangeas set atop every table.
The only thing missing: the owner of the club, President Trump.
“Actually, I’m thankful [he's not here]. It’s chaotic enough,” said Steven Alembik, the organizer of the inaugural gala for the Truth About Israel organization. “I was here last weekend when he was here, I’ll be here next weekend, and I understand that he’s the president of the United States, and security has to be super-tight. But it just makes it easier that he’s not on the property tonight.”
Although Trump may not have been there, he was the reason Alembik held this party at Mar-a-Lago. Alembik had originally booked the Boca Raton Resort & Club for the Sunday gala.
But then the rioting in Charlottesville happened, when Trump said there were “very fine people” at the August protest that included violent white supremacists.
In the weeks after that, 19 of the charities that had planned galas or luncheons at Mar-a-Lago in the winter abruptly canceled their events. With one statement, Trump decimated a line of business his club had spent years building: holding lavish parties for Palm Beach's elite.
“The next thing I know, 19 charities are pulling out of Mar-a-Lago,” Alembik told the 400 people gathered in the club's grand ballroom. “This president has had Israel’s back like no president has since the days of Ronald Reagan.
“So I picked up the phone, I call Mar-a-Lago, they think I’m calling to cancel some other gala or some event, and I said no. I’d like to come here and show our support for the president of the United States.”
Most of the charities that left Mar-a-Lago had nonpolitical missions. They included the American Red Cross, the American Cancer Society and the Cleveland Clinic.
Alembik was harshly critical of these charities that canceled, calling them “spineless.”
His organization is emblematic of the groups that have scheduled new events at Mar-a-Lago this winter, filling in some of the resort's empty dates. These new customers are often aligned with Trump's politics — the groups have hosted Republican gatherings, a gala for the Christian Broadcasting Network and an event put on by the president's superfans, called “Trumpettes.”
Alembik had more than a dozen co-sponsors for his event this weekend, including the conservative media company Newsmax and the National Committee of Asian American Republicans. He supports Trump because of decisions by the administration such as shifting the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Alembik had said he would send any money he raised to an Israeli charity run by Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, although Alembik wasn't sure how much money would be left after he paid Trump's club for the ballroom rental, catering and other costs.
Guests at the Truth About Israel event paid $750 for general-admission tickets and up to $75,000 for a “speaking topic table” for 10 that earned “the opportunity for your table Captain [to] speak for 5 minutes” on topics such as Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or anti-Semitism.
Speakers included Republican Reps. Brian Mast and Ron DeSantis of Florida, as well as Ayalon.
Bianca Hennings, the executive liaison for the event, said Sunday that she didn’t know the final figure for the money raised for the Truth About Israel. She said more than 400 people attended.
Trump’s name is omnipresent around Mar-a-Lago, from the dinner plates to the disposable towels in the restrooms. It was even on Sunday's menu: Guests dined on Trump’s Iceberg Wedge (a quarter-head of lettuce with Roquefort dressing, grape tomatoes and red onion) and a dessert plate featuring Trump Chocolate Cake.
For many of the guests, it was their first time at Mar-a-Lago.
“This place is pretty amazing,” said Debra Tendrich, who wore a gown and a sash that read “Ms. Florida.” She posed for photos poolside with other guests. “I’m glad I got to see this.” Tendrich won the Ms. Florida Woman of Achievement award last year for her work improving nutrition in schools.
Marlena Martin, who oversees the pageant, said that her organization is nonpartisan and that Tendrich is supposed to seek permission to wear the sash at public events. She did not in this case, Martin said.
Rabbi Alan Sherman and his wife, Marilyn, were also happy to be at Mar-a-Lago, even if Trump wasn’t present. Sherman was wearing a yarmulke with Trump’s photo on it.
“He autographed it,” Sherman said, turning to show the signature on the back. “I met him at the airport, and he saw it and said, ‘I bet you like me a lot,’ and he signed it.”
Sherman said he isn’t bothered by the fact that for every event held at Mar-a-Lago, tens of thousands of dollars go to the Trump Organization. He sees no conflict of interest.
“It’s a very nice place to hold an event,” Sherman said.
Alembik sees no conflict, either.
“Let me tell you something, they’re not going to make much money on this, not much,” he said. “Take a look around here, at the overheard costs; what do you think the lighting in this place costs, for just a few hours?”
Alembik told the crowd that his next big project will be organizing a rally on March 19 and pushing for a bill, called the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act, to “get every assault weapon out of the hands of everybody in this country.”
That may put him at odds with Trump, who has limited his response to a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, and called for arming teachers.
But that’s for another day. For now, on this beautiful Palm Beach weekend, Alembik was happy to be at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's “Winter White House.”
“You know what, so he gets a few thousands dollars, so what?” Alembik said about the Trump Organization profiting from charity events like his. “I happen to like the man. That’s as simple as it gets.”
David A. Fahrenthold in Washington contributed to this report.