The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Far-right group warning of Islamist infiltration to hold banquet at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club

President-elect Trump arrives with his wife, Melania, at a New Year’s Eve party Dec. 31, 2016, at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. (Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

A far-right group that believes Islamists are infiltrating the U.S. government will hold a banquet Saturday night at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, according to a permit issued for the event.

The group, the Center for Security Policy, has also spread the false idea that former president Barack Obama is a Muslim and alleged that mainstream Muslim organizations in the United States are secretly agents of anti-American jihad.

The group has rented a ballroom for Saturday at Trump’s club in Palm Beach, Fla., for its annual Freedom Flame Award Dinner. The 200-person event, named after the group’s flaming-torch symbol, previously was held in New York City and Washington.

This year, it was relocated. “This is our first-ever event in Palm Beach,” a center official wrote to the town of Palm Beach in an email obtained through a public-records request.

The old Mar-a-Lago is gone. This is the new Mar-a-Lago.

Once, Trump’s club was a major player in the Palm Beach social season — renting out its ballrooms for large and lucrative charity galas. Then, in 2017, Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” in response to violence that broke out between participants of a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville and counterprotesters.

At Mar-a-Lago, many of his best customers quit. Two years later, most are still gone.

In their place, Mar-a-Lago has attracted some Trump superfans, who have thrown banquets and other events to help the president’s bottom line. And it has attracted new customers aligned with Trump’s hard-right politics.

Saturday’s event illustrates the conflict inherent in that kind of business. At this gala, a conservative group that wants to shape Trump’s public policy will also become his private customer.

The White House declined to comment for this article, and the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment.

The permit says the Center for Security Policy event will cost $53,000. When The Washington Post called the center to ask about the dinner, a man who answered declined to give details.

“It’s a private event,” the man said.

The Post had dialed an extension for Fred Fleitz, a former Trump administration official who is the president and chief executive of the Center for Security Policy, but the man declined to say whether he was Fleitz.

“It’s a private event,” the man repeated.

Multiple emails and calls to officials at the organization were not returned.

In an interview after this story appeared online, Fleitz said this story is false — but did not cite specific details he believed were incorrect.

He also cited an interview he gave to the website PJ Media in January, in which he said the group is not hostile to Muslims.

“I think that we have a proud record of standing up against radical Islam, but to say we have prejudice against Muslim people is absolutely false,” Fleitz told PJ Media. “Muslims are part of our country and our society, this is a good thing. But what we don’t welcome is the radical ideology that promotes violence.”

The Center for Security Policy, founded by a former Reagan administration official named Frank Gaffney, has ties with Trump and his administration. As a candidate, Trump cited the center’s research while proposing to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.

But the center is also seeking to shape future Trump administration policies. It has warned, for instance, that Trump should be more skeptical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who the center says is too close to Islamist groups.

“Gaffney is one of the key figures in the Islamophobia industry,” said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He said this dinner could give the center a way to further its influence with Trump: “They get the influence they seek by handing him money, and he gets the money,” Hooper said.

Earlier this year, ACT for America, a group that has labeled Islam a “cancer” and warned of plots by Muslims, Democrats and the media, also booked a banquet at Mar-a-Lago. But after the Miami Herald reported on the event, the club canceled it. The Trump Organization has not explained why.

Trump is not expected to attend the Center for Security Policy’s banquet on Saturday.

Instead, he is expected to arrive at Mar-a-Lago around Thanksgiving for his first visit of the winter social season in Palm Beach.

There are no signs that Trump’s club is in financial trouble. This year, for instance, it filed its annual applications to hire 80 foreign workers as temporary housekeepers, waiters and cooks — slightly more than last year.

Still, Mar-a-Lago was hurt by the abrupt departures in 2017 of 22 charities that rented its space. The club’s revenue fell by 10 percent last year, according to federal financial disclosures.

This year, Trump’s club has added more events for its existing members, who already paid up to $200,000 to join. For instance, the club has added a “Gods & Goddesses Toga Party” by the pool in January, according to a members-only magazine obtained by The Post. Tickets are $135 per guest.

Trump has also benefited from a smattering of start-up events, organized by Trump supporters who have rushed to replenish his lost business. The largest is a group called Trumpettes USA, which is planning its third annual gathering at the club in February, with 700 guests.

The group says it has sold tickets totaling more than $1 million. As usual, that money isn’t intended for charity. It will be spent on the party.

“We’re not fundraisers. We never have been. That’s not what we do,” said Toni Holt Kramer, one of the leaders of the Trumpettes. She declined to say how much of that money would go to Trump’s club as opposed to other vendors.

“We spend lavishly, to make it the party of the year, which everyone says it is,” Kramer said.

Mar-a-Lago has also turned to customers aligned with his politics. Last year, his customers included his 2020 reelection campaign, the Republican National Committee, several GOP groups and the conservative youth group Turning Point USA.

None of those groups responded to questions about whether they are returning this winter.

Laurence Leamer, who wrote a history of Trump’s club called “Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace,” said he was struck by how quickly the club had changed. When Trump opened the club in the mid-1990s, it was the first Palm Beach club to accept Jewish members — a move that was good for business and brought long-overdue progress to Palm Beach.

“Opening that club up, with Jewish members, was the most socially beneficial thing he did in his whole life,” Leamer said. He has “turned it now into this right-wing enclave, this totally politicized space.”

But Leamer said he understood.

“What is he going to do?” he said. “That’s all that’s left.”