PALM BEACH, Fla. — Everywhere she goes, Rep. Lois Frankel says, she encounters people who are still feeling traumatized by the presidential election.
“The emotions people still have are incredible. I feel like I’m everyone’s psychiatrist,” the Democratic congresswoman from Palm Beach County said. “I’m pretty bummed about it myself.”
But that didn’t stop her from attending a gala at Donald Trump’s Florida home, which is in her district, less than a month after Election Day.
“It’s not like I didn’t think about it,” Frankel said about wining, dining and dancing with the elite of Palm Beach at Mar-a-Lago, the lavish mansion owned by the president-elect.
The question of whether to use Trump’s estate during the charity season has rattled Palm Beach society. But the consensus seems to be that, whatever they may think of Trump, Mar-a-Lago is a great place to party and raise money.
It’s booked solid from December through March, with big and small events every weekend for organizations ranging from the Palm Beach Police Foundation to the American Cancer Society.
The event Frankel attended, the Lady in Red Gala for the Lois Pope LIFE Foundation on Dec. 3, kicked off the Palm Beach social season and brought in $1.1 million for the charity.
“I’m sure some of the charities are getting pushback because of holding their events there,” said Frankel, who was a “Hillblazer,” one of the Democrats who raised more than $100,000 for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “But I didn’t go because it was Mar-a-Lago. I went to support the cause.”
Mar-a-Lago is more than Trump’s Florida home — and future winter White House. It’s also a high-priced members-only club — a membership is $100,000, plus $14,000 in annual dues — and rentable venue for groups looking to put on large and small events. Prices to host a big gala at Mar-a-Lago range from $100,000 to $300,000, and the venue needs to be booked more than a year in advance.
Groups that expressed concern about continuing to hold events there following the release of an “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump brags about forcing himself on women have decided to keep their galas at the venue as scheduled. A spokeswoman for the Susan G. Komen foundation, one such group, had told the Associated Press in October that the foundation would “discuss” its Mar-a-Lago event.
“I know some people were having serious second thoughts about it,” fundraising consultant Margaret Holman said. “But that was during the heat of the moment. I haven’t heard of anybody canceling.”
Tina Philips, president and chief executive of the Palm Beach Habilitation Center, said in October that her group would take a careful look before it booked Mar-a-Lago again.
But now Philips said she’s glad her group will be at Mar-a-Lago again this year for its Hab-a-Hearts luncheon on March 20.
“It’s the best venue in this county,” Philips said. “We’re not hearing any backlash. We believe our attendance will be way up this year, because we’re having it on Presidents’ Day in the president’s house.”
Philips said one of the best reasons to keep the event at Mar-a-Lago: It makes money.
“It brings in big numbers,” she said. “We’re able to net well over $100,000. It’s our biggest fundraiser of the year.”
Some of the charities that hold major events at Mar-a-Lago are stocked with board members who supported Clinton, such as Ajay Banga and Afsaneh Beschloss of the American Red Cross, and that could cause tensions as future events are planned. The annual Red Cross Ball at Mar-a-Lago in February is one of the highlights of the island’s social season.
“If your charity has members who feel very strongly about the platform on which he ran, I would think there would be some serious discussions about holding an event at a Trump property,” Holman said.
The Red Cross did not directly address how board members’ feelings about Trump could affect the ball.
“In its 60-year history, the Ball has been held at one of two notable locations around Palm Beach: either the Breakers Hotel or Mar-a-Lago, and we expect this tradition to continue,” Elizabeth Penniman, the group’s vice president for communications, said in an emailed statement.
Some Clinton supporters are pushing back on the idea that Mar-a-Lago should be viewed as a tainted venue.
Boston financier Howard Kessler and his wife, Michele, own a $30 million estate in Palm Beach. They’ve hosted Bill and Hillary Clinton there, and have supported the Clintons for more than 20 years.
Kessler weighed in on the Mar-a-Lago controversy in a recent letter to the editor in the Palm Beach Daily News, writing, “sadly, I have heard that many generous families are withdrawing their support from charitable events because they are being held at Mar-a-Lago.” Kessler, who did not respond to an interview request, wrote that it would be a mistake, because “charity, not politics, is the backbone of this community.”
Ruth McCambridge, editor in chief of the Nonprofit Quarterly, disagrees.
“It sends signals,” McCambridge said of charities that use Trump’s properties for their fundraising events. “Nothing in these times is apolitical. Organizations whose missions are threatened by some of Trump’s positions need to think about that.”
Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women’s Health Network, said Trump can’t be separated from his brand, and paying his staff at Mar-a-Lago is giving money to the man himself.
“This is a man who was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women,” Pearson said. “He is his brand. I mean, come on, there’s got to be another place that’s as much fun as Mar-a-Lago for an event. It’s Palm Beach; there have to be other wonderful venues.”
There are, but not many that will hold more than 250 people. The Breakers, a few miles north of Mar-a-Lago, is the other major location for big galas in Palm Beach.
Some high-profile organizations have pledged to avoid using Trump properties anywhere. Four NBA teams, including the Dallas Mavericks — owned by Clinton supporter Mark Cuban — say they’ll boycott Trump hotels when they travel to games in New York and Chicago.
But even boycott supporters say Mar-a-Lago charity events are a little different.
“You don’t want to discourage people from donating to a charity,” said Nate Lerner, executive director of the Democratic Coalition Against Trump. The group launched a “Boycott Trump” app last month that continually updates lists of businesses that have ties to Trump; it has 125,000 downloads. “If you go to a charity event at Mar-a-Lago, and you see Donald Trump, that’s a perfect opportunity to take a stand and call him out.”
For people who do attend such events, the chances of seeing Trump are excellent.
Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene is familiar with Trump’s mingling habits. Greene, a real estate developer, owns a mansion two doors down from Mar-a-Lago, and he’s known Trump for years. He’s a member of the Mar-a-Lago club, and also a Democrat who supported Clinton. Greene made his own bid for office in 2010, when he ran in the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat that was eventually won by Marco Rubio.
“The thing about Donald is that he’s a very personable guy,” Greene said. “He really tries to make people feel good. During the campaign, it was guerrilla warfare. But I never saw that side of him.”
Greene took his mother to Trump’s golf course earlier this month to celebrate her 90th birthday, and they ran into Trump and chatted for a while.
“He told her she didn’t look a day over 70, and that thrilled her,” Greene said. “Then he asked her, ‘What do you think about your son not supporting me?’ She said, ‘Well, I always liked you.’ ”
Greene said he expects Trump to continue to be a presence at the private club.
“He’s a creature of habit. He’s been coming down to Palm Beach for the winter holidays and long weekends for 20 years,” Greene said. “He’s been like a tourist attraction for Palm Beach for a long time. And now he’s president, so that’s not going to change.”
What has changed, Greene and others say, is the security at Mar-a-Lago. Trump used to walk around the lobby greeting people. He’d willingly pose for photos with anybody who asked; he’d drop in at their tables to talk. Now, he’s flanked by Secret Service agents. Airspace above Mar-a-Lago is restricted when he’s in town, as is watercraft use nearby. The Bentleys and Rolls-Royces that pull up to the club are now stopped and sniffed by dogs.
“The dogs checked my car. We had to go through a metal detector. We got checked with a wand,” Greene said. “It went relatively quickly, only took about 10 minutes. But that never happened before.”