PALM BEACH, Fla. — If they came to see the president, they were disappointed. But the well-dressed crowd of Republican activists who gathered at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club here Friday night still got a glimpse of party royalty.
There by the poolside, in a pink shirt and sport jacket, was Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son. And the headliner of the night was Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate, who could not help but observe the differences between the palm-fringed setting and her home state.
“Just days ago I was out plowing snow. I was chopping wood,” Palin told the crowd. “And I was — I kid you not — cooking caribou stew. Just like all of you, making a meal for the family. I just have to shoot it first.”
Laughter rippled through the sold-out crowd of about 700 attending the Palm Beach GOP’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner, which cost $350 for an individual. Prices went up from there: A “patriots” package was $1,000 for two, and the “presidential” package was $25,000 for two tables of 10.
“We sold out months ago, before we even sent out the first email,” said Ryan Hnatiuk, executive director of the Palm Beach GOP.
The event sold out last year, too — and many of the guests said they had hoped it was a weekend when the president would be visiting his Palm Beach home and club, sometimes referred to as the “Winter White House.” Trump wasn’t there last year either, although his wife, Melania, did make a quick appearance.
The Palm Beach GOP has been holding its dinner at Mar-a-Lago since 2013 — after Trump’s embrace of the “birther” falsehood, which suggested that President Obama was not born in the United States, had made the businessman a well-known figure on the right.
At first, this was an anomaly at Mar-a-Lago: The club’s ballrooms were usually filled with fancy galas and luncheons put on by charities such as the American Red Cross and the Cleveland Clinic. This was its only large political event.
That dynamic has been flipped by Trump’s divisive career as a politician. Over the summer, after Trump said there were “very fine people” at the violent white-supremacist protests in Charlottesville, at least 19 charities pulled out of their events at Mar-a-Lago. In a flash, the club’s nonpolitical events business was decimated.
Meanwhile, many GOP and conservative-aligned groups have rushed in to fill empty spots. This winter, the club has already hosted a fundraiser for Trump’s campaign, a GOP donor dinner, a dinner of Republican attorneys general and a gathering of super fans called “Trumpettes.”
Palin was the keynote speaker for this latest event, but a lot of the buzz was about Trump Jr., who announced this week he was separating from his wife, Vanessa, after more than 12 years of marriage. The couple has filed for divorce, according to court records.
“He’s had a hard week,” one sympathetic onlooker said, as guests clustered around him.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) was also scheduled to speak, but he canceled because of a deadly bridge collapse in Miami, event organizers said.
Palin opened her speech by saying it was great to be in Florida.
“I bet the first family loves returning here,” she said, quipping, “It must be a nice break from swimming [in] the swamp.”
Some of Palin’s lines drew laughter and applause, particularly those that echoed the phrases that propelled her to fame.
She derided the inquiries into Russian interference in the 2016 election as “resource-sucking investigations to nowhere.” She questioned whether Hillary Clinton had ties to “Russian oligarchs” and repeated some favorite anti-Clinton talking points.
“How do I know all that? Because I keep my eye on Russia from my house,” Palin joked, drawing appreciative hoots from the audience.
As her speech veered into policy specifics about trade with China and other matters, however, the crowd’s attention appeared to shift to their meal. “I wish you would pay attention,” Palin admonished. “I traveled two days from Alaska to get here.”
As she was walking out the ballroom, Palin was asked if the crowd’s inattention and noisy chatter bothered her. She thought for a long second, then said with a smile: “I like a crowd with energy.”