PALM BEACH, Fla. — "Welcome to Mar-a-Lago!" Fox News host Jeanine Pirro said as she took the stage. "A magnificent place . . . "
She was smiling. That was a setup. Here was the joke: "It sure ain't no shithole!" Pirro said.
The Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom erupted.
On Thursday night at Mar-a-Lago — at a first-of-its-kind event that combined a political rally, a 1970s-style variety show and a support group for Trump superfans — that line brought the evening's biggest cheer.
It was a joke about reports that the president — the man they'd all come to celebrate — had used that vulgarity to insult a swath of countries, including all of Africa.
Pirro was the keynote speaker at an event called the Red, White and Blue Celebration for We the People, which was put on by a Palm Beach group called Trumpettes USA. They had booked at Mar-a-Lago just as other, more mainstream charities were pulling out — reacting to President Trump's comments about violence in Charlottesville in August.
The Trumpettes set their ticket price at $300, very low for Palm Beach. And they invited anybody who could pay. The result was an event that brought 700-plus Trump supporters from around the country into the gilded sanctum of Mar-a-Lago.
It was an evening of celebration, and defensiveness. Praise for Trump was mixed with acknowledgments that the president's first year had left him — and these, his biggest fans — surrounded by critics.
"We had people in our lives that we thought were great friends that were nowhere to be found" after Trump entered politics, said Eric Trump, the president's son. He looked out at a room of hundreds of strangers. "As I really look around the room, you know, these are our true friends."
President Trump himself did not attend the event, which was timed to celebrate his first year in office. From the stage, nobody mentioned the crisis that he was dealing with in Washington: a possible shutdown of the government, if Congress cannot agree on a spending bill.
The mere existence of Thursday night's event was a sign of how Trump's presidency has transformed Mar-a-Lago, which is both his "Winter White House" and for-profit social club that can be rented out for galas and weddings.
In a season — really, in a day — that banquet business was transformed, by Trump's suggestion that there were "very fine people" among crowds of white supremacist marchers. Nineteen of the club's 25 charity events were canceled or moved. On Thursday, Eric Trump's wife, Lara Trump, denounced them as cowards.
"Many folks took their charity events and left. Ran away with their tails between their legs," she said.
The club is adapting. Once, Mar-a-Lago was a walled paradise where money kept political strife out. Now it uses politics to bring in money, from groups who like the idea that their ticket sales put money in the president's pocket. Republican officials. Conservative activists. Pro-Israel groups.
And, now, Trumpettes.
"Their hearts are so filled with love. They're so excited," Toni Holt Kramer, a Mar-a-Lago member and co-founder of the Trumpettes, said Thursday as the crowd filtered in. She said the low prices had brought in people who had no hope of seeing Mar-a-Lago otherwise. One asked her to hold a ticket until the visitor could afford to pay: "I had to hold tickets for two weeks until the alimony check [cleared]," Kramer said.
The Washington Post purchased a ticket. Inside the gates of Mar-a-Lago, the event followed the format of a Palm Beach charity ball — without the charity. Kramer was clear that the money would all go to the president's club.
It started with cocktails and appetizers around the pool, while a band dressed in American-flag outfits played and servers passed grilled-cheese bites. Then the crowd moved into the club's two big ballrooms — one to see it live, another to watch the events on a video feed.
On the way, they passed multiple life-size cutouts of Trump himself, placed to accommodate the demand for selfies. But the night was windy and unkind to the Trumps: They kept blowing over. "Man down!" one guest shouted when a cardboard president fell over. A passer-by took the cutout's baseball hat. Another guest propped him up again, and two posing women pretended to grope the president.
Many in the crowd had come from places where Trump is unpopular.
In some cases, they met others, who'd also left home to find allies.
"I met many neighbors, within a couple of blocks from us," said Marcia Caden, a retired jeweler who'd come all the way from Beverly Hills, Calif. "Never knew."
There were Palm Beach women in furs, and men in Palm Beach's distinctive party footwear: hyper-expensive man-slippers. But others dressed in American flag suits and Uncle Sam hats, and still others dressed for a Trump rally, including one woman in an "I love English" button.
Victor Del Regno, 70, a New York transplant living in West Palm Beach, said his table had discussed their anger at NFL players who'd protested police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. They'd talked about children who'd stopped talking to their parents, because the parents supported Trump: "They don't want to debate. They want to hate," he said.
"Do we get frustrated with some of his tweeting? Yes," Del Regno said to a reporter who had not yet asked about Trump's tweets. "You've got to separate the message from the delivery." He meant: He understood what Trump meant, even if he didn't say it in the right way.
The evening's program included a strident speech by Pirro, who praised Trump as a man with a common touch. "He would always talk to his help," she said, meaning Trump's servants. Pirro also lauded Trump's efforts to stop illegal immigration and praise his fight against the Islamic State.
She also felt a need to refute charges that Trump might be mentally unstable.
"This man is a genius," Pirro said. "He's not unstable. He's a damn genius."
Then, there was singing.
The evening featured several musical acts, seemingly chosen for their friendliness to Trump or to the Trumpettes. At one point, a speech about Trump's work to lower black unemployment was followed by a female singer who crooned "The Lady Is a Tramp." (A BBC crew who had watched rehearsals said she had been talked out of "Send in the Clowns.")
The crowd was less enthralled by these acts than by Pirro. At one point, a man singing Lee Greenwood's classic "God Bless the USA" used patriotism to try to get people to pay attention to him.
"Clap! Clap for America!" he said. The crowd kept chatting.
Later, as diners ate apple pies adorned with small American flags, actor and singer Robert Davi — perhaps best known as the bad guy from the 1985 film "Goonies" — sang classics like "New York, New York."
Toward the end of his set, Davi offered a toast: "I wish you all 500 years of Trumpism."
As the night grew late, the Trump supporters trickled out, picking up their souvenirs: a bottle of "Salute American" vodka and a red "Trump 2020" hat. They waited in the valet area, for cars that didn't always match Mar-a-Lago's Bentley-and-Benz stereotype.
"Ford Focus?" valets called at one point, trying to match a person with a car. "A silver Ford Focus?"
Earlier in the night, Lara Trump had told this crowd that the president had sacrificed his life at this place in Florida for the good of the country.
"He would much rather be down here every weekend, golfing, enjoying himself," she said.
On Friday, Trump was hoping to come back for the weekend, although his plans were on hold as Congress debated a short-term spending plan to avoid a government shutdown.
Trump was reportedly planning his own celebration of his first year in office — for Saturday night, in the same ballrooms. But the crowd might be different.
According to Bloomberg News, the cheapest tickets for that event were $100,000 per couple, raising funds for Trump's reelection and the GOP.
That party, Trump was expected to attend if he makes the trip.