“We’d love to have the media broadcasting our event,” said Michael Barnett, chairman of the Republican Party of Palm Beach County. “But we also want to respect the privacy of the president and the wishes of the folks at Mar-a-Lago. If it means we have to say no the press, that’s what we have to do.”
Barnett said it was Mar-a-Lago’s decision to close the event to reporters. “They didn’t give us a reason; they just let us know,” he said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Journalists have covered the event every year since 2013, including the years it has been held at Mar-a-Lago. Trump has attended twice — in 2016, when he was running for president and was the keynote speaker, and in 2014. That year, Trump’s job was to introduce Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), the keynote speaker.
Trump has attended events at his Florida resort that are closed to the media, such as a Republican National Committee fundraising dinner earlier this month. Other times, when his visits coincided with an outside event, members of the media were vetted by the Secret Service but allowed in.
The Lincoln Day Dinner is usually reporter-friendly and open to members of the public who buy a ticket. Tickets are hard to come by, Barnett said — the event sold out within a couple of weeks after ticket sales were announced in late November.
“In 2016, we sold out in days, so it’s slowed down a little bit,” he said. “You have to be a regular. You have to know how to access the website and know when we’re putting the tickets up.”
Access to the president at his Palm Beach properties came under increased scrutiny recently when Li “Cindy” Yang, a Republican donor and frequent visitor, was alleged to be offering VIP access to Trump, the White House and his Florida properties on her Chinese-language website. Yang is the former owner of the Orchids of Asia, a massage spa in Jupiter, Fla., that is now the target of a widely publicized sex-trafficking sting involving the owner of the New England Patriots.
Yang, a naturalized U.S. citizen from China, was in the habit of taking selfies at Trump’s properties with guests, including Trump. She was at the Lincoln Day Dinner last year and took a selfie with the guest speaker, Sarah Palin, a former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee.
Democrats in Congress said this week that they want the FBI to investigate Yang and her businesses.
Barnett said Yang is not on the guest list for this year’s dinner.
Single tickets sold for $375; the highest price is the “Presidential” level, for $25,000, which buys two 10-person tables, along with “preferential seating” at the front of the ballroom near the stage.
Barnett also said it’s unclear whether Trump will make an appearance at the gala, where 700 of the county’s GOP faithful traditionally dress in formal wear, have poolside cocktails and dine in the Gold Ballroom. Last year, more than 200 paid extra to have their photos taken with Palin.
“We are very blessed to be in Palm Beach County and to have our Lincoln Day Dinner hosted at the most beautiful venue in the country, and to have the possibility that the most powerful man in the world will address us,” Barnett said. “We have no control over that, but he’s always welcome to come and address some of the most loyal and dedicated Republicans around.”
This year’s keynote speaker is Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). Former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi will be the emcee.
Conservative activist James O’Keefe is
listed as a special guest
on the event website. O’Keefe founded Project Veritas, an organization that uses deceptive tactics against the mainstream media to secretly record conversations in an effort to embarrass its targets.
Barnett said that O’Keefe is not speaking at the event but that organizers wanted guests to know he will be there. He added that O’Keefe spoke at the Palm Beach GOP’s annual Lobsterfest two years ago and was a hit.
“He’s very popular in conservative circles,” Barnett said. “We wanted to highlight his presence at the dinner.”
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.