Former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club back in a spotlight it never really left

Former President Trump's 2024 campaign launch at Mar-a-Lago in November put his private residence and club back in the limelight. But the former Southern White House, as the Palm Beach estate was dubbed during Trump's one-term presidency, has rarely been out of the spotlight since January 2021.

Mar-a-Lago, after all, is from where Trump reasserted control of the Republican Party after losing the 2020 election and despite leaving the White House under a second impeachment cloud following the U.S. Capitol attack. It is where FBI agents entered and seized government files, including top secret documents, that Trump is said to have improperly kept at the property.

And it is where two days before Thanksgiving Trump attended dinner with firebrand performing artist Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and white supremacist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes, sparking a political firestorm. That debacle has now reportedly led to new rules about who Trump can be approached by while he is at the club.

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Another controversy erupted recently when Trump called for the "termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those in our great Constitution." Trump's statement was in response to reports that Twitter temporarily suppressed a 2020 New York Post story related to allegations about President Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden.

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Trump's call to abrogate the Constitution immediately overshadowed the scandal around Twitter, and drew a flood of pushback and criticism against the former president, including outgoing Congresswoman Liz Cheney, vice chair of the Jan. 6 House committee. She said Trump has shown himself to be "an enemy of the Constitution. Even the former president's Capitol Hill allies were flummoxed about how to respond.

“Well, first off, he hasn’t — he has no ability to suspend the Constitution,” said U.S. Rep. David Joyce, who leads the Republican Governance Group, on ABC TV. “You know, he says a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean that it’s ever going to happen.”

Mar-a-Lago has been Trump's MAGA mecca even as government watchdogs have often red-flagged conflicts of interest when Trump was in office and cited as problematic self-dealing since. One of those watchdogs, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, issued a report recently listing how roughly 500 GOP officials and candidates, among others, attended or hosted events there, "funneling money into the former president’s pockets" in an attempt to "curry favor" with him.

"At best it is supremely weird and at worst a sign of (Republicans') continued lack of interest in government ethics that they continue to feed his businesses as a way to curry favor with him, to get him to endorse their candidacy, to sort of vie for his blessing through payments to his businesses," said Robert Maguire, CREW's research director. "The underlying theme here is that he still maintains a very tight grip on this party. So much so that they are willing to spend money at his properties to curry favor with him."

It's Palm Beach's social season; Mar-a-Lago set to host political galas

The controversy over the Ye and Fuentes dinner comes as the former president's club continues to line up political events.

On Dec. 1, Trump was scheduled to speak at the American Freedom Tour "Winter Gala" at Mar-a-Lago, a black-tie event where tickets ran from $10,000 to $50,000 per couple. The gala preceded a two-day American Freedom Insider Ultra MAGA event that, according to an invitation, was expected to feature "experts" and "some of the most influential conservatives" on topics such as border security, election integrity, the economy and energy independence.

The event's organizers would not discuss the gala or retreat in detail, including the scheduled speakers.

"President Trump was gracious enough to open Mar-a-Lago to this invite-only American Freedom Tour Winter Gala," said American Freedom Tour spokesman Larry Ward in an email. "It is going to be an amazingly patriotic event."

On Dec. 6, far-right activist Mike Flynn, a pardoned former general, was set to host another event.

Flynn, now a Sarasota resident, invoked the Fifth Amendment repeatedly during his testimony before the U.S. House committee probing the motives behind the Jan. 6 violence at the U.S. Capitol. One of the questions he refused to answer was whether he believed in the peaceful transfer of power.

In an email invitation sent to The Palm Beach Post, Flynn wrote the event at Mar-a-Lago will "celebrate the vibrant history and legacy of America’s Future."

Flynn, who was forced to resign as national security advisor and then pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to the FBI in late 2017, said the event will kick off "our 2023-2024 Project Defend and Protect Our Children."

The retired general's extremist political views, his pardoned felony and his role leading up to the Jan. 6 violence at the Capitol has left some Trump loyalists shaking their heads.

Far-right activist Mike Flynn, a pardoned former general and Sarasota resident, was to host an event at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago to "celebrate the vibrant history and legacy of America’s Future." The event, he said, was to kick off "our 2023-2024 Project Defend and Protect Our Children."
Far-right activist Mike Flynn, a pardoned former general and Sarasota resident, was to host an event at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago to "celebrate the vibrant history and legacy of America’s Future." The event, he said, was to kick off "our 2023-2024 Project Defend and Protect Our Children."

"Here we go again," said one Trump supporter in Florida, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution from some in the former president's orbit, referring to Trump's already disastrous dinner with Ye and Fuentes.

But a military veterans advocate said she is attending the event in support of those who served in the U.S. armed forces.

Cat Gates Skipper, a Marine Corps veteran from Polk County who worked on Trump's 2016 campaign, said she was invited to attend and coordinate a "patriotic" welcome honoring U.S. veterans, including some who will appear on stage with Trump.

"We're doing a veterans thing down there," she said. "I know there's been some controversies with that but I try to focus on the positives. It's all about the veterans. I'm invited as VIP, as a veteran with other veterans so I stay focused on that ... When it comes to veterans, that's who I am and where I'm at."

Is Trump's mixing of business and politics at Mar-a-Lago fruitful?

How much Trump and his properties have profited from his mixing of business and politics is not known. Since leaving office, Trump has not had to make public his businesses' financial statements.

CREW's Maguire and other government watchdogs say they believe Trump's steering of business to his properties during his presidency more than made up for his donating away his $400,000 a year presidential salary during his term.

However, financial statements Trump filed during his White House years showed a drop in revenues at Mar-a-Lago, which doubles as Trump's official residence and a for-profit private club for the wealthiest Palm Beachers and others.

For example, Mar-a-Lago revenues fell by $3.7 million, or 14%, to $21.4 million from 2017 through late 2019. Revenues at his Palm Beach County golf courses, Trump International Golf Club in unincorporated West Palm Beach and Trump National Jupiter in nearby Jupiter, did see increases during Trump's presidency.

But it's not dollars and cents alone that worried watchdogs. It was accessibility to Trump.

CREW's Maguire said foreign diplomatic delegations, U.S. corporations and even Mar-a-Lago members sought to influence policy by using their business at Trump's properties to whisper in his ear.

Maguire cited a 2018 report by ProPublica that revealed that three Mar-a-Lago members had exerted sweeping influence on the Veterans Administration's policies. The three, according to the news agency, were Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz; Ike Perlmutter of Marvel Entertainment; and lawyer Marc Sherman.

And now with Trump again seeking the White House, Maguire said people wanting to influence policy will again be "literally buying his favor" by patronizing Trump's businesses and properties, including Mar-a-Lago.

"He is definitely shown himself to be someone who knows exactly who is on his side and who is not," Maguire said. "And these people and these governments and these companies are banking on the fact that if they make these payments, then they are going to be in the good graces of Trump if he makes it back to the White House."

Will 2022 disappointment alter GOP calculus on 'feeding' Trump business?

The GOP's midterm election results were widely seen as a disappointment — the party lost its bid to win control of the U.S. Senate, and it is looking at a razor-thin U.S. House majority.

Major conservative media organizations have counseled Republicans to move past Trump and seek new leadership, and 2024 hopefuls, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

The Nov. 10, 2022 cover of the New York Post.
The Nov. 10, 2022 cover of the New York Post.

In November, the New York Post, which previously backed the former president, mocked him as "Trumpty Dumpty" in a parody of the nursery school rhyme that read: "Don (who couldn’t build a wall) had a great fall — can all the GOP’s men put the party back together again?"

But CREW's Maguire is not convinced the party is going to so easily dump Trump after "actively feeding him" business to "stay in his good graces" — even after Trump's midterm flops.

"Maybe the sort of lackluster midterm results will change that calculus some, but it certainly is something that has had staying power despite Jan. 6, despite his continued lies about the 2020 election and throughout the midterm cycle where this was a main place for people to go and be seen in Republican circles, and to show their proximity and favor for Trump," Maguire said.

Antonio Fins is a politics and business editor at the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Florida Network. You can reach him at afins@pbpost.comHelp support our journalism. Subscribe today.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Trump's Kanye West, archives controversies put Mar-a-Lago in spotlight