Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter and a longtime friend to President Donald Trump, is the author of upcoming book, The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game. Here is an exclsuive excerpt from the book on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago.
As Donald Trump tells it, he was on his way to a dinner party in Palm Beach in 1982 when he asked his limousine driver about properties for sale.
The driver mentioned Mar-a-Lago, the 110-room estate built by cereal heir Marjorie Merriweather Post. Post had left the property to the federal government in hopes that it would become an outpost for diplomats. But Jimmy Carter, who famously turned down the heat at the White House to sixty-eight degrees, thought the acquisition frivolous.
The deteriorating property reverted to Post’s foundation, which could not find a buyer. It was the jewel of Palm Beach, but no one wanted to assume the cost of maintaining the mansion—a million dollars a year, including taxes.
The future president asked his driver to take him by the estate and was mesmerized. He arranged to tour it the next day.
President Donald Trump waves from Air Force One upon arrival in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Thursday. In his upcoming book, The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game, longtime Trump friend Ronald Kessler writes about how the now-president came to open one of the most inclusive clubs in Palm Beach
President Donald Trump mocked Palm Beach’s WASP community when they wouldn’t approve of his Mar-a-Lago club because he wanted it to admit black and Jewish people, Ronald Kessler writes in his new book
His first offer of nine million dollars was rejected, but three years later, the foundation reconsidered and suggested he could buy the property that became the Winter White House for five million. He accepted and threw in another three million dollars for the furnishings.
At first, Trump used the estate as his private home, inviting his famous friends like Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley to stay there. In 1995, Trump was able to open Mar-a-Lago as a club, retaining his private quarters as a second home.
Designed by Palm Beach architect Marion Sims Wyeth with help on finishing details from Joseph Urban, Mar-a-Lago is a 55,695-square-foot Mediterranean-style complex on South Ocean Boulevard. It has fifty-eight bedrooms, thirty-three bathrooms, three bomb shelters, a theater, a ballroom, a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts, and a private tunnel leading to the beach on the Atlantic. Atop the mansion sits a seventy-five-foot tower.
As part of the research for my 1999 book The Season: Inside Palm Beach and America’s Richest Society, my wife, Pamela Kessler, a former Washington Post reporter, and I flew down to Palm Beach with Trump on his plane and spent the weekend with him at Mar-a-Lago. On the way down, Trump imitated the nasal, constricted tones of members of Palm Beach’s blue blood WASP Old Guard who condemned his club because it admitted blacks and Jews.
Letting his guard down for once, Trump explained, ‘I want to be loved and enjoy sticking it to them.’
Trump bought Mar-a-Lago – a 110-room estate built by cereal heir Marjorie Merriweather Post – int he 1980s and turned it into a club in the 1990s
Trump had trouble, however, getting plans for the club approved by the Palm Beach town council because he wanted it to be inclusive
Guided by Rampell, who is Jewish and a lifelong resident of the town, Trump invited members of the town council to play golf or tennis with him at the club. He invited them to glittering events at Mar-a-Lago, promising the men that gorgeous young women would be in attendance
Mar-a-Lago has thrived. It now costs $200,000 to join—up from $100,000 before Trump became president—plus $15,000 a year in fees
To this day, there are clubs in Palm Beach that will not admit minorities as members.
‘There’s nothing like the Everglades Club anywhere in the country,’ Trump told me. ‘If you’re Jewish and marry a gentile member, forget it. You can only be a guest. They wouldn’t let Estée Lauder come in with C.Z. Guest.’ Asked about the club’s policy on Jews, an Everglades Club president declined to comment.
If the members of the Palm Beach Town Council had had their way, there would be no Mar-a-Lago Club. Trump believed that prejudice by Palm Beach Town Council members, some of whom belonged to those clubs, was in part behind their opposition to his plan to turn Marjorie Merriweather Post’s 1927 estate into a private club that would not discriminate.
Providing insight into how Trump operates as president, to overcome the town’s opposition and get his club approved, Trump used the carrot and the stick.
His Florida lawyer, Paul Rampell, who had come up with the club idea and over a period of a month persuaded Trump to accept it, sent DVDs of Gentleman’s Agreement, a movie about anti-Semitism in the 1940s, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, about antiblack prejudice, to the mayor and each of the town council members when they tried to impose crushing restrictions on the club.
Their limits on membership, traffic, party attendance, and even photography would have made it virtually impossible for Mar-a-Lago to operate as a club. None of those restrictions had been applied to those clubs in town that discriminated.
Trump clutches newspapers while walking into Mar-a-Lago after returning from the Trump International Golf Club last weekend
Trump said he likes being protected by Secret Service agents (one pictured above), particularly when golfing because they’re ‘all looking in different directions, so when I miss a shot, they don’t see it’
The message behind sending the movies was clear: Trump was accusing the town council members of bigotry. On top of that, presaging the way he labels opponents today, Trump publicly referred to the trust fund babies who opposed his plans for Mar-a-Lago as the ‘lucky sperm club.’ For good measure, he sued the town for fifty million dollars.
At the same time, Trump unleashed a charm offensive.
Guided by Rampell, who is Jewish and a lifelong resident of the town, Trump invited members of the town council to play golf or tennis with him. He invited them to glittering events at Mar-a-Lago, promising the men that gorgeous young women would be in attendance.
For town council members, sending the movies depicting prejudice was the last straw. ‘It’s like saying the emperor has no clothes,’ Rampell tells me. ‘Discrimination by clubs was an un-mentionable. They expected Trump to bow to them. Donald was the extreme in the other direction.’
Trump spent millions renovating Mar-a-Lago. He employed Richard Haynes, whose father originally gilded Mar-a-Lago, to do nothing but replicate and restore the estate’s artistic touches. Using gold leaf thinner than tissue paper, Haynes regilded forty rams’ heads that jut from the roof line. Trump spent $100,000 on four gold-plated bathroom sinks near the ballroom.
Since becoming president, Trump and his family have spent much of their time at Mar-a-Lago. He’s pictured above with First Lady Melania Trump and their son, Barron, at a New Year’s Eve party last year
Tales of Trump’s disputes with the Palm Beach council over the Mar-a-Lago club have been revealed by the president’s longtime friend, Ronald Kessler (left)
Rather than being a white elephant, Mar-a-Lago has thrived. It now costs $200,000 to join—up from $100,000 before Trump became president—plus $15,000 a year in fees. In addition, the roughly 450 members pay for dining, shows, and suites where they can stay at $1,000 a night and up.
Fronting on both sides of the idyllic 3.75-square-mile island, Mar-a-Lago with its furniture and artwork is insured for $700 million. The club brings in $37 million a year in income for Trump. As he wrote in The Art of the Deal, Mar-a-Lago ‘may be as close to paradise as I’m going to get.’
Kessler’s new book, The Trump White House: Changing The Rules Of The Game, is set to be released on April 3
At a recent New Year’s Eve party held in the same ballroom where Trump and Melania held their wedding reception, the nearly seven hundred guests paid $1,200 per couple to attend. First came hors d’oeuvres and Trump champagne, which has become quite impressive, on the terrace overlooking the pool, cocktail shrimp, stone crab claws, cold lobster, oysters on the half shell, sushi, and caviar lovingly dished onto blini. At a previous New Year’s Eve party, the hors d’oeuvres included foie gras seared to order and risotto with white truffles.
After the champagne and hors d’oeuvres, the guests swanned over to the ballroom for dinner and dancing. No one would be hungry for dinner, which included truffle and ricotta ravioli and filet mignon and scallops.
The band Party on the Moon kept the Mar-a-Lago pavilion rocking as guests donned party hats they found at their table. Even Trump’s usually reserved wife Melania sported a black paper top hat.
In contrast to past New Year’s Eve parties, after Trump’s election as president, guests for the party ushering in 2017 were screened for weapons, as Secret Service agents struggled to open bejeweled clutch purses.
Stony-faced Secret Service agents stood at key locations in the ballroom wearing identifying pins, their hands clasped in front of them so they could react quickly and grab their guns. Other agents were not so obvious, mixing in with the guests and not wearing the traditional audio earpiece.
Sitting on a sofa overlooking the main Mar-a-Lago pool four days before the party, I asked Trump how he likes being protected by Secret Service agents.
‘It’s great,’ he said. ‘I have agents all around me as I’m playing golf, and they are all looking in different directions, so when I miss a shot, they don’t see it!’