Pres. Donald Trump is reportedly using his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida as an exclusive salon where members gain unique access to the chief executive and jockey to influence his decisions on issues that directly affect their business interests.
The New York Times reported on Saturday that the 500 people paying $200,000 per year to belong to Trump’s exclusive club include “dozens of real estate developers, Wall Street financiers, energy executives and others whose businesses could be affected by Mr. Trump’s policies.”
“At least three club members are under consideration for an ambassadorship,” wrote the Times‘ Nicholas Confessore, Maggie Haberman and Eric Lipton. “Most of the 500 have had memberships predating Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, and there are a limited number of memberships still available.”
Among current members are fossil fuel billionaire William H. Koch, trader Thomas Peterffy, insurance executive George Norcross and Rockstar Energy Drink CFO and co-founder Janet Weiner, whose company is attempting to loosen regulations on its products.
Real estate developer and co-founder of Toll Brothers — one of the largest home-building companies in the U.S. — told the Times that the influence of members on Pres. Trump is benign and is just part of casual discussions with the former reality TV star.
“Maybe you ought to do this or that,” would be a characteristic statement of a member to Pres. Trump, Toll said.
Another member is former Reagan White House chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein, who “now works as a corporate consultant and lobbyist. Clients of Mr. Duberstein’s firm include Alibaba Group, the Chinese internet company; Amgen and Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giants; and Dow Chemical and America’s Health Insurance Plans, which represents the nation’s largest health insurers.”
When the Times asked Duberstein about his Mar-a-Lago membership, he brushed aside ethical concerns by saying, “It’s a social thing. It is not a business thing.”
However, member Richard LeFrak — a New York real estate developer — said that he was startled when Trump told him the Department of Homeland security was quoting a $10 billion price tag for the border wall with Mexico, then offered to cut him in.
“He said, would I consider doing it? And then he suggested that the price that was being quoted in the media seemed absurdly high to him,” Mr. LeFrak said. “And I didn’t react to him one way or the other because I don’t know what the facts are.”
Le Frak said he said to Trump, “I thought you were going to have homeland security deal with this.”
Trump, who LeFrak described as stymied by the bureaucracy, reportedly said, “Yes, maybe General Kelly will call you.”
The president’s son Eric said it isn’t fair to characterize the coterie of billionaires who gather at Mar-a-Lago as engaging in influence peddling. The club only takes 20 to 40 new members per year, he said, and its well-heeled members have plenty of other ways to communicate with the federal government.
“It assumes the worst of us and everyone, and that is unfair,” he complained.
The Times noted that Mar-a-Lago, unlike the White House, has no official visitors’ log and no public access. Members are shielded from public and media scrutiny.
The president raised eyebrows and national security concerns last weekend when he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conducted a briefing about North Korea in the open air in view of guests who had not been vetted or granted security clearances.
John Dean, former White House counsel under Pres. Richard Nixon said that while Nixon traveled to a private residence in Key Biscayne during his presidency, but that arrangement was different. Nixon was staying in a private home and wasn’t surrounded by members of the business elite.
“Most presidents feel very strongly about the dignity of the office they hold,” Dean said. “Mr. Trump has busted every norm in campaigning, and he seems to be doing the same with the traditions of his office.”
Many presidents, the Times said, have consorted with the wealthy and owned mansions, but the Mar-a-Lago situation is unprecedented in that “it is the first one with customers paying a company owned by the president, several historians said.”
“Mar-a-Lago represents a commercialization of the presidency that has few if any precedents in American history,” said presidential historian Jon Meacham. “Presidents have always spent time with the affluent. But a club where people pay you as president to spend time in his company is new. It is kind of amazing.”