Once freewheeling, Mar-a-Lago buttons up -- some -- in Trump's first year

The suntanned snowbirds who comprise Mar-a-Lago's membership have noticed something different at ...

Posted: Dec. 30, 2017 8:14 AM
Updated: Jan. 1, 2018 10:36 AM

The suntanned snowbirds who comprise Mar-a-Lago's membership have noticed something different at President Donald Trump's private club this winter.

On the patio and inside the dining room, a red velvet rope now surrounds the table where Trump and his immediate family sit for dinner. Around him, tables with his in-laws and grandchildren provide a buffer zone, making it nearly impossible for the average member to approach the club's owner, who is now leading the country.

The changes, which have been implemented over a series of months, are designed partly to avoid security hassles. But officials and club staff say they're also meant to keep the advice-givers, favor-askers and suck-ups at bay.

How successful these tactics will be remains an open question.

Trump -- who thrives on the very type of schmoozing that has caused headaches for his staff -- still makes circuits himself around the room, including making his own plate at the Christmas Eve buffet. He still waves over old friends to chat over plates of wedge salad and chocolate cake. And this week he conducted a freewheeling impromptu interview with a reporter, unstaffed, in the dining room of his golf club.

Still, Trump is finding during his first Christmas as president that his Mar-a-Lago retreat is no longer the same cosseted comfort zone as it was during his days as a reality television impresario and brash New York celebrity.

His South Florida haven

Trump, then a New York businessman with money to spend and a profile to raise, bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985 and turned it into his South Florida haven. The residence was eventually changed to a private club in 1995 and friends and colleagues who regularly traveled with Trump to Florida in those years say Trump felt just as home in Mar-a-Lago as he did in Trump Tower.

"Mar-a-Lago is as much home to Trump as Trump Tower," Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump adviser, said if the club. "In Trump Tower, he is on a high floor, away from people. But Mar-a-Lago is the one place where, if he so chooses, he can be constantly interacting with people."

Trump, Caputo said, was known to be "ultimately accessible" in Mar-a-Lago, in part, because members are "people in that club that have known Donald Trump for decades, longer than he has known Melania."

Longtime Trump friends tell stories of lounging with the now-President, or calling Mar-a-Lago in the early years and finding Trump on the other end, without a receptionist to screen his calls.

That is no longer the case.

With Trump now more restricted at Mar-a-Lago, the estate is feeling more like a respite from the White House and less of home, people close to Trump said.

Trump has scoffed at some of the restrictions put on him in the White House, so his time at Mar-a-Lago is still freeing. But considering the openness with which Trump schmoozed in the club for the last three decades, it has been a marked change for those close to him.

Changes

There have even been changes in how Mar-a-Lago handled the President over the last year.

While Trump's first few visits to the club were marked by frequent social media boasts from club members about their access to Trump -- complete with photos -- that has dwindled over the last few trips. Gone is the evidence of Trump dropping by weddings and fundraisers, replaced by people taking photos inside Mar-a-Lago and noting that they were told not to snap a shot of Trump.

Earlier this month, as Trump started his Christmas visit, one club-goer posted a photo of her high heel above a carpet emblazoned in the Mar-a-Lago Club logo.

"He was so animated and happy tonight with his family and friends all around," the user wrote, adding an explanation of why the photo was of her foot: "Sorry, no inside photos allowed."

Even with the restriction, Mar-a-Lago is by far the most open presidential estate in modern history. Former President George W. Bush would regularly travel to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and President Barack Obama would vacation in Hawaii, but both former commanders in chief would pass their hours in private homes, not a club that welcomes hundreds of visitors a day.

Trump's presidency has also significantly altered the club and its clientele.

Once a bastion for fundraisers and philanthropic galas, the club is now more of a Republican mecca than a bipartisan hangout.

Mar-a-Lago, once known for the premiere venue for fundraisers and philanthropic events, saw at least 15 organizations cancel on them during the Trump presidency, including groups like the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the American Cancer Society. Some of those events have been supplemented with Republican focused events, like a group known as Trumpettes USA, who plan to hold their Red, White and Blue event at the venue in January.

Polarization

As the politics of Mar-a-Lago change, so do the politics of the area, South Florida lawmakers say.

Much like the rest of the country, Palm Beach and the surrounding area have grown more polarized during the Trump presidency, and with the President regularly on local news down here -- especially when he is in town -- many residents feel like it is impossible to escape Trump in the Palm Beach area.

"The support or objections to the President as his policies remains consistent but I would say that it seems like it is a more robust level of support and objection to the President," Dave Kerner, a Democratic county commissioner in Palm Beach, said, adding that Democrats have grown more anti-Trump in the area because of his frequent visits.

Kerner added: "He is constantly here, more so than other parts of the United States, he is constantly in the news here ... Having him here serves as a catalyst and it brings other people in his orbit here. It is always in our face."

The changes have been implemented over a series of months

They are designed partly to avoid security hassles

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