Palm Beach Used To Be A Nice Town For Billionaires. Then Along Came Trump

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In this ultimate escape town, Trump and everything he brings with him is inescapable.

President Donald Trump stayed in Washington over the holidays, so South Ocean Boulevard was not closed to traffic, allowing the residents of this exclusive Florida enclave to move around town without checkpoints or delays.

That's no small thing for multimillionaires and billionaires unaccustomed to inconvenience. Since Trump became president two years ago, the Secret Service shuts down a long sliver of the road connecting the south and north parts of this 16-mile-island whenever he stays at Mar-a-Lago, the luxury seaside estate he bought in 1985. Private jets are not allowed to fly into the small local airport. There are detours, traffic jams and other irritations, the kind of things, frankly, that the wealthy regulars come to Palm Beach to avoid.

Once just another rich guy in a place full of really rich guys, the 45th president has invaded their roads, their airspace, their head space. In this ultimate escape town, Trump and everything he brings with him – security, media, protesters and controversy – is inescapable.

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"He has to be the center of attention," says Larry Leamer, author of the forthcoming book "Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump's Presidential Palace." "He doesn't give a damn if its negative."

Trump's contentious three decades in Palm Beach was the perfect training ground for his life as a politician, says Leamer: "He dominated the consciousness here like nobody before, and now he's doing it to America."

This tropical paradise – 10,000 year-round residents, 30,000 during the "season" that runs from New Year's Eve to Easter – was created for the very rich to bask in the American Dream without apology, judgment or headlines. Everyone is in vacation mode, and the last thing they want to think about is politics.

Republicans rarely bring up his name in public. Democrats won't pick a fight. There are no Trump souvenirs (pro or con) for sale and an unspoken agreement that this is not the time and absolutely not the place for public debate.

"Even the people that don't like him don't like any sort of outright rudeness or nastiness published about him when he's here," explains one longtime social observer who, like most residents, declined to be named for fear of alienating friends and neighbors. "It's like, 'This is Palm Beach. We're all rich. Let's be polite.'"

So it was a relief when Trump's scheduled 16-day vacation was abruptly canceled because of the government shutdown. Aside from more police, the rest of the island returned to its pre-presidential norms: Palm trees wrapped in white lights, the Breakers towers lit red and green, men in tuxedos and women in diamonds. With Trump stuck in Washington, his family hosted Mar-a-Lago's New Year's Eve party for 650 people. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and his wife, Hilary, threw an exclusive dinner at their $23 million villa. Kellyanne Conway and her kids walked around town practically unnoticed.

"It's a better energy when he's not here," says a Worth Avenue business owner, one of two dozen locals interviewed for this article. "It's like the clouds lifted and everybody goes about their business."

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Since Trump became president two years ago, the Secret Service shuts down a long sliver of the road connecting the south and north parts of this 16-mile-island whenever he stays at Mar-a-Lago, the luxury seaside estate he bought in 1985.

The protesters have disappeared. So have Trump's supporters, who wore MAGA caps and drove pickups with huge U.S. flags. "In the first year, they would come in with those hats and walk around like they owned the town," says one resident.

But Trump's magnificent estate is exactly where it's always been: Poised in the center of an island less than a mile wide, vulnerable by land, air and sea. Airspace is restricted for 10 miles. There is no military base nearby to land Air Force One; Trump prefers Palm Beach International Airport, which causes commercial flights to be delayed. When Trump goes to his golf club on West Palm Beach, the southern artery to the island is closed. Even members of Mar-a-Lago – who pay a nonrefundable $200,000 membership fee, plus $14,000 in annual dues – must (so annoying!) drive off and then back on the island for a security clearance.

Last year, the Palm Beach County sheriff asked the federal government to repay $5.6 million in overtime pay. Despite promises to reimburse local agencies, there's grumbling that local taxpayers are paying more than their fair share.

In theory, this investment should pay off after Trump leaves office. "For the first time, people in China are hearing about Palm Beach," says historian Rick Rose, author of "Palm Beach: The Essential Guide to America's Legendary Resort Town." He was interviewed for a documentary broadcast across China; tourism officials are focusing on the future, not the daily Trump drama. "Everyone wants to drive past Mar-a-Lago."

So far, there's no Trump Bump in tourism: Shops and restaurants report small but steady growth. It's the locals who are disappearing, staying home or flying out of town when the president comes in.

But it would be unfair to conclude that the citizens of Palm Beach don't support Trump. In 2016, he won 3,231 votes to Hillary Clinton's 2,612. His tax cuts and the bull stock market (until the last month) are very popular. Not that anyone wants to talk it.

"Palm Beach is a private town," says Piper Quinn, owner of Buccan restaurant. "We're protective of each other collectively, regardless of our political affiliations. We certainly respect our privacy, regardless of where you stand, and there's no deviation from that at all. We don't lay it on the table when we're out. Socially, it's not a thing."

Quinn presides over one of the island's hotspots that belies the stereotypes: It's young, diverse, crammed with full-time residents looking to make (or expand) their fortunes in South Florida. Like the Kennedys – regulars in Palm Beach 60 years ago – the Trumps generate a lot of buzz.

"People are very curious," he explains. "There's the allure of Mar-a-Lago, its history, and Donald Trump. Regardless of naysayers, being president is still a big deal. It's a wonderful thing to have the president, some of our Congress and our Cabinet in our town."

Needless to say, not everyone agrees. Like the ancient parable from India of blind men describing an elephant: It depends what you're feeling.

"It's very divisive," says a wealthy Washingtonian who owns a home in Palm Beach. "People try not to talk politics. I tend to socialize with people who do not like Trump, but the few Republicans I end up with – some don't like him and are embarrassed by him. But a lot of them, especially if they have a lot of money, think he's great."

She first met Trump at a 2008 Hillary Clinton fundraiser in Palm Beach "when he was a Democrat." Now she has friends who feel they "need to be on his team" and show up at Mar-a-Lago every Saturday when Trump is there. She went once. "I felt uncomfortable just being there," she says. "I felt like I patronized something that I totally didn't believe in. I just can't even bear to talk about it. And when I do, it's a problem."

It's a problem for Republicans, too. A huge billboard on his motorcade route that screamed, "Impeachment Now" was replaced last week with one that links the Republican Party to the Russians.

"You may not support him, but the fact is that he is the president," says one GOP supporter and resident. Like many of her friends, she's become more involved in local causes: "People love living here. There are a lot of people today who feel disaffected by the global politics and national politics. They don't know how to fix it. So they're going deep in their communities, fixing what they can."

Which brings us to those famous charity balls at Mar-a-Lago. In 2004, Trump built a 20,000-sqaure-foot pavilion on the property to compete with the Breakers and other clubs. It worked until 2017, when hosting or not hosting a benefit became a political statement. Many organizations fled, fearful that Trump's controversial views would turn off contributors. Others came calling, eager to pay the club's rental fees on the chance the president would drop in.

"This is not about taking a political stand or what's right or wrong; it's about the donors," says one longtime observer. "If a donor says, 'If you have your event there, I'm not giving you any money,' they move the event. If enough donors say, 'I'm not giving you any money if you move the event, they'll keep the event there.' It's not about morals or principles or any of that B.S. It's all about money."

Palm Beach was always about the money. Founded in 1894 by Standard Oil magnate Henry Morrison Flagler, it became a winter playground for the ultrawealthy: Vanderbilts, Fords, DuPonts. After World War I, Europeans, such as the duke and duchess of Windsor, flocked to this permanent party for the idle rich.

There were heirs and heiresses with vast fortunes and little to lose. Trump was one in a long line of colorful personalities when he first came in 1982; unfamiliar with the history and class structure, he was, as one local puts it, "a Miami Beach kind of guy." During a tour, he spotted Mar-a-Lago, the mansion built by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1927.

Post left the 128-room, 20-acre estate to the federal government as a winter White House, but the offer was rejected due to prohibitive operating costs. Trump scored the real estate deal of his life, buying the house, furniture and beachfront for $10 million. Forbes estimates the entire estate is now worth $160 million.

"He wanted to be king," explains Leamer. "He wanted to be the biggest thing ever. And it was the most incredible place in America."

With millionaires and billionaires such as David Koch, Stephen Schwarzman, Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern, wealth is the common denominator in Palm Beach. Trump's meticulous restoration of Mar-a-Lago – now a historic landmark – was widely respected and would have opened doors socially had he been willing to pay even a passing nod to the unspoken rules of civility and discretion.

But from the beginning, Trump rubbed Palm Beach wrong. He was arrogant and pushy, and he didn't care that locals thought he was loud and vulgar. He bought a gaudy oceanfront estate in 2004 for $41 million, then flipped it to a Russian billionaire for $95 million (who tore it down and sparked rumors of money laundering.)

Trump was shut out of all the private clubs, the heart of Palm Beach social life. Half the people in town can't stand him, says Leamer, which dovetails neatly into his lifelong envy and disdain for America's elites.

So Trump opened Mar-a-Lago as a private club in 1995. Unlike the Everglades or Bath and Tennis clubs, which did not admit Jewish members, and the Palm Beach Country Club, which admitted wealthy Jews, Mar-a-Lago was open to anyone. "Basically, he didn't care who came in as long as they could pay for it," explains a Palm Beach social expert. Money may have been the motive, but Trump's open-door policy – his was the first club to accept African-Americans and openly gay couples – began the slow process to diversify other clubs in town.

Trump rarely leaves his palace; people come to him. He hosted the prime minister of Japan and the president of China, and tapped two ambassadors from his membership list: Robin Bernstein for the Dominican Republic and handbag designer Lana Marks for South Africa.

Many of the club's original members, primarily Jewish Democrats, have left, replaced by an eclectic mash-up of business executives, socialites and groupies. "The new members are very different." says Leamer. "It's the most fun of any of the clubs because there's this range of humanity. There are people who are unspeakably vulgar and loud and fairly disgusting, and elegant people. It's lively."

And lucrative: Trump earned an estimated $25 million from Mar-a-Lago in 2017.

Palm Beach may not have missed Trump, but the president missed Mar-a-Lago.

"I am all alone (poor me) in the White House" he tweeted Christmas Eve. On New Year's Eve, there was a video: "While I'm at the White House working, you're out there partying tonight. But I don't blame you. Enjoy yourselves."

And Palm Beach did. There was a party at the Breakers, and a dinner dance at Club Colette, a private dining club favored by the A-list. The most exclusive party of all: Coconuts, a 24-member club that hosts an annual New Year's Eve dance. Trump is not a member; it's unclear if he's been asked.

"The old guard just will never accept him, no matter what he does," says author Ron Kessler. "They love to look down their noses on him. People have no idea just how wealthy Palm Beach is and how many strange rituals it has."

Kessler, a frequent guest at Mar-a-Lago, says some things have changed since 2016: The Secret Service now ropes off Trump's table so no one can approach him unless he calls them over. But anyone can go on New Year's Eve if they are sponsored by a member and pay $1,000, plus 20 percent tip and tax. (Or snag a spare ticket.)

More than 900 people originally planned to attend, but one member said a couple hundred dropped out after news that the president would not be there. The remaining guests were mostly club members, who paid $650 to see Melania, Ivanka, Jared, Eric and birthday boy Don Jr., who celebrated his 41st with girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle.

"It was absolutely fantastic," said member Anka Palitz. "As always, there was a long line for caviar. Tin after tin."

The Trumps mingled, posing for selfies and standing in for the president. "I truly thought he would come at the last minute," says Palitz.

He'll be back. He always comes back. "Anybody who thinks he's going away has no understanding of the man," says Leamer.

A promise, a threat or a metaphor – depending on who in Palm Beach you ask.

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