White House

Trump's return to Mar-a-Lago: No pepper spray, pocket knives or laser pointers

Members of the waterfront Palm Beach retreat say they're looking forward to seeing the president at the Thanksgiving buffet line.

Mar-a-Lago is pictured here. | AP Photo

Members at Mar-a-Lago, who endured ad hoc procedures to accommodate Trump’s new status as commander in chief earlier this year, will see some new changes at the Florida resort this season. | Alex Brandon/AP

It’s Mar-a-Lago season again.

President Donald Trump returns to his private Palm Beach club Tuesday for the first time since April, and several of his dues-paying members said they plan on making a beeline there in hopes of catching a glimpse of the president or even chatting him up over the holiday weekend, including an extravagant Thanksgiving buffet.

Story Continued Below

Friends say the president relishes rubbing shoulders with club members at his “Winter White House” — even though his chief of staff, John Kelly, a new addition since the president’s last visit this spring, has reportedly been looking for ways to keep the president out of Mar-a-Lago’s common dining area.

“The president thrives on the interactions he has with guests, friends and members, and I’d be surprised if that didn’t continue in some way,” said Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, a Mar-a-Lago member who has been friendly with Trump for nearly 20 years.

Members at the exclusive seaside resort — who endured ad hoc procedures to accommodate Trump’s new status as commander in chief earlier this year — will nevertheless see some changes this season. Only two guests per member are allowed at any one time, and dinner reservations are available only two weeks in advance to stop members from snagging all the potential prime Trump time, according to a recent notice relayed to members.

Regulars are also getting a refresher on the rules when Trump is on the premises. An alert sent out Monday by the club ahead of the first presidential visit advised members of 10- to 20-minute waits to get through security, as well as the same traffic-flow restrictions, valet parking requirements and mandatory photo-identification rules that were imposed last season.

That includes Secret Service checkpoints, which were to be set up Tuesday morning ahead of Trump’s arrival. “Pocket knives, laser pointers, pepper spray, and any other items deemed to be a safety hazard are not permitted on property,” the club warned. “Any items surrendered will not be returned.”

Mar-a-Lago managers responded to last season’s problems in real time, imposing rules prohibiting pictures in the dining area when the president was on the property. That was in response to social media accounts that were flooded with pictures of everything from the military officer carrying the nuclear football to Trump and the visiting Japanese prime minister reacting to a real live North Korea crisis at their dinner table. Those restrictions remain in place, and now members face new limits at all times on the number of guests they can bring in and how many dinner reservations they can make in advance.

Protests greeted the president with each visit last season, and already this season one woman’s advocacy group, UltraViolet, has said it purchased local television ad time this Tuesday through Saturday during "Fox & Friends" and "Saturday Night Live" to broadcast a commercial featuring things that are “more popular than Trump,” including access to abortions and the Affordable Care Act.

Trump’s motorcade during trips to and from the airport and to his nearby private golf club in West Palm Beach are the cause of frequent traffic backups. The local county police force is also still waiting for a $3.5 million reimbursement from the federal government to cover the overtime costs of securing roads and other checkpoints during Trump’s last round of post-inauguration visits, while each additional day with Trump in town costs another $70,000.

“I certainly do not think anyone should expect this is now just a regular line item in the budget,” said Rep. Ted Deutch, a South Florida Democrat who represents the district adjoining Mar-a-Lago. “This is going to have to be fought for.”

Mar-a-Lago members, whose annual dues have gone up $1,000, to $15,000, are enjoying some new perks. The Trump Organization had doubled the number of private golf clubs that it now lists as offering reciprocal arrangements for Mar-a-Lago’s members, including the Aberdeen and Turnberry courses in Scotland, Doonbeg in Ireland and a newly opened club in Dubai.

At least one Mar-a-Lago member has also earned a nomination to serve in Trump’s administration: Robin Bernstein, a founding club member and president of a Palm Beach life and health insurance company, who was tapped last month to be the U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

But some Mar-a-Lago regulars complain of the extra hassles they face with Trump’s security entourage, as well as the overcrowded dining room, that make his resort less attractive as a weekend destination for tennis, working out and using its other amenities.

“We plan not to be there when he’s there,” said one longtime member. “When he’s there, it’s a mess.”

Trump’s South Florida resort has itself become an object of fascination far beyond Palm Beach. Over the weekend, the Palm Beach Post prompted global intrigue with a report that the 533-foot yacht “Eclipse,” owned by Roman Abramovich, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had arrived in the area at the same time Trump was preparing for his Thanksgiving trip. Media coverage has also accompanied everything from the potholes just outside Mar-a-Lago’s stucco walls to its local property tax bill and the number of foreign workers it hires each season.

The president’s polarizing approach to politics has cost Mar-a-Lago charitable bookings at the Donald J. Trump Ballroom. Twenty functions have left the club since last season, headed to other South Florida venues following the president’s controversial comments in August in the aftermath of a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, according to the Palm Beach Post.

But even the charity flap has sparked a political divide. Trump supporters have rallied to the president’s side, and several new events have popped up to fill the vacancies. A local group of female Mar-a-Lago members, dubbed “The Trumpettes,” have organized a $300-per-person party to commemorate Trump’s inauguration anniversary. That Thursday-night event in mid-January, which is expected to feature Eric Trump, actor and Frank Sinatra cover singer Robert Davi, and Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, has already sold out its first batch of 800 tickets. Invitations to the president and first lady are also going to be sent out.

“My money and my heart are staying at Mar-a-Lago,” said Toni Holt Kramer, the organizer of the “Red, White and Blue Celebration.”

The club, which this year doubled its initiation fee to $200,000, has reported seeing a boost in revenue compared to past years. From January 2016 through the spring, according to a financial disclosure the president submitted to the Office of Government Ethics, the club took in $37 million. That’s up from $30 million in 2015 and $16 million in 2014.

Trump, who shortly before his inauguration handed over day-to-day management of his private businesses to his two adult sons, has continued patronizing his various clubs, to the exclusion of other restaurants and hotels.

He frequently dines at the Trump International Hotel in Washington while at the White House. During his recent trip to Asia, Trump made a brief pit stop at his Honolulu hotel and, while speaking to the South Korea parliament, mentioned his Bedminster, New Jersey, club, which hosted this year’s U.S. Women’s Open.

But none is as iconic, or emblematic of Trump, as Mar-a-Lago. And some South Florida locals say the repeat presidential visits are almost starting to feel normal.

“It’s like living next to the railroad tracks,” Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw told POLITICO. “After a while, you don’t hear the trains.”