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Welcome to ‘Trump Season’ at Mar-a-Lago, an oasis as impeachment looms

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Palm Beach Post, November 23, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On Saturday, March 14, 2020, hundreds of well-coiffed women and homeless dogs will descend on Mar-a-Lago for a rescue-pup fundraiser. The charity event will be chaired by an unlikely pair of animal lovers: Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and arguably his biggest fan, and Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of billionaire Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg, long-loathed and publicly mocked by President Donald Trump.

The peculiar pairing of Lara Trump and Georgina Bloomberg is just one of the oddities that can be expected during what has come to be known in Palm Beach as “Trump Season.” The 2019-20 season — the fourth since Trump was elected in 2016 — begins Tuesday, when Trump is expected to arrive in Palm Beach for the family’s annual Thanksgiving dinner at Mar-a-Lago.

The roster of events for this season at the president’s private club punctuates a trend that began more than a year ago: Mar-a-Lago’s transition from a mecca for philanthropic events to a hub for political gatherings by groups that support the president.

And although each season has generated plenty of headlines, from addressing a major national security problem with a world leader on the terrace at Mar-a-Lago to a Chinese national sneaking into the club, this season Trump comes to Palm Beach in the midst of an historic attack on his presidency. He likely will bring the angst and furor he has vented on Twitter about the impeachment hearings, legal efforts to acquire his tax returns, and criticism from Fox News.

Trump has already made 25 visits to Mar-a-Lago, but this season could see more frequent trips. As impeachment hearings intensify, Trump could use his walled, weekend retreat to escape Washington. Already he has scheduled back-to-back weekend visits, returning the weekend after Thanksgiving for the state GOP’s annual Stateman’s Dinner.

As fundraising ramps up for the 2020 election, Trump will likely use Mar-a-Lago as a venue to lure big-dollar donors to exclusive fundraising events. More political spending and revenue for Mar-a-Lago can be expected as 2020 campaigns ramp up.

“I would hope so and expect so,” longtime Republican fundraiser and Trump confidant Brian Ballard, managing partner of the lobbying powerhouse Ballard Partners, told The Post earlier this year. “It’s where folks want to be and as far as hospitality, it’s a first class venue.”

Michael Barnett, chairman of the Republican Party of Palm Beach County, said he, too, expects — and hopes — to see more of the president.

“As important as Florida is, the largest swing state in the country, I expect him down in Florida a lot - not just Palm Beach County,” Barnett said, adding that the local party plans to hold its annual Lincoln Day Dinner at Mar-a-Lago again this year. “We have had great fundraisers there.”

Of the $1.2 million political groups have spent at Mar-a-Lago, Trump is his own best customer. Trump’s campaign has paid Mar-a-Lago $650,000 to use his club since he celebrated his Super Tuesday win at Mar-a-Lago.

Most of the charities that canceled their high-society, big dollar fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago the past two seasons after Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” at a deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 are still are shunning the president’s private club.

Again this year, those events will be replaced by pro-Trump groups that had never been seen at Mar-a-Lago before Trump was elected. That trend recently grabbed national headlines when ACT for America, a grassroots national security group with a long history of anti-Muslim rhetoric, booked an event and Mar-a-Lago.

News of the group’s fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago drew swift criticism from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization also known as CAIR, which considers ACT for America a hate group that spreads fear and misinformation.

In the outrage that followed, the Trump Organization canceled the event. “This group absolutely will not be hosting their event at Mar-a-Lago,” Amanda Miller, a spokeswoman for the Trump Organization, wrote in an email to The Post.

But that did not stop the Center for Security Policy, a Washington, D.C., think-tank with a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric, from booking its annual Flame Dinner at Mar-a-Lago on Nov. 23. The Mar-a-Lago member who agreed to sponsor the event is Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, a West Palm Beach resident who is a friend of the president.

The event has not been canceled, despite complaints from CAIR.

Another pro-Trump group that partied at Mar-a-Lago last year and is likely to return is Turning Point USA. The group, headed by Trump super-fan Charlie Kirk, held a dinner at Mar-a-Lago during its annual Student Action Summit in West Palm Beach in December. The event is considered the nation’s largest gathering of young conservatives and this year featured speakers including Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News personalities Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.

Orphan’s Promise, a charity of the Christian Broadcasting Network, also may make a return appearance. The group founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, held its inaugural Dream Gala in February.

The Trumpettes USA Inc., the self-proclaimed “number one support group” for President Donald Trump, has scheduled its third annual bash at Mar-a-Lago on Feb. 1 — Super Bowl eve. The choice date all but guarantees that next year’s event will be on a weekend when Trump will be at his private club to host his fourth Super Bowl party as president.

What is certain is that taxpayers will foot the bill for the president’s travel and security. The Government Accountability Office released a report in February that assessed Trump’s first four trips to Mar-a-Lago as president. Those travels took place in early 2017: Feb. 3-6, Feb. 10-12, Feb. 17-20 and March 3-5.

The total? Just under $14 million, for an average cost of $3.4 million per trip. That includes about $8.5 million spent by the Department of Defense and $5 million by the Department of Homeland Security. It also includes about $60,000 paid directly to Mar-a-Lago itself, $24,000 of which was for lodging for Pentagon personnel and $36,000 for operational space used by DHS, according to a report in the Washington Post.

That figure does not include the costs to local taxpayers for law enforcement overtime and special equipment needed to protect the president.

Providing security for Trump when he visited the West Palm Beach area during the 2018-19 fiscal year cost the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office more than $3.86 million in overtime — the second-highest accrual the sheriff’s office has racked up in the three years Trump has been president.

The town of Palm Beach police department reported it racked up $13,769.50 in overtime pay during presidential visits in the most recent fiscal year, whereas West Palm Beach police had nearly $60,000 in overtime pay during the same time.

The federal government reimburses most of those costs to local governments.

Town of Palm Beach Mayor Gail Coniglio said the town is prepared for Trump’s return. Coniglio said she has not heard whether Trump will spend more time at Mar-a-Lago this season, but she does expect there will be more activity by Trump supporters and opponents.

Locals can expect more of the same during the president’s winter visits: Pontoon gunships patrolling the Intracoastal waterway near Mar-a-Lago; national and international news networks establishing base camps in a parking lot at a West Palm Beach park; and local police and deputies racking up thousands of dollars in overtime.

There will be the usual evening road closures and traffic jams near Palm Beach International Airport when Air Force One lands and A1A, the oceanfront road runs in front of Mar-a-Lago, will be closed, forcing detours through downtown West Palm Beach.

Also facing an inconvenience will be members of the Bridge Family, ardent Trump supporters who wave signs, flags and chant slogans on a corner they have staked out along the president’s motorcade route from PBIA to Mar-a-Lago. Their corner is under construction, leaving them with two choices: Move across the street, where Trump protesters gather, or find another spot along the motorcade route.

“Come December we’re going to figure out what to do, where to go,” said Willy Guardiola, chairman for the county’s Trump rallies and sign waving events. One thing is certain, Guardiola said. They will find a new location.

Also returning to Palm Beach is Mad Dog PAC, the political pranksters responsible for the anti-Trump billboard along the motorcade route. The group’s 2018 message was “IMPEACHMENT NOW” blazoned on a billboard along Southern Boulevard. This year, the group posted bright red sign with three letters — GOP — the acronym for the Republican Party. But the O is replaced by a hammer and sickle, the Russian symbol of proletarian solidarity.


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