We’ve heard countless stories about what goes on at Mar-a-lago. Some of it is based on facts, some on speculation, but now we are learning more about the place that has become Donald Trump’s primary residence. The Grifter’s Club: Trump, Mar-a-Lago, and the Selling of the Presidency is hitting bookshelves today. It was written by Sarah Blaskey, Nicholas Nehamas, and Jay Weaver, all of the Miami Herald and Caitlin Ostroff, a former Herald reporter, who is now with the Wall Street Journal.
The book is described as “A breakthrough account of the palatial resort where Trump conducts government business with little regard for ethics, security, or the law. It contains new revelations about the federal investigation of suspected malware being brought into Mar-a-Lago, the consistent misuse of taxpayer dollars there; the government work being conducted in un-secured locations, often with foreign dignitaries present; and how Mar-a-Lago’s security rules undermine the Secret Service, and thus national security.“
News & Guts spoke with Nehamas about some of the revelations he and the other authors made as they researched this book. Here’s what he told us.
How does Donald Trump profit off Mar-a-lago and why is that a problem?
We all know that money is being made at Mar-a-Lago.
What we didn’t know before “The Grifter’s Club” is what that looks like: In the worst cases we documented, financial decisions have led to threats that look like potential espionage efforts. In other instances, pay-to-play at Mar-a-Lago takes the form of random dinner guests with bizarre international policy missions.
The president profits from every member who joins, every party thrown in the grand ballroom, every meal taken at the club. A membership buys access to Trump — and the president has encouraged this notion by promoting the club at every turn and spending weekends glad handing with members and their guests.
It has been widely reported that Trump raised the initial membership fee from $100,000 to $200,000 after his election. “The Grifter’s Club” reveals the price has again been hiked to $250,000. But really, staff say the price is whatever someone is willing to pay.
The Trump Organization is known for price gouging the desperate and giving free honorary memberships to those whose membership will boost the club’s brand.
Revenue at the club nearly doubled year to year after Trump declared his run for office in 2015 as membership became the easiest route to gaining favor with one of the most powerful people in the world. Australia’s Gina Rinehart is one of the club’s newest members. She joined after another club member Anthony Pratt overtook her as Australia’s wealthiest person.
How much influence a member actually wields seems largely up to chance. The book details several efforts by members to influence Trump. In one case, a member attempted to broker a summit with North Korea by bringing Mongolian diplomats to dinner at the club.
Members also serve as the club’s de facto gatekeepers. All events hosted at the club require a member sponsor. All guests must come with a member. Now that Trump is president, his members effectively control access to the president himself. It is a coveted and lucrative position.
As it turns out, the biggest problem with Trump profiting off Mar-a-Lago isn’t corruption — it’s security.
Trump’s financial interests at the club conflict with presidential safety and national security. Mar-a-Lago is a club, one that exists to serve its members, who expect an open and free environment to enjoy themselves. The Trump Organization has largely refused to restrict member access or institute stringent security protocols like those seen at the White House and other government facilities. That leaves the club open to the numerous intruders who have gained access to the property — and potentially makes the club an easy target to foreign agents.
Trump’s club took a financial hit after Charlottesville when the majority of major charities pulled their galas. Needing to make money, the club accepted basically any event willing to come. Last year, a Chinese woman was detained entering Mar-a-Lago with a purse full of electronics. She was headed for one of those new events. She was caught only because that particular event happened to be cancelled at the last minute.
The Grifter’s Club shows in example after example just how easy it is for financial decisions to have major, unforeseen national security implications.
Has another president ever operated a place like Mar-a-lago, where he stayed at a place, he also profited off of?
The simple answer is no.
Many presidents have had off-the-books advisers and private vacation getaways. Joe Biden once rented a cabin on his property to a Secret Service detail tasked with protecting him. But no other president or vice president has ever spent weekends at a luxury club that they own. Every time agents go to Mar-a-Lago to protect the president or his family, Trump makes money off of room rentals, and it’s the taxpayers footing the bill.
Part of the reason this has never happened before is that no president has had business interests that equate to the globe-spanning hospitality empire of Donald Trump. And those that did have business interests divested from them. Jimmy Carter famously sold his peanut farm. Trump has not separated himself from his business empire in any meaningful sense.
But past presidents also haven’t run businesses like this because it is illegal for presidents to make money off of both foreign and domestic governments while they hold office, constitutional experts say.
Following the rules has never been part of Trump’s MO as a businessman. He does what he wants and dares someone to challenge him.
When he wanted to put a flagpole up at Mar-a-Lago, he built it higher than allowed by the code of the hoity toity-town of Palm Beach. Officials challenged him, threatening him with code-violation citations, and when it looked like he was going to lose, Trump simply added a mound of dirt to the base of the flagpole.
It’s just one example of how Trump approaches everything, including emoluments. Several lawsuits have been filed alleging that he is violating the Constitution.
While Trump has argued he is only receiving fair market value for rooms and other services, and is therefore not violating the prohibitions, he has received significant taxpayer funds at Mar-a-Lago, according to reporting by the Washington Post. In a single month in 2019, for instance, the Secret Service spent $40,000 on rooms at the club, records show. In total, nearly $900,000 of government spending at Trump’s businesses has been publicly documented by reporters and nonprofit watchdogs. But the real amount of taxpayer money going into Trump’s pockets is a mystery, as federal agencies have fought disclosure.
Is there anything new related to Donald Trump’s relationship with Jeffrey Epstein in the book?
The book contains a major revelation about Jeffrey Epstein and Mar-a-Lago. It is known that Epstein was a regular at the club for many years and Trump’s friend. At some point, the Trump Organization has said Trump banned Epstein from the property, although it insisted he was never a member. “The Grifter’s Club” reveals that Epstein was in fact listed as a member of Mar-a-Lago. The authors viewed a membership log that includes Epstein, with an address at his mansion in Palm Beach. The log says his account was closed in October 2007. Previously reported court records state that Trump banned Epstein from visiting the club for an alleged sexual assault on a girl. We were told the young woman was the daughter of a member and Trump kicked his friend out to protect Mar-a-Lago’s brand. Because the club’s membership is a closely guarded secret, no one has known the full extent of Epstein’s ties to Mar-a-Lago until our reporting.