At Trump’s southern White House, wealthy guests pay, play

The following article by Nicholas Confessore of the New York Times was posted February 18, 2017:

Photo: Vanity Fair

On any given weekend, you might catch President Trump’s son-in-law and top Mideast dealmaker, Jared Kushner, by the beachside soft-serve ice cream machine, or his reclusive chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, on the dining patio.

If you are lucky, the president himself could stop by your table for a quick chat. But you will have to pay $200,000 for the privilege — and the few available spots are going fast.

Virtually overnight, Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s members-only Palm Beach, Fla., club, has been transformed into the part-time capital of US government, a winter White House where Trump has entertained a foreign head of state, health care industry executives, and other presidential guests.

But Trump’s gatherings at Mar-a-Lago — he arrived there Friday afternoon, his third weekend visit in a row — have also created an arena for potential political influence rarely seen in US history.

It is a kind of Washington steak house on steroids, where members and their guests enjoy a level of access that could elude even the best-connected lobbyists.

Membership lists reviewed by The New York Times show that the club’s nearly 500 paying members include dozens of real estate developers, Wall Street financiers, energy executives, and others whose businesses could be affected by Trump’s policies.

At least three club members are under consideration for ambassadorships. Most of the 500 have had memberships predating Trump’s presidential campaign, and there are a limited number of memberships still available.

William I. Koch, who oversees a major mining and fuels company, belongs to Mar-a-Lago, as does billionaire trader Thomas Peterffy, who spent more than $8 million on political ads in 2012 warning of creeping socialism in the United States.

The membership list is also sprinkled with other names outside the worlds of finance and real estate, such as Howie Carr, the Boston radio show host, and Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots, according to three lists reviewed by The Times, from 2015 through earlier this year.

Bruce Toll, a real estate executive who co-founded Toll Brothers, one of the nation’s largest homebuilders, and who is still active in the industry, owns a home nearby and frequently sees Trump at Mar-a-Lago, he said.

While they did not discuss any of Toll’s specific projects, he said, the two would occasionally discuss national issues, such as Trump’s plans to increase spending on highways and other infrastructure projects.

“Maybe you ought to do this or that,” Toll said of the kind of advice that Trump got from club members.

Trump’s son Eric, in an interview Friday, rejected suggestions that his family is offering access to his father and profiting from it. He said only 20 to 40 new members are admitted per year, and secondly, the wealthy business executives who frequent the club, among others, have many ways to communicate with the federal government if they want to.

“It assumes the worst of us and everyone, and that is unfair,” Eric Trump said.

On Saturday, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. mingled with the rich and powerful of the United Arab Emirates as they helped open the new Trump International Golf Club, Dubai.

The Trump sons lauded the ruler of Dubai and their business partner, Hussain Sajwani, a billionaire businessman who told the crowd that working with the Trumps “was and continues to be a pleasure.”

The projects is among a dozen international business deals from Trump’s business life still moving forward.

Asked about the operation of Mar-a-Lago, White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks said the president had no conflicts of interest.

US law exempts the president from provisions prohibiting federal employees from taking actions that could benefit themselves financially. “But regardless, he has not and will not be discussing policy with club members,” Hicks said.

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