Donald Trump can be outrageous and boastful. But when it comes to a successful run at the presidency, don’t underestimate him.
That became clear after my wife Pam and I spent the Martin Luther King holiday weekend with him at Mar-a-Lago, his home and club on Palm Beach.
When Trump bought Mar-a-Lago for a mere $5 million in 1985, no one wanted it. Marjorie Merriweather Post, who built the magnificent, 140-room estate, saw it as a summer White House and willed it to the government. But Jimmy Carter, who famously turned down the heat at the White House to 68 degrees, thought the acquisition frivolous.
The deteriorating property reverted to Post’s foundation, which had trouble finding a buyer. No one wanted to assume the cost of maintaining the mansion — at least $3 million a year, including taxes.
Trump grabbed it and turned it into a thriving club that costs a non-refundable $100,000 to join, plus $12,000 a year in fees. The roughly 450 members pay for dining and shows. They may stay in one of the suites — for $750 to $3,000 per night.
Trump is proud of the fact that unlike Palm Beach’s Bath and Tennis and Everglades clubs, Mar-a-Lago accepts Jews as members. He loves to make fun of the town’s Old Guard who belong to those clubs.
Based on sales of other Palm Beach property fronting on both sides of the 3.75-square-mile island, Mar-a-Lago is now estimated to be worth $300 million.
As he does nearly every weekend during the season, Donald flew down from New York late Friday afternoon on his Boeing 727-100, which will soon be upgraded to a Boeing 757-200, purchased from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. On the trip were his stunning wife Melania; daughter Ivanka; and sons Donald Jr., Eric, and 4-year-old Barron.
Taught by Melania and her Slovene parents, Barron speaks Serbian, French, and some German, as well as English. He bounces around Mar-a-Lago, telling a bartender to look up in the sky at a certain time for daddy’s plane, which he describes in great detail. When he grows up, Barron aspires to be a businessman and golfer like his dad. He has already been featured on Trump’s NBC show “The Apprentice.”
Every morning, Trump reads the papers with Barron, commenting on developments. Anthony Senecal, Donald’s former butler at Mar-a-Lago, remembers that at the age of 2, Barron said to him, “Tony, we have to talk.”
Like his father, Barron did most of the talking — about his favorite subject, airplanes.
When greeted by a club member having breakfast on the esplanade overlooking the pool, which is heated to 78 degrees, Barron calls back to her, “Enjoy your breakfast!”
Around the time I was writing my 1999 book “The Season: Inside Palm Beach and America’s Richest Society,” Trump decided to build a second pool with cabanas and a grille along the beach on the ocean. He also designed a ballroom to replace the tent used for shows and social events like the International Red Cross Ball.
The problem was how to present the plan to the town of Palm Beach. Because Mar-a-Lago has been designated a historic site, the town has to approve every detail of any construction. As I sat in on a meeting with his lawyers and architects at Mar-a-Lago, Trump objected to calling the ballroom a ballroom.
“The word ‘ballroom’ is a hard word to get approved,” Trump said to his lawyers. “‘Pavilion’ is a softer word. Use pavilion.”
Trump looked at the architectural drawings. He asked for a black felt-tipped pen. “Here’s what I would do,” he said to an architect, drawing on the plans. “I would add this — another bay,” meaning an alcove.
He asked how large the new ballroom would be. He said he wanted it to be even bigger than originally planned — 22,000 square feet. “It will be the best in Palm Beach,” he said. “Do it.”
To help smooth the way, Donald assiduously courts government officials, inviting them to play tennis or golf with him. It’s a lesson Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have never learned.
The pavillion has turned out to be the best in Palm Beach. Over the weekend, Jackie Evancho, the 10-year-old singing marvel who gained popularity on “America’s Got Talent,” performed, along with Charice and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. They were introduced by David Foster, who has won 18 Grammys and worked with Mariah Carey, Donna Summer, Kenny Rogers, and Celine Dion, whom he discovered.
Referring to Trump’s ego, Foster said, “Out by the pool today, I mentioned to Donald that the weather was beautiful. Donald replied, ‘Thank you.’” The host laughed along with everyone else.
Before the show and the beef tenderloin dinner, Trump served champagne overlooking the pool as Ivanka chatted with guests. Hors d’oeuvres prepared under the direction of executive chef Aaron Janus included paella, rack of lamb, and tiny taro root tacos filled with seared tuna and caviar.
To make sure nothing happens to the billionaires who attend such events, Mar-a-Lago Managing Director Bernd Lembcke hires four town firefighters and emergency technicians to stand by. More than 400 guests attended the concert, paying $350 to $400 each. We went as Donald’s guests.
The next day was the Sunday buffet at Donald’s Trump International Golf Course across the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach. With his family, Trump drove his black Rolls Royce Phantom to the course. The course was nothing but sand when he took Pam and me to see the development more than a decade ago.
Back then, Trump drove a Durango SLT four-wheel drive vehicle to the site of a 35-foot waterfall being built on the golf course for $2.5 million. On the ground were samples of rocks ranging in color from white to red.
“I like the lighter color,” Trump said. “I don’t like the red. To me, a red rock is more like granite from New England.” He asked the construction crew which color they liked, then he asked his staff, Pam, and me. He seemed genuinely interested in everyone’s opinions, and when most said they preferred the reddish samples, he decided to go with them.
Now on Sunday nights, while watching football playoffs on big screen TVs, 350 to 400 club members devour oysters on the half shell, stone crabs from Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami, gigantic cocktail shrimp, lump crabmeat, prime dry-aged steaks grilled to order, barbecued ribs, steamed four-pound lobsters cracked open on the spot, and every dessert from apple crisp to make-your-own hot fudge sundaes. Still, Donald’s favorite food is meatloaf, which is always on the menu at Mar-a-Lago, along with Barron’s Mac and Cheese.
Trump usually has a running feud with the town of Palm Beach, where anyone with less than $100 million is considered poor and the island’s affairs, scams, and intrigues make scandalous novels look like nursery tales. The most recent dust-up revolved around an American flag he erected at Mar-a-Lago. Flying from a 70-foot pole, the flag’s overall dimensions were 15 times larger than the town’s restrictive regulations allow.
The town responded to the indignity with a daily fine of $1,250. Trump sued for $25 million, claiming his First Amendment rights were being violated.
Trump and the town eventually settled. The town agreed to let him keep the flag if he moved it a bit.
Instead of paying the fine that then totaled $120,000, Trump agreed to donate $100,000 to veterans’ charities. Trump moved the flag to a higher point of land, improving the overall appearance. Senecal, a former mayor of Martinsburg, W.Va., attributed the episode to Trump’s patriotism.
Watching him on TV, you never get a sense that Trump is a conservative. But those who know him best say he has long held hard-core conservative beliefs on fiscal and national security issues. As for President Obama, he considers him a “disaster.”
Norma Foerderer, Donald Trump’s top aide for 26 years until she retired in 2006, told me there are two Donalds: the “outrageous” one portrayed on television and the real one only insiders know.
Foerderer began as Trump’s secretary when Donald had only seven other employees. Over the years, he made her a vice president and put her in charge of almost everything from public relations and hiring and firing administrative personnel to negotiating book deals and advertising contracts.
“I mean Donald can be totally outrageous, but outrageous in a wonderful way that gets him coverage,” Foerderer told me for my story "The Real Donald Trump." “That persona sells his licensed products and his condominiums. You know Donald’s never been shy, and justifiably so, in talking about how wonderful his buildings or his golf clubs are.”
The private Donald Trump, on the other hand, is “the dearest, most thoughtful, most loyal, most caring man,” Foerderer said. That caring side inspires loyalty and is one of his secrets to success.
When Trump bought Mar-a-Lago, he retained several 70-year-old gardeners who could barely pull weeds but had worked loyally for Post, who built the estate in 1927. When the air conditioning at Senecal’s home gave out, Trump had it replaced. When Senecal had heart problems, Trump insisted he stay at Mar-a-Lago as long as needed to recuperate.
Donald’s commitment to quality and detail have meant that "you can interview a thousand owners, a thousand people who live in his apartments, and they’ll all tell you — the amenities, the service, the staff are all fantastic,” Foerderer said. “And that’s the way he runs something. At the Mar-a-Lago Club, it’s the same way. Any of his golf clubs, it’s the same thing.”
The first time he met model Melania Knauss, Donald told Foerderer about her.
“He said he met a beautiful, beautiful, fantastic girl at a party in New York,” she said. “He thought she was stunning, and she was a brunette, not a blonde.”
In the early stages of their relationship, Melania found out that Donald had seen another woman.
“Women were positively shameless in pursuing Donald — but not Melania,” Foerderer said. “To see these women throw themselves at him . . . no shame.”
Melania broke up with him, impressing Donald, who wooed her back.
“She knew who she was,” Foerderer said. They were married in January 2005. When you see them together, you know this marriage will last. In person, she is even more gorgeous than she appears in photographs or on television.
As noted in my story "Trump Says He Will Run for President," Trump has told friends he will announce a run for the presidency in the spring when the “The Apprentice” ends.
He has told associates that since those times when he previously toyed with running, his celebrity — thanks to the show — has grown astronomically. Now more than ever, celebrity can make a candidate — witness Sarah Palin’s following. It was Donald, after all, who realized that real estate could be branded, which is a key to his success. A second difference from previous forays is how livid he is about the direction of the country under Obama.
Like Madonna, Trump likes to reinvent himself. As when marketing his real estate and golfing clubs, he will see how much traction he gets and act accordingly. In the meantime, he will keep everyone guessing. Trump is a master negotiator: Those who have worked with him on deals say they never knew until he made a move whether he was seriously interested in a property.
Worth $2.4 billion according to Forbes, Trump recently spent $100 million to buy his new plane. He could easily finance his own campaign.
According to a Newsmax/SurveyUSA poll conducted in November, in a head-to-head race between President Obama and Trump, the entrepreneur would get 47 percent of the vote, versus 53 percent for Obama. Trump polled strongly among Republicans and conservatives. He got 50 percent of the votes of independents.
Don’t expect to see him shaking hands in Iowa; he has a notorious aversion to shaking hands. But with every news outlet begging to have him on, he doesn’t need to press the flesh. When it comes to cresting a controversy — such as with Rosie O’Donnell — he has a perfect sense of timing, knowing when to add more fuel to the fire and when to pull back before the public tires of the subject.
In short, to those who are understandably skeptical about Trump and his intentions, don’t count him out. Donald already has a winter White House picked out.
Pamela Kessler contributed to this article.
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via e-mail. Go here now.
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