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Thursday, July 25, 2024

How Mar-a-Lago Became a Hub for Hard-Right Republicans

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The ornate ballrooms and manicured lawns of Mar-a-Lago have hosted a variety of affairs for the wealthy and connected in the resort’s nearly 100-year history: philanthropic galas, lavish banquets, society lunches. During the presidency of Donald J. Trump, who has owned the property since 1985, the club drew a paying clientele of establishment Republicans and others currying favor from the president.

But since Mr. Trump left office in 2021, Mar-a-Lago has transformed into a White House in exile and the nerve center for some of the most extreme elements of the party’s MAGA wing. This includes a nearly steady stream of promoters of conspiracy theories that include lies that the 2020 election was stolen and that the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, was a federal setup.

This portrait of the company Mr. Trump keeps was assembled from a New York Times analysis of people and groups that have spent significant time and money at the resort, which has been his primary residence since his presidency ended.

The analysis, built on a review of videos, photos and other evidence of attendance at Mar-a-Lago, found that events hosted by ultra-right organizations and political fundraisers now dominate Mar-a-Lago’s calendar, and even officially non-political events can feel like rallies. In this gilded echo chamber, Mr. Trump enjoys unwavering devotion — and collects the staggering price of admission.

A compilation of date-stamped video clips filmed at Mar-a-Lago shows the following: Matt Gaetz, in Jan. 2023, saying “Mar-a-Lago is the touchstone, it is the bedrock of the America-first populist movement”; Sebastian Gorka, in Dec. 2023, saying “The headquarters for patriots, right here”; Donald J. Trump, in May 2022, saying “This group of people right here, these are the true patriots”; a crowd chanting “U.S.A.,” “U.S.A.,” as Mr. Trump greets members of a crowd; Forgiato Blow, in March 2024, singing “Party for Donald Trump, U.S.A.”; and Ryan Garcia, in April 2024, saying “Donald Trump 2024.”

At Mar-a-Lago, conspiracy theories and fearmongering take the ballroom stage. There, the “Pizzagate” hoax, centering on outlandish claims of a pedophilia ring among prominent Democrats, is real. The 2024 presidential election is more than a political contest — it is a struggle between good and evil.

A compilation of date-stamped video clips filmed at Mar-a-Lago shows the following: Glenn Beck, in Dec. 2022, saying “We are in a battle of good vs. evil”; Roger Stone, in March 2024, saying “Good and evil”; Liz Crokin, in March 2024, saying, “Pizza, indeed, is a pedophile code word”; and Michael T. Flynn, in May 2022, saying, “We are gonna fight. We’re gonna take them to the gates of hell.”

A vast majority of gala events held at the club since January 2021 have been sponsored by individuals and organizations aligned with Mr. Trump’s style of politics, The Times found. And those who oppose MAGA conservatism — and its pervasive insistence that the 2020 election was stolen — are excoriated.

A compilation of date-stamped video clips filmed during speeches at Mar-a-Lago shows the following: Vivek Ramaswamy, in April 2024, saying “A fringe minority who hates this country”; Matthew DePerno, in March 2022, saying “Bringing Communism to our shores”; Frank Pavone, in March 2023, saying “They destroy life and freedom and family”; Roger Stone, in March 2024, saying “Radical atheist Marxists”; Donald Trump, in April 2023, saying “These radical left lunatics want to interfere with our elections”; Kari Lake, in Nov. 2022, saying “They think they can continue to steal elections”; Joe Kent, in Feb. 2022, saying “The election that we all knew was stolen”; and Michael T. Flynn, in Dec. 2023, saying “If we don’t have a fair election, we don’t have a country.”

“If there’s anyone who doesn’t support Trump, I don’t see it,” Cameron Moore, a Mar-a-Lago member, said last month on a podcast hosted by Alex Stone. Mr. Stone describes himself as an “adopted nephew” of Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime political operative and a regular at Mar-a-Lago.

A compilation of date-stamped video clips filmed at Mar-a-Lago shows the following: Donald Trump; Roseanne Barr saying from a podium in April 2024, “He’s the only hope we have in our country. That’s what I think, don’t you agree?” Mr. Trump holding a microphone while a crowd shouts “We love you!”; and Roger Stone speaking in March 2024, saying “The greatest president since Abraham Lincoln, Donald J. Trump.”

It wasn’t always this way.

From Black Tie to Red Hats

Before Mr. Trump became president, Mar-a-Lago was a magnet for Palm Beach society, hosting opulent galas from fall through spring that raised funds for some of the nation’s most prestigious charities.

Political events were rare. During the 2014-15 season — the last before Mr. Trump officially entered politics — The Times counted 52 fund-raiser events at Mar-a-Lago. Of them, just one was political: the Republican Party of Palm Beach County’s annual Lincoln Day dinner.

Winter gala seasons at Mar-a-Lago leading up to Trump’s presidency

This past winter, The Times found only six of those events were still being held at Mar-a-Lago — including the G.O.P.’s Lincoln Day event. Traditional charities began peeling away from the club in August 2017, after then-President Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a violent rally to save a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Va. Of the groups that departed, 10 moved their events to Mar-a-Lago’s chief rival in the Palm Beach banquet business: The Breakers resort.

Groups aligned with Mr. Trump’s politics have taken their place.

Turning Point USA, a right-wing student organization, began hosting an annual gala at Mar-a-Lago in 2018. America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit set up in 2021 by former Trump administration officials, has thrown an “America First Gala” at Mar-a-Lago every year since its founding. America’s Future Inc. — a group led by Michael T. Flynn that has amplified the false conspiracy theory that a global cabal of pedophiles controls the media and politics — has held two events, as has Border911, founded by Thomas D. Homan, who served as acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement during the Trump administration.

Winter gala seasons at Mar-a-Lago since Trump left office

“This is where we come to recharge our batteries and to know we will retake our nation,” Sebastian Gorka, a former White House aide for Mr. Trump, said from the Mar-a-Lago stage in December. Mr. Gorka is the host of a radio show that describes itself as “the new front lines in the ongoing Culture War against the Left.”

The “Founding Fathers Award” presented to Mr. Trump by the group Moms for America in December.

Event organizers, speakers and attendees use their proximity to display loyalty to and admiration for Mr. Trump. They say he is the “greatest president” (in “modern history,” “the history of America” or “since Abraham Lincoln”). They give him awards (“American Defender of Zion,” “Founding Fathers” and “America’s Champion for Children”). They tell him they love him and sing songs in his honor.

All Campaign Trails Lead to Palm Beach

The presidential race is not the only one rooted at Mar-a-Lago. A visit to the resort has become an essential rite for Republican candidates. Since 2021, more than 60 Republicans in or running for Congress or state office have spent money at Mar-a-Lago, most on fund-raisers. Their ultimate objective: securing an endorsement or a surprise appearance from Mr. Trump.

According to federal and state campaign finance filings through the first quarter of 2024, more than $4.7 million has been spent on the property by candidates and political committees since Mr. Trump left the White House and made Mar-a-Lago his permanent residence. Mr. Trump’s campaign, and super PACs supporting it, make up about a quarter of that total.

Campaign and other political spending at Mar-a-Lago has exploded in the past three years

Publicly, Mr. Trump has downplayed the idea that his club is a central political destination.

“We don’t do too many of these things at Mar-a-Lago,” Mr. Trump said in March 2022 at a Mar-a-Lago fund-raiser for Vernon Jones, who was running for the Republican nomination in Georgia’s 10th congressional district.

“I don’t want to make it a totally political place,” Mr. Trump added. But in reality, that’s largely what Mar-a-Lago had become. More than two dozen midterm candidates had already held fund-raisers on the property when Mr. Trump made that statement.

The Political Is Profitable

As Mar-a-Lago’s owner, Mr. Trump is the beneficiary of its profits — and the club’s evolution seems to have been good for his bottom line.

The Trump Organization is a private business, and, for years, very little was known publicly about the financial health of its clubs, including Mar-a-Lago. But that changed when Letitia James, the New York attorney general, sued Mr. Trump for exaggerating the value of his properties. Detailed records of the club’s finances were made public as evidence.

Those records show that Mar-a-Lago actually lost money in 2012, but then its profits began to climb as Mr. Trump entered politics. They hit a peak in 2017, as the club added new customers — including the U.S. government, which paid for bedrooms used by Secret Service agents and liquor drunk by Mr. Trump’s aides — without losing its existing ones, like the charities that rented out the club’s ballrooms for fund-raiser galas.

Beryl TV liquor_receipt How Mar-a-Lago Became a Hub for Hard-Right Republicans Politics

A bill showing more than $1,000 in charges for liquor, paid by the U.S. Department of State.

But many of those charity customers began to flee Mar-a-Lago during Mr. Trump’s presidency, with operating profits bottoming out at $4.2 million in the Covid-stunted year of 2020, according to an analysis by Laurence Hirsh, a consultant hired by Ms. James.

Since Mr. Trump left office, however, Mar-a-Lago’s profits have shot up again — even as the club has been in the headlines for its role in both the New York civil case and one of several criminal cases against Mr. Trump. (According to federal prosecutors, Mr. Trump used Mar-a-Lago to store classified documents — often in close proximity to partygoers — that he had illegally removed from the White House. Mr. Trump has pleaded not guilty to these charges.)

Records entered into evidence in the New York fraud case by an analyst for the Trump Organization, Greg Christovich, showed that Mar-a-Lago had a net profit of $22 million in 2022. The analysis showed that profits at Mr. Trump’s 11 other U.S. clubs — most of them golf clubs he visits far less often than Mar-a-Lago — had also rebounded since their lows in 2020. But Mar-a-Lago still stands out: Its profits were more than double those of any other Trump club, according to Mr. Christovich’s analysis.

Net profit by year at Donald J. Trump’s clubs

Source: Analysis by Greg Christovich entered into evidence in New York civil fraud case

One major reason for that increase: Mr. Christovich said that Mar-a-Lago had raised its membership initiation fee to $600,000, the highest it had ever been. The fee, which entitles the club’s roughly 500 members to use its dining rooms, beach club, tennis courts and other facilities, had been just $100,000 when Mr. Trump won the 2016 election. The club’s new members paid $12 million in initiation fees in 2022, Mr. Christovich’s records showed — money that was effectively all profit for the club.

Another reason for the club’s surge: Mar-a-Lago reported $11 million in profits from its food and beverage operations, which appeared to include both the club’s member dining areas and its catering business. Mar-a-Lago has two large ballrooms that host banquets, weddings and private parties. The Trump Organization did not respond to questions about whether the club had raised its rates for banquets, and the turnover among its customers makes it hard to compare the cost of the same events from year to year. But one of the club’s steadiest customers, the Republican Party of Palm Beach County, reported paying more: its Lincoln Day dinner in 2023 cost $318,000, up from $158,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars seven years earlier, campaign finance records show.

“I believe there was an increase in the cost, steadily, over the years,” said Michael Barnett, who was the chairman of the county G.O.P. until 2023, and who is now an elected county commissioner. But Mr. Barnett said the cost increase had not deterred the party: “You can’t ask for a better venue,” he said. “We would never consider going anywhere else.”

Frank Vain, a consultant who advises private clubs, said that other clubs in Florida, with no connection to politics, had also seen huge increases in profits over the same period. “We’re calling this a bit of a golden age for private clubs,” he said.

A recent study by the firm RSM, which serves as a consultant to golf clubs, found that private clubs in the same area as Mar-a-Lago had also sharply raised their initiation fees, though their average fee was still far lower than Mar-a-Lago’s. The average initiation fee in the area increased to $176,000 in 2023 from about $126,000, adjusted for inflation, in 2021.

A MAGA Oasis

Of course, a key distinction sets Mar-a-Lago apart from other clubs a wealthy Palm Beach resident might consider joining. A motivation beyond luxury or privacy motivates the true believers who have flocked to South Ocean Boulevard: MAGA is a movement, and Mar-a-Lago is its epicenter.

Fred Rustmann, a former member of the club who supports Mr. Trump’s policies, said he canceled his membership in 2021 because the clientele had “started to change to people who were kissing his butt all the time,” he said, referring to Mr. Trump. And, unlike when Mr. Trump was president, “he was there a lot,” Mr. Rustmann said. “There was a lot of hand-shaking, and applause, and everybody stands up, and wow-wow-wow. It just wasn’t my kind of thing anymore.”

Since Mr. Trump left office, and as he has increasingly aligned with the extreme fringe of the Republican Party, photos posted on social media of people and events at Mar-a-Lago reflect that right-wing personalities have become more woven into the tapestry of the club. These are a few of them.

More than two dozen speakers from the ReAwaken America Tour, a far-right, Christian nationalist roadshow led in part by Mr. Flynn, have visited Mar-a-Lago since Mr. Trump left office. Many have been seen there more than once.

An assortment of five photographs shows pairs or small groups of people dressed in formalwear. Most are outlined in white and appear brightly, while several are not highlighted and appear darker in the background. A caption below the photos lists those highlighted, from left to right: Liz Crokin, Lara Logan, Greg Locke, Sean Feucht, Donald J. Trump and Shannon Kroner.

Dinesh D’Souza, a right-wing commentator turned filmmaker, has held premieres for at least two movies at Mar-a-Lago: “2000 Mules,” which promoted the lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and “Police State,” which alleged high-level weaponization of the justice system against conservatives.

Two photos show Dinesh D’Souza in formalwear, outlined in white and appearing brightly. In one of the photos, Donald Trump is also highlighted. In each photo, a woman is not highlighted and appears darker in the background.

Siggy Flicker, a former Real Housewife of New Jersey and a current spokesperson for the right-wing Jewish organization JEXIT (“Jews Exiting the Democrat Party”), joined the club last year and has become a frequent presence.

Three photos show Siggy Flicker, outlined in white and highlighted. In one, she appears alone; in another, with a crowd in the background; and in a third, with Donald Trump, who is also highlighted.

Jack Posobiec, a hard-right podcaster who has promoted disinformation, has had dinner with Mr. Trump and attended multiple galas.

Two photos show Jack Posobiec in formalwear, highlighted and outlined in white. In one, he appears with Donald Trump, who is also highlighted. In the other, he is with a woman who is not highlighted.

At an April fund-raiser for Kari Lake, Mr. Trump praised Laura Loomer, a provocateur who twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress and who has said she supports white nationalism.

Four photos show Laura Loomer in cocktail attire, outlined in white and highlighted. Across the photos, she is seen with Michael T. Flynn, Donald Trump and Roger Stone, as well as two other people who are not highlighted.

The Times identified more than 130 people who have attended events at Mar-a-Lago three or more times since Mr. Trump left office. Some are members of the club, while others are frequent visitors.

The photos transition into a grid of many small headshots of individual people.

They come from all sorts of backgrounds. 15 are professional athletes or entertainers. Hover or tap to see their names.

The photo grid transitions to highlight 15 of the headshots.

38 are prominent figures in conservative media or social media.

The photo grid transitions to highlight a different group of 38 people.

Dozens of politicians have made the pilgrimage. These 44 are current members of Congress or state officials, or candidates who ran or are running for those positions in 2022 or 2024.

The grid transitions to highlight a different group of 44 people.

34 of them received endorsements from Trump.

The grid transitions to reduce the 44 highlighted people to 34.

Some were at the rallies in Washington in support of Mr. Trump on Jan. 5 and 6, 2021, that preceded the riot at the Capitol.

The grid transitions to highlight a different group of 21 people.

Many more have spread misinformation about the events of Jan. 6 — including characterizing it as an F.B.I. plot — or played down the seriousness of the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

The grid transitions to highlight a different group of 56 people.

And the proportion who have questioned the results of the 2020 presidential election, or said it was rigged or stolen, is larger still.

The grid transitions to highlight a different group of 107 people.

These are some of the people who are spending time in Mr. Trump’s home as this year’s election looms. For so many in the Mar-a-Lago universe, Mr. Trump has been the rightful president since 2017 — and the 2024 result is a foregone conclusion.

The grid zooms back out to show the entire gallery of small headshots.



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