Mar-a-Lago: Where Donald Trump learned to be king

From lies to sketchy Russian deals and porn stars, Mar-a-Lago groomed Trump for his unique presidential leadership

Published February 5, 2019 8:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. (Getty/Don Emmert)
Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. (Getty/Don Emmert)

Some things don’t change. The promise of a new year. The excitement of new love. Donald Trump being a petty, self-promoting liar with ties to sketchy Russians.

That would be the best way to sum up the new book,“Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace” by New York Times best-selling author Laurence Leamer.  As Leamer made it clear when I interviewed him on “Salon Talks,” Trump has not changed much since the day he bought his 17-acre Mar-a-Lago estate in 1985.

In fact, the way Trump interacts at Mar-a-Lago, which he still visits as a weekend escape from the White House, give us incredible insight into the type of guy Trump is in Washington, and what may be his ultimate undoing as president. Leamer explains how the famously insecure Trump bought Mar-A-Lago in a desperate effort to be accepted by the Palm Beach upper crust, hoping it would don him “the king of Palm Beach.” But in the same way that Queens-born Trump failed in his quest to be accepted by the Manhattan elite, the old money of Palm Beach looked down on tacky Trump.

“Here comes this flamboyant guy bringing in hundreds of models from Miami Beach, vulgar language, suing them if he doesn't get his way. He brings in this new money, this new gilded age of America,” Leamer explained to me. “There are 40 billionaires in Palm Beach. These are the people he identifies with. You want to be a billionaire or you're nobody.”

And Trump’s love of lying didn’t begin as president either. Back in the early days of owning Mar-a-Lago, Trump served up lies to appear more important, such as falsely telling people that the membership list at his swanky club included royalty like Prince Charles and Princess Diana, as well as celebrities like Steven Spielberg and Elizabeth Taylor.

It was at Mar-a-Lago in the 1990s where publicity-loving Trump first connected with the National Enquirer. In those days, Trump used the publication to get his name in the paper, and help end his first marriage to Ivana when he was having an affair with Marla Maples. Trump’s long relationship with the  National Enquirer culminated in the paper’s publisher David Pecker admitted in December 2018 that he had paid Trump’s former mistress Karen McDougal $150,000 shortly before the 2016 election in order to keep her story secret to prevent it from influencing the election.

And Trump, as Leamer documents in "Mar-a-Lago," had extensive dealings with Russians in Florida dating back to the ‘90s when they bought high-end properties from him in order to expand Russian influence in the United States. Two of the Russians who purchased these properties from Trump were later indicted for money laundering as part of the Russian-American organized crime rings.

A lying, petty, horribly insecure Trump running a country club is no big deal. But that same person as president of the United States is clearly a disaster for our nation. Read my "Salon Talks" conversation with Laurence Leamer below, or watch the episode here.

The reason Trump bought Mar-a-Lago in the first place taps into this sense of his deep insecurity and wanting to fit in. Can you share a little bit about what led him to buy Mar-a-Lago?

Well that's exactly right. In 1982, Donald Trump was a Miami Beach kind of guy. As a kid his father would take him down there to the Fontainebleau Hotel which was a gaudy, overwrought hotel. That was the place. That's where he belonged. But in 1982 he comes to Palm Beach, this sedate capital of the American establishment, of the WASP establishment, old money. It wasn't a place he belonged.

They were staying at the Breakers Hotel and it was raining. He got a limo driver to drive him around the island. He went to Mar-a-Lago. He saw Mar-a-Lago. The most incredible estate in America, other perhaps than San Simeon in California. It's 85,000 square feet on 17 acres. He looks at this place. He's in his mid 30s. He doesn't have the bucks for it. He wants it. It was built by Marjorie Merriweather Post in the ‘20s in the last years of her life. She decided she would deed it to the United States government as a winter White House. Well, you can't imagine Jimmy Carter hanging out at Mar-a-Lago. The federal government turned it back to the Post Foundation and put it on sale, and that's when Donald Trump bought it.

In your book, you mention when Trump says, "They all come over, they all eat, they all love me, they all kiss my ass and then they all leave and say, 'Isn't he horrible.' But, I'm the King." It seems like it's so much of what Trump is today. He might not care about being liked by certain people, as long as he's viewed as the king.

He's the king of Palm Beach. He's the king of America. Does he care what Congress says or what the judges do, unless they do what he wants? He rules like a king. That's my fear. That's the way he is. That's the way he ruled in Palm Beach. But he created himself as a king in Palm Beach.

Because remember, when he came in there it's an old Protestant establishment, and [into] these sedate rituals of their lives, here comes this flamboyant guy bringing in hundreds of models from Miami Beach, vulgar language, suing them if he doesn't get his way. He brings in this new money, this new gilded age of America. And he's the king of that age. There are 40 billionaires in Palm Beach. These are the people he identifies with. You want to be a billionaire or you're nobody.

Wilbur Ross is secretary of commerce, he lied. He's worth a measly 70 million. He says he's a billionaire, cause you got to be a billionaire if you really want to be accepted.

You talk about Donald Trump’s insecurity factor, at least that's the word I'm reading into it, which explains the Trump today who also says he knows more than his generals, or that his intel chiefs don't know what they're talking about. Do you think that's what animates Donald Trump to have these insecure lash outs against people like U.S. generals?

He's incapable of really systematically exploring an issue. Look, I've written about the Kennedys. Take the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was 16 days and we know about that because they were secretly taping it, so we know what went on in those meetings. The first time I listened to it I thought, this is kind of strange, why isn't President Kennedy saying anything? He's just silent. And then I realized, of course he's silent because he's the guy that's got to make the decisions, right? Everybody else in that meeting wanted to invade Cuba or to bomb it. He was the only one. He held back. Out of his immense knowledge he has in foreign affairs, he realized that we had these missiles in Cuba that were redundant. We had these missiles now on submarines so we could make an exchange to get the Russians to take their nuclear missiles out of Cuba in exchange for our taking them out of Turkey.

Can you imagine Donald Trump sitting down for 16 days, hours and hours after these meetings? Can you imagine him with a depth of knowledge to make that kind of decision about this issue? We are alive today because of the decisions President Kennedy made then. If Donald Trump had been President would we still be alive?

It's a tough sell. Perhaps he would have made a deal with the Russians because he's so enamored by them.

That's a good point.

Trump today is a serial liar, that's objective. He would lie about Mar-a-Lago to try to get people to join by lying about who the members were. Share a little bit about that because this guy Trump has been lying for decades.

That’s a good point. He says Prince Charles and Princess Diana were members. He says Norman Mailer was a member. He said half of the movie stars in Hollywood were members. Henry Kissinger was a member. It was all made up. But did that do him any harm? No. Because he got all this publicity.

To him good news/bad news publicity, as long as you got his name up in front, he's happy with that. Just with the media being so negative towards him. He wants to be talked about. He's created this world now where he's the most famous man in the history of the world probably in terms of social media. We know who he is. We can't even sleep at night. We're consumed with this man and that's what he wants. That's what he's created. There's a kind of genius about this whether you like it or not. This is what this guy has done.

In your book you have a great line where you talk about Trump. It says, "A day without publicity was a day without sunshine to Donald Trump." We just went through the longest shutdown ever, but Trump, on some level, Laurence, tell me if this is correct or not, might actually like that because now he's got a place in the history books. For the entire shutdown, all we did was talk about Donald Trump. We might have another shutdown when we get beyond February 15, the latest funding deal, because again the country just talks about him. That's what worries me.

I mean there's no such thing as bad publicity with this guy. It doesn't matter to him. One of things in my book is he began cooperating with the National Enquirer, years before he realized it, before my book. He loved that. That's where he built his populist base, with the National Enquirer. There were five million readers of that. His friends in the establishment in New York and Palm Beach didn't read the National Enquirer. They didn't know he was on the cover of that for so many weeks. He loved it. He has to see his name in print. He has to be talked about and he's happy. He's created this world now where that's all we do is talk about him. There's no news anymore. What's the news? It's just Donald Trump.

In your book, you track the first histories of Donald Trump's work with the National Enquirer. We found out in December, and it was confirmed by David Pecker, the head of the publishing house, that they paid Karen McDougal $150,000 in hush money because she was going to speak about the affair she had with Donald Trump in the closing days of the 2016 election. She doesn't, but that whole history begins as you document in your book, in the time of Trump trying to get some press. How would he would try to get press? How did he use press in a way to destroy his first marriage intentionally with the National Enquirer?

He wasn't happy with his marriage to Ivana. He was having an affair with Marla Maples. The National Enquirer found out about that and came to him and told him what they knew. This is in early December. You think, if I want to stay married I better keep this quiet. I better ask these guys to not print it. He didn't do that. But they held off and that Christmas he goes out to Aspen skiing with his family and he invites Marla Maples to come out too. Nuts, nuts because Aspen's a small place. So one day at this restaurant halfway up Aspen mountain, they're having lunch there and lo and behold there's Ivana and there's Marla and they confront each other and call each other names. There are these journalists that just so happen to be there. They're there and all this publicity.

Afterwards, Marla, when she looked back on her relationship and her short lived marriage to Trump, she asked herself did he set this up on purpose? Did he do this to these two women? And it's highly likely he did. He wanted to create the publicity. He was going to leave Ivana that way. He orchestrated it. This guy is very shrewd when it comes to his media.

One of the problems I think that the faults with the media early on in his presidency is that they dismiss him as almost senile and totally out of it. He's not out of it at all. When it comes to the media he's totally with it. He knows what he's doing.

He understands media narratives, and the media just goes along for the ride because the bottom line is they are businesses, they are about ratings and he's good for them. Even at Mar-a-Lago Trump calls himself a counter puncher. He was fighting with all the neighbors. No slight was too little for Donald Trump to be angry, either litigate or attack people.

He just fights the establishment from day one. He picks a fight with these people, these old Palm Beach elite. He's in financial trouble in the early ‘90s and that's when he ends up turning Mar-a-Lago into a club. He had to get permission for this. He sued them, he berated him. He considered them a corrupt, entrenched establishment and he beat them. He beat them again and again, and in doing so, he learned many of the techniques that he used to become President of the United States. He did the same thing on a much bigger level.

You write about how Trump's lessons in Mar-a-Lago are what prepare him in a way for president, the fighting and getting his own bases versus the others. Is there anything from our side, for those like myself who oppose Donald Trump, that we can learn that's effective that maybe others have used down in Mar-a-Lago to defeat Trump? If anyone was able to defeat Trump frankly?

Nobody's ever beaten Trump in Palm Beach. The other thing this guy has which we don't write about this in history books, is he's incredibly lucky. Time and time again when somebody else would have been defeated, this guy goes on and he did that in Palm Beach. Nobody's beaten him in Palm Beach. He's created at Mar-a-Lago the most interesting club on the island.

Another thing he did, when he started this club, Paul Rampell, a local Palm Beach lawyer who grew up in the North End of Palm Beach, Princeton graduate, he's Jewish, he came to Trump and he said, you know, you're in financial trouble, you want to do something to make money with this place, turn it into a club. There are five clubs on this island. Four of them are restricted. There are no Jewish or black members. If you start an open club, you'll have many wealthy Jewish members. Trump grew up and went to a private school that's half Jewish. His family would vacation in the Catskills, which was a largely Jewish resort in that area. Obviously, his daughter converted. His grandkids are Jewish. So he had no problem with having a club which is overwhelmingly Jewish. That's the club.

You also talk about Trump's ties to the Russians, which we all talk about in the media now every single day. But it's interesting to hear what he was doing in a way from the selling of a house to having a local Russian American woman of being involved. Share a little bit about his early ties to the Russians and their attempts on the side of Russia to extend influence.

Trump sold a property that he owned. He bought it for about $40 million and he sold it to a $100 million to this Russian oligarch. It didn't make any sense. This oligarch never visited the property. Why would he pay that kind of money? It’s like so many things about Trump you don't know. You can't pin it down. He had these properties in an island near Miami Beach, again it was all these Russian oligarchs down there. He had a Russian that he was associated with who died and that's one of the great mysteries, Trump's relationship to Russia, even in terms of Palm Beach.

I'd love to know why you wrote this book and what it meant to you. You talk about Donald Trump, I think it was Easter weekend at Mar-a-Lago, the whole family's there, and you write, "Even in this room full of family and friends, Trump was alone." What does that mean?

That was one of the strangest days. We were invited there, my wife and I, by Toni Holt Kramer, who is the head of the Trumpettes. We were seated maybe 15 feet away from Trump and he's there. His favorite movie is "Citizen Kane." It's my favorite movie too. When Trump saw it he had an insight into it that I didn't realize. He says that as Citizen Kane gets more power and more money, the table in his house where he has dinner with his wife gets bigger and bigger. When he's this man of immense power and wealth, the table's so long he can't even see his wife. It's a measure of the isolation that he has. Trump saw that, he realizes this, and Trump has often talked about how money and power and fame can isolate you and they destroy almost everybody, but Trump says I'm beyond that.

That evening, like always, he’s seated at a table for four.  His whole family is there, and there could be a big table of all of them, but he doesn't want it. He's at this table for four and these people are constantly coming up to him, his family members. They sit there for a few minutes and the others come by. He's sitting and he talks about how hard he works but he's there for three hours. My sense of it is isolation. He says it in a way that he doesn't have any friends. You wonder even here, person after person shuffling by him, a few minutes of his time, and off they go.

Finally after 11 o'clock, who comes waltzing in onto the veranda but Don King, the boxing promoter. Don King is Trump's token black friend. Don King has murdered two people. He spent four years in prison in Ohio for murdering one of them, the other was deemed self-defense. And this is his friend. And Don King is dressed as Uncle Sam. He's Uncle Sam. He's in red, white and blue. He's got the big hat on. He sits down with Trump and I'm thinking this is bizarre beyond bizarre.

Trump doesn't talk to people for very long and when he finishes with you he doesn't shake your hand goodbye or say something, he just turns his head. That's what he did to Don. He turns his head and gets up and starts walking back to the family quarters. Don King follows behind him screaming at the top of his lungs: The President, the Great President. I'm thinking how strange this is. This man is President of the United States but he needs that adulation. He needs people to say how great he is.

That's what he's created in Mar-a-Lago. People are trained to say how great he is. When you ask him, how you doing? How are things? You don't criticize. You don't say anything negative at all. You say everything is great. That's what he wants and that's what he wants from America. He doesn't want anybody to tell him the nasty business known as the truth.

The last line of your book talks about Don King yelling you're the greatest president. Trump leaves down an empty corridor which is kind of foreshadowing to me. It reminded me somehow of Godfather III in a way at the end with Michael Corleone played by Al Pacino just is alone. Everyone else is gone and he sits on a chair reflecting on his life and he falls off the chair and collapses and presumably dies in that moment. We've heard James Comey and others make that connection, we see it. You’ve been to Mar-a-Lago, you've talked to Trump, how do you think his presidency ends? Does it end in 2020?

Look, he loves Palm Beach. When he couldn't come down the 16 days during the holidays, it was devastating to him. He needs that. He needs that support. He's not getting it in the White House that's for sure. He has to be there. He loves that. It's his Valhalla. It's his paradise. But I think in the end it may end up his Elba. The island of Elba is the retreat where Napoleon ended up. To me it may well be the place where he ends up in isolation. No matter how his presidency ends, he's going to soon discover he doesn't have the friends he thinks he has. He's going to be very isolated. That's going to be the story of his life in the end.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

MORE FROM Dean Obeidallah