- - Monday, August 17, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

If you want to know what Donald Trump is all about, drive past his Mar-a-Lago home and club on South Ocean Boulevard in Palm Beach.

Fluttering over the landscape is a massive America flag visible in all directions. Originally, the flag was closer to the street and mounted on a much taller flag pole. Then the town of Palm Beach, where anyone worth less than $100 million is considered a pauper, claimed the flag’s height exceeded zoning regulations and began fining Mr. Trump $1,250 a day unless he removed it.

Mr. Trump sued for $25 million, claiming his First Amendment rights were being violated. Eventually, Mr. Trump and the Florida town settled. Mr. Trump agreed to mount the flag on a shorter flag pole. Instead of paying the fine that by then totaled $120,000, Mr. Trump agreed to donate $100,000 to Iraq War veterans’ charities or the local VA hospital.

As he is glad to tell you, Mr. Trump usually wins in the end. He moved the flag to ground that he had his workers elevate, so now it towers over the landscape just as much as before.

Tony Senecal, Mr. Trump’s former butler at Mar-a-Lago and now its historian, attributes the spat to Trump’s patriotism.



“You know Donald Trump was born on Flag Day, and I swear it’s in his blood,” Mr. Senecal says. “He really is red, white, and blue.”

If Mr. Trump has a strong patriotic streak, he is also a savvy businessman. As Norma Foerderer, Mr. Trump’s top aide for 26 years, told me, he makes provocative comments to get attention, but behind the scenes, it’s a different story.

When Mr. Trump bought Mar-a-Lago for a mere $5 million in 1985, no one wanted it. Marjorie Merriweather Post, who had built the magnificent, 140-room estate, saw it as a summer White House and willed it to the government. But President Jimmy Carter, who famously turned down the heat at the White House to 68 degrees, thought the acquisition frivolous.

In deteriorating condition, the property reverted to  Mrs. Post’s foundation, which could not find a buyer. No one wanted to assume the cost of maintaining the mansion—at least $3 million a year, including taxes. After Mr. Trump purchased it. he turned it into a thriving club that typically costs a non-refundable $150,000 to join, plus $12,000 a year in fees. In addition, the roughly 450 members pay for dining, shows, and suites where they can stay overnight. Mr. Trump is proud of the fact that, unlike some other Palm Beach clubs, Mar-a-Lago admits blacks and Jews.

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.

When writing my book “The Season: Inside Palm Beach and America’s Richest Society,” my wife Pam and I sat in on Donald’s working meetings at Mar-a-Lago and drove out with him in his four-wheel drive Durango to the Trump International Golf Course he was building in West Palm Beach. On the site were samples of rocks ranging in color from white to red.

“I like the lighter color,” Mr. 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.

Mr. Trump decided to build a second swimming pool with cabanas and a grille along the beach on the ocean. He also designed a ballroom to replace the tent that had been used for shows and social events like the International Red Cross Ball.

But Mar-a-Lago is designated a historic site, and 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, Mr. Trump objected to calling the ballroom a ballroom.

“The word ‘ballroom’ is a hard word to get approved,” Mr. Trump said to his lawyers. “‘Pavilion’ is a softer word. Use ‘pavilion.’”

Mr. 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.

Like Madonna, Mr. Trump likes to reinvent himself. When marketing his real estate and golfing clubs, he sees how much traction he gets—as with his campaign for the presidency —and acts accordingly. In the meantime, he keeps everyone guessing. Mr. Trump is a master negotiator: Those who have worked with him on deals say they never knew until he made his move whether he was seriously interested in a property.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, who is so nasty to Secret Service agents that being assigned to her detail is considered a form of punishment, Mr. Trump treats his employees with respect and consideration. When Tony Senecal’s air conditioning went out, Mr. Trump bought him a new system. When he was hospitalized after a stroke, Mr. Trump insisted that he stay at Mar-a-Lago to recuperate.

No matter what meetings he is conducting, Trump has always made it a practice to take the phone calls of his kids. Every weekend during the season, he flies down on his Boeing 757-200 with his children who live in New York to spend the weekend at Mar-a-Lago.

Mr. Trump reads the papers in the morning with Barron, his nine-year-old son with his wife Melania, commenting on developments.  Mr. Senecal remembers that at the age of two, 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 one weekend by a club member having breakfast on the esplanade overlooking the main pool, which is heated to 78 degrees, Barron calls back to her, “Enjoy your breakfast!”

Having proposed the idea for a club and having helped steer the required approvals through the Palm Beach Town Council, Paul Rampell, Mr. Trump’s Florida lawyer, was giving a birthday party one day for his son Palmer, who was in first grade. Before the party, he opened the door of his Palm Beach home to find on his doorstep a present for Palmer from Trump—an expensive computer.

Rampell later learned that Mr. Trump had gone shopping himself for the item at Toys “R” Us. While Trump was roaming the aisles of the toy store, Kenneth Horowitz, founder of telecommunications giant Cellular One and a friend of Mr. Rampell, was also shopping there with his son, who was to attend the same birthday party.

Mr. Trump knew the tycoon and asked his son for advice on what to get Palmer. Mr. Trump then personally delivered the gift to  Mr. Rampell’s home in time for the party.

“He is very open-minded and has a humanitarian side to him that people don’t see,” Mr. Rampell says. “He will pay off people’s mortgages and hospital bills. At the same time, he is willing to take risks. Four lawyers told him the town would never approve Mar-a-Lago. He went ahead against long odds. He makes money by making people happy.”

Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post investigative reporter, is the author of “The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.”

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