- - Sunday, December 15, 2019

Now that the winter season is here, President Trump and first lady Melania will be regularly spending time at Mar-a-Lago, spawning a new spate of media reports painting Mr. Trump’s private club as a sinister outpost that threatens our security.

According to these reports, the 450 members of Mar-a-Lago enjoy special access to the president and can influence him at will. Mr. Trump looks at classified information on laptops while dining in front of guests. Foreign intelligence services can infiltrate Mar-a-Lago to gain information, plant bugging devices or somehow blackmail the president. And, as in the case of the woman from China who entered Mar-a-Lago grounds on false pretenses, anyone can approach the president and do harm to him.

These narratives widely perpetrated by the media are all false. My wife, Pamela Kessler, a former Washington Post reporter, and I have been regulars at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach for two decades as guests of the now-president, but we pay for dining and parties. So I have had an inside look at what Mr. Trump has called “maybe as close to paradise as I’m going to get.” 

Before Mr. Trump became president, Mar-a-Lago members could wander over and chat with him and Melania when they were dining on the patio or in the vast Venetian palace living room. But that is not any different from what would occur if Mr. Trump or any other president were dining at a restaurant in Washington.

Now that he is president, access to Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago is restricted. The Secret Service erects rope lines around his table. Members cannot approach him unless he knows them and calls them over. 

When Yujing Zhang from China intruded onto Mar-a-Lago grounds on false pretenses last March, Mr. Trump was not on the premises. So security was not as tight as when Mr. Trump is actually in-residence. Still, Zhang was never able to enter the Winter White House unescorted by Secret Service agents.

Now that Mr. Trump is president, the Secret Service clears Mar-a-Lago members and prospective members with a background check, just as the agency does when visitors enter the White House. No one enters the estate itself without going through metal detectors. While Mr. Trump may look at a laptop computer while dining, any classified information is viewed in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) which protects against electronic snooping in the basement of Mar-a-Lago.

Contrary to media reports, when Mr. Trump makes cellphone calls, it is on an encrypted phone issued to him by the Secret Service, not a personal mobile device. And the Secret Service regularly sweeps Mar-a-Lago for bugging devices.

Even though guests must pass through metal detectors, on New Year’s Eve, the Secret Service instructs the president not to go out on the dance floor. He sits at a long banquet table encircled by Secret Service agents. 

Mar-a-Lago is not without its perks. Members can boast that they saw the president. If Mr. Trump chooses to call them over, they may give him a message. But that is not any different from when he chooses to phone one of his friends from the White House. As for giving him advice, beyond the fact that he watches opinion makers on cable news all day long and has long read The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times op-eds each day, Mr. Trump constantly canvasses Secret Service agents, chambermaids and waiters to ask their opinions on any of the issues he is wrestling with.

For all the mythology, club members do gain access to one secret: Mr. Trump’s solid relationship with his wife. When you see Melania chatting with Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago, enjoying themselves and teasing each other, you can tell this marriage will last. Nor is Melania afraid to stand up to him.

One Saturday before Mr. Trump was president, Mar-a-Lago butler Tony Senecal opened the door at the main entrance to Mar-a-Lago to find Martha Stewart standing there. She asked if she could take a tour. Happy to oblige, Mr. Senecal asked her to return the next day at 3 p.m. when it would be convenient.

Mr. Senecal told Mr. Trump about the engagement, and he said fine. But hours later, Mr. Senecal went to see if Mr. Trump needed anything. Without warning, Mr. Trump lit into the butler, screaming at him and calling him a “dumb ass” for scheduling the tour at 3 p.m. when workers would be shifting furniture around.

As her husband was tearing into Mr. Senecal, Melania entered the Pine Hall.

“I don’t think you should talk to Tony in that tone,” Melania said to Mr. Trump in her usual soft voice. 

Mr. Trump never said another word about it. But the next morning, when he and Mr. Senecal were in the mansion’s living room, Mr. Trump without explanation handed the butler $2,000 in cash.

“It was his way of apologizing,” Mr. Senecal told me.

• Ronald Kessler, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, is the author of “The Trump White House: Changing the Rules of the Game” and “In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect.”

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