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Here's what it's like to traverse the members-only grounds of Mar-a-Lago, from a reporter who's been there

·8-min read
Here's what it's like to traverse the members-only grounds of Mar-a-Lago, from a reporter who's been there
  • Trump beat reporters have been trying for years to get inside the members-only Mar-a-Lago club.

  • In early 2017, Darren Samuelsohn visited on three different occasions while working for Politico.

  • His photographs show what it's like inside a private club that now doubles as Trump's residence.

Memories of Mar-a-Lago came flooding back Monday night when the news broke that the FBI had executed a search warrant on Donald Trump's permanent residence.

My visits there as a White House reporter for Politico more than five years ago came during the earliest days of Trump's presidency. They gave me an up-close look into all of the controversy and celebrity hoopla that surrounded a man who just months earlier had become the most powerful person on the planet.

In all, I made three trips in March 2017 to go inside Trump's exclusive South Florida resort.

I toured the well-manicured grounds and snapped my own picture of the famous Trump painting that hangs in the main bar and watched Melania Trump from a distance as she headed into a gathering of Republican donors. I even held open the big iron main door for Ivanka Trump and her three young children before they all sat down with Jared Kushner for brunch just a few feet away from my own table.

Ivanka posted this picture on Instagram on that same morning just a short time after I saw her and her family.

Trump's private residence

People walking outside Mar-a-Lago in March 2017
People walking outside Mar-a-Lago in March 2017.Darren Samuelsohn

Mar-a-Lago is sandwiched between the Lake Worth Lagoon on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. A short tunnel takes people under the famous A1A boulevard to get to the pool and the beach.

Only members and their guests are allowed into the club, which boasts a couple of swimming pools, a restaurant serving foods named after various members of the Trump family, a bar and cardroom, as well as a spa and gym. There are also high-priced private hotel rooms, though I didn't get to see inside one.

Back in March of 2017, when Trump was just settling into the presidency, he used Mar-a-Lago as his seasonal weekend retreat. His main bedroom, my tour guide explained, includes a bedroom located right above the man in the yellow pants in my picture.

Reminder of the club's history

A fountain at Mar-a-Lago with a plaque that says Trump purchased the club in 1985.
A fountain at Mar-a-Lago with a plaque that says Trump purchased the club in 1985.Darren Samuelsohn

Trump bought Mar-a-Lago in 1985 for about $10 million, using it as a residence for several years before opening up the private club a decade later. A plaque near one of the two swimming pools and just below the main outdoor dining area gives a very brief overview of that history.

 

Bathroom glamor photos

Photos of Trump on the cover of New York magazine and running with the Olympic torch hangs in a lobby bathroom at Mar-a-Lago in March 2017.
Photos of Trump on the cover of New York magazine and running with the Olympic torch hangs in a lobby bathroom at Mar-a-Lago in March 2017.Darren Samuelsohn

It's hard to go anywhere in Mar-a-Lago without being reminded who is the owner of the place. These photos are in the men's bathroom just off the main entrance lobby. There was also another one of Trump standing with a big wide grin next to professional golf legend Arnold Palmer, but my picture came out too blurry to share it.

Spa time

The entrance to the Trump Spa at Mar-a-Lago.
The entrance to the Trump Spa at Mar-a-Lago.Darren Samuelsohn

Next to one of the swimming pools is the Trump spa. We only visited for a few minutes but there were massage treatments available, as well as locker rooms, and a gym.

The presidential motorcade waits

Donald Trump's presidential motorcade waiting at Mar-a-Lago in March 2017.
Donald Trump's presidential motorcade waiting at Mar-a-Lago in March 2017.Darren Samuelsohn

Trump was visiting his club pretty much every weekend back in the early days of his presidency, dragging along the national press corps with him.

A handful of reporters would sit for hours in vans waiting in motorcade formation for something to happen. Except for events where they got an invitation, rarely did the press get anywhere close to Trump and his members.

But that didn't stop details from leaking about what happened at the club while the president was there.

Right before one of my visits, for example, Trump caused a huge stir by working with his aides on a response to a North Korea missile test. He did that in front of his dinnertime guests.

I also learned much later through the Mueller report that one of my visits to Mar-a-Lago coincided with a critical weekend meeting at the club where Trump hosted Jeff Sessions and then-White House counsel Don McGahn. There, Trump urged his attorney general at the time to unrecuse himself from the FBI's Russia investigation.

Oceanfront swimming

The Trump Mar-a-Lago swimming pool overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in March 2017.
One of the Trump Mar-a-Lago swimming pools overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.Darren Samuelsohn

Mar-a-Lago has two pools, including this one overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. It was deserted in the spring of 2017, as it was also a bit cold outside by Florida standards. This is also where there are multiple guest cottages overlooking the beach, including villas my tour guide told me were frequently used by Trump's adult children when they visited.

 



Trump's portrait and MAGA schwag

A portrait of Donald Trump hangs in the bar of Mar-a-Lago in March 2017, and Make America Great Again hats adorn chairs in the ballroom before a GOP dinner.
A portrait of Donald Trump hangs in the bar of Mar-a-Lago in March 2017, and Make America Great Again hats adorn chairs in the ballroom before a GOP dinner.Darren Samuelsohn

I returned to Mar-a-Lago for two more stops a few weeks later.

During one trip, I toured the bar area and snapped this picture of the famous portrait of Trump.

I also scored a press credential to cover the Lincoln Day dinner, an annual event hosted by the Palm Beach Republican Party. They had MAGA schwag for the people who paid $300 for a seat or as much as $5,000 for a table.

A Melania sighting

Melania Trump walking the grounds of Mar-a-Lago during the Palm Beach Republican Party's Lincoln Day dinner on March 24, 2017.
Melania Trump walking the grounds of Mar-a-Lago during the Palm Beach Republican Party's Lincoln Day dinner on March 24, 2017.Darren Samuelsohn

Melania Trump was in town for the weekend, and she made an appearance before the dinner at an exclusive cocktail hour. Reporters were kept a good distance away, which is why you can barely see the now-former first lady there in my photograph.

The Donald J. Trump Ballroom

A speaker introduces then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott in the Donald J. Trump Ballroom at Mar-a-Lago during the March 2017 Palm Beach Republican Party's Lincoln Dinner.
A speaker introduces then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott in the Donald J. Trump Ballroom at Mar-a-Lago during the March 2017 Palm Beach Republican Party's Lincoln Dinner.Darren Samuelsohn

My reporting at the time for Politico noted that the GOP attendees described the dinner as "the most overtly political shindig at Mar-a-Lago since its host moved into the White House."

Rick Scott was governor of Florida at the time, and his speech included details about a recent DC visit with Trump that included lunch and a showing of "La La Land" in the White House theater.

 

'Deport ILLEGAL CRIMINALS'

Guests hold up a sign about immigration at Mar-a-Lago during the Palm Beach Republican Party's Lincoln Day dinner on March 24, 2017.
Guests hold up a sign about immigration at Mar-a-Lago during the Palm Beach Republican Party's Lincoln Day dinner on March 24, 2017.Darren Samuelsohn

Credentialed reporters were free to move around the Donald J. Trump Ballroom and mingle with the guests. There were plenty of pro-Trump advocates like this, as well as some big names in Florida politics.

On this particular night, I met Adam Putnam, who was serving as Florida's Agriculture commissioner and was jockeying for a run to succeed Scott as governor.

Putnam announced his campaign a few weeks after this dinner, and he was seen as an early frontrunner. But then Trump endorsed Ron DeSantis, a sitting congressman, and, well, we know the history from there.

Tastes like Trump

Trump-branded mouthwash in the Mar-a-Lago ballroom men's bathroom in March 2017.
Trump-branded mouthwash in the Mar-a-Lago ballroom men's bathroom in March 2017.Darren Samuelsohn

There were more Trump-branded products in this men's restroom, including mouthwash. It tasted like mouthwash.

My Mar-a-Lago selfie

Darren Samuelsohn, a Politico reporter at the time, poses for a selfie outside Mar-a-Lago in March 2017.
Darren Samuelsohn, a Politico White House reporter at the time, poses for a selfie outside Mar-a-Lago during a tour in March 2017. He has much less hair now.Darren Samuelsohn

The Mar-a-Lago trips weren't just to soak up color.

My reporting revealed Trump was very much OK with using the presidential seal at his club and that foreign spies had an unprecedented amount of access to US officials due to lax background screening.

I covered other national security concerns associated with a president of the United States who mixes his taxpayer-funded job with dues-paying members of his own private club.

In the following years, many of the issues I was reporting on during my early Mar-a-Lago visits would keep coming back up again. Then came the FBI raid on Monday, and a whole new set of reminders about what I witnessed during those early days of Trump's White House.

Read the original article on Business Insider