The Grifter's Club

Trump, Mar-a-Lago, and the Selling of the Presidency


By Sarah Blaskey

By Nicholas Nehamas

By Caitlin Ostroff

By Jay Weaver

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An astonishing look inside the gilded gates of Mar-a-Lago, the palatial resort where President Trump conducts government business with little regard for ethics, security, or even the law.

Donald Trump’s opulent Palm Beach club Mar-a-Lago has thrummed with scandal since the earliest days of his presidency. Long known for its famous and wealthy clientele, the resort’s guest list soon started filling with political operatives and power-seekers. Meanwhile, as Trump re-branded Mar-a-Lago “the Winter White House” and began spending weekends there, state business spilled out into full view of the club’s members, and vast sums of taxpayer money and political donations began flowing into its coffers, and into the pockets of the president.

The Grifter’s Club is a breakthrough account of the impropriety, intrigue, and absurdity that has been on display in the place where the president is at his most relaxed. In these pages, a team of prizewinning Miami Herald journalists reveal the activities and motivations of the strange array of charlatans and tycoons who populate its halls. Some peddle influence, some seek inside information, and some just want to soak up the feeling of unfettered access to the world’s most powerful leaders.

With the drama of an expose and the edgy humor of a Carl Hiaasen novel, The Grifter’s Club takes you behind the velvet ropes of this exclusive club and into its bizarre world of extravagance and scandal.


Chapter 1


GUIDO LOMBARDI AND his Mongolian dinner guests sat down on Mar-a-Lago’s outdoor terrace a few tables away from the president.

It was sometime around April 2017, just a few months after Donald Trump became the leader of the free world.1

Lombardi, a longtime Mar-a-Lago member from Italy, had hatched a plan to use the club to end what he believed was one of the world’s biggest obstacles to stability: the threat of a rogue North Korean nuclear state.

He just needed to get close to the president.

Trump didn’t know the Mongolians were coming, but Lombardi, who considers himself something of a gentleman-amateur political fixer, had no doubt he and these emissaries from the land of Genghis Khan would succeed in implementing the first phase of their plan.

At Mar-a-Lago there is something of a secret handshake—or, better, a dance—necessary to secure an audience with the Don.

Lombardi fancies himself an expert at this political tango.

It all starts at dinner.

Lombardi’s wife, Gianna Lahainer, had been Mar-a-Lago’s very first member,2 and the two had known Trump for three decades. Lombardi, who is in his late sixties, claims the title of Italian nobility and is listed in a member log as such. He wears a ring with a family coat of arms on his left hand and introduces himself as the Count de Canevaro.3 His talents, however, come not from any aristocratic lineage but from his career as a political fixer on the fringes of relevance: making matches, setting up deals, and always watching, quietly, for opportunity.

For decades Lombardi has campaigned for far-right candidates, mostly in Europe, who border on the fascist, like Marine Le Pen of France.4 A recent wave of right-wing populism across Europe and other parts of the world has increased Lombardi’s influence. Where his associates were once fringe candidates, many now hold leading positions within governments around the globe. Lombardi’s biggest break came when his longtime friend was elected president of the United States.5

Lombardi wasn’t in politics for the money. He did it part time, as more of a hobby than a profession. He was mostly interested in leveraging his access to Trump to change the world. For Lombardi, disarming North Korea, ridding the world of the last remnants of communism, and protecting “the West” from what he saw as the threat of Muslim invasion were anointed missions. Trump would help him advance his political causes.

But influencing international politics wouldn’t be as easy as simply whispering into Trump’s ear, Lombardi knew.

When it comes to Trump, it is impossible to play to his political ideology—because he doesn’t have one. Appealing to his business plans might work, if anyone really knew what they were. Lombardi always said the biggest mistake most people make when dealing with Trump is assuming they know what he really wants and why. From Lombardi’s perspective, the best option is to take Trump at face value. Trying to interpret his mind or why he says the things he does is a fruitless exercise. Only Trump knows what Trump wants.

The best one can ever hope to do is to move ideas into Trump’s orbit and see what sticks. To get close enough to do that requires years of loyalty to the man in charge. Certain advisors to the president didn’t understand that, Lombardi knew. He was already telling people Anthony Scaramucci’s days in the administration were numbered even before his disastrous six-day tenure as White House communications director in July 2017.

“He’s too much of a ‘me’ man, and with Donald it doesn’t work. You have to be a boss man,” Lombardi said.

Most important, the Italian understood that Mar-a-Lago is not just a historic mansion or a millionaire’s playground—it is a castle. And Donald Trump is king.

Its court had been decided long before Trump ever thought of being president, giving Palm Beachers an insurmountable lead on the Washington establishment.

Each person’s rank in the king’s court is discernible not in their title but in seating arrangements at dinner at the club. The closer you are to the president, the higher your rank in the shadow administration that has taken shape at Mar-a-Lago.

Red velvet rope stanchions mark the president’s table, no matter where he chooses to sit. Sometimes he eats in the club’s intimate main dining room, its walls adorned with painted seascapes copied from those in the Palazzo Chigi, the Renaissance-era home of Italy’s prime minister in Rome.6 More frequently he dines in the open-air terrace decorated with one of the largest collections of Moorish tiles in the world.7 Trump never eats alone. His wife and young son sometimes join him. But more often than not, he invites guests to dinner.

When the president isn’t in town, his favorite table is bestowed to the next in line to his crown: his adult children, then his closest friends.

“If Eric’s there, Ivanka’s there, or Don. Jr.’s there, we’d always offer them the table,” said a former staffer.8 Next in the order of succession were his oldest friends.

“It was a prestige thing. The families that would sit there were personal friends of his for years and years and not just since he became president,” the staffer explained.

But when court is in session and the king at his table, Trump’s adult children and his most trusted advisors dine just outside the velvet barricade. Although this inner circle sometimes includes select members of his official Washington, DC, administration, the nearest tables are always filled by Mar-a-Lago members who have known Trump for decades.

To dine at those inner-lying tables is an honor bestowed rather than requested.

Everyone who calls for a dinner reservation at Mar-a-Lago wants the table closest to the man in charge. And while the club tries to rotate seating arrangements, there’s still a clear pecking order.9 (Only members and their families may book tables at the club’s private restaurant, although Trump has been known to give access to nonmembers who have gained his favor.)10

Within Trump’s tight-knit inner circle—the men who dine closest to power—are Christopher Ruddy of conservative media company Newsmax, the so-called Trump whisperer; Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, chairman of Marvel Entertainment, who is said to have used his connection to the club to exert extraordinary influence at the Department of Veterans Affairs; New England Patriots owner and longtime Trump friend Robert Kraft; and Howard Kessler, an introverted Boston-based businessman.11 Both Kessler and Kraft are major donors to the Democratic Party. But at Mar-a-Lago blood is thicker than politics. The most devoted club members become adopted members of the Trump family and vice versa.

“Loyalty and friendship trumps politics for me,” Kraft once said, recalling Trump’s response to the 2011 death of his wife, Myra.12 “I always remember the people who were good to me in that vulnerable time, and he’s in that category.”

Other well-established members are placed at tables one circle removed from Trump’s closest courtiers. Among them are South Florida restaurateur Lee Lipton as well as William Koch, the once-estranged brother of Charles and David Koch, the fossil fuel magnates and ultra-powerful Republican donors.

That’s where Guido Lombardi and his wife sit too.

“They [the staff] know we have a relationship. We are friends,” explained Lombardi, who is also Trump’s neighbor at Trump Tower in Manhattan. “We have known each other for a long, long time.”

Anyone who really knows Trump knows better than to disturb him while he’s eating dinner. The two inner rings of tables create an extra barrier between the president and the crowd of fawning fans who have taken to mobbing Mar-a-Lago on weekends and holidays in hopes of getting a picture with the president.

The reward for loyalty is power—or at least some semblance of it. During the presidential campaign and after the election Lombardi served as an informal liaison connecting the European far-right to Trump. His rolodex includes Le Pen as well as Matteo Salvini of Italy, Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, people close to Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, and members of Austria’s Freedom Party.13 (Lombardi says Le Pen and Wilders have both stayed at his home.)

In previous administrations someone like Lombardi could never have possessed the influence necessary to turn the gears of US foreign policy. But the Trump administration—or, rather, the Trump business empire—offered points of entry that had never before been seen in modern-day American politics. Lombardi and his Mongolian dinner guests planned to use that access.

MAR-A-LAGO WAS ALWAYS intended to be a palace for America’s equivalent to nobility.

Marjorie Merriweather Post, a liberal Democrat and beacon of the early days of American society, started building the mansion in 1923 on a seventeen-acre plot that spans the width of Palm Beach island from the Intracoastal Waterway to the Atlantic Ocean. So magnificent was the location that she even named her estate after it: Mar-a-Lago. Sea to Lake.

A visionary of her time, Post traveled extensively, gaining inspiration for her home from castles she visited in Europe and collecting near-priceless artifacts—twenty thousand roofing tiles from a Cuban castle, for example—and luxurious furnishings for her Palm Beach palace.14 Mar-a-Lago’s striking two-story stucco mansion sits at the center of a maze of cloisters and entertainment areas, all organized in a crescent shape around the terrace dining area and “Parrot Pool”—named for the hand-carved avian statues decorating the deck. In total, the club advertises more than thirty rooms, suites, and cabanas where guests can spend the night. The mansion’s southern cloisters include the Gold and White Ballroom, where Post once held her famous square-dance parties. On the second story is the owner’s suite. Southern Boulevard runs along the southern property line. It’s so close to some of the buildings that drivers can catch glimpses inside.

Within the northern cloisters are the guest shop and the spa, where Jeffrey Epstein’s recruiter found a sixteen-year-old attendant and lured her into his sex-trafficking network.15 Epstein was a member for a time, but a membership log shows his account at the club was closed in October 2007.16 Lombardi said Trump kicked Epstein out after another member complained that the pedophile had made an advance on her teenage daughter.17 (The Trump Organization has acknowledged Epstein spent time at the club but said he was not a member.18)

A seventy-five-foot watchtower accessible from the main mansion overlooks the entire estate. Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley were said to have spent their honeymoon locked away in the tower’s suite. “He was up there for one week with her and he never came down,” Trump said. “I don’t know what was going on but they got along.”19

Looking west from the tower, one sees a sprawling green lawn that extends past a guest house, garages, and clay tennis courts and butts up against the Intracoastal’s Lake Worth Lagoon. The expanse of green was once a nine-hole golf course, but under Trump, who owns a much better course in nearby West Palm Beach, the backyard has become a wedding and event venue. Yet another way to make money.

Looking east, one sees the front lawn where wealthy retirees clad in all-white outfits play croquet. A path cuts toward the property’s southeastern corner, leading to a tunnel under South Ocean Boulevard that gives access to the estate’s ocean-front pool deck featuring a high-end snack bar.

As impressive as the buildings are, Mar-a-Lago would be nothing more than a house—albeit a large, impressive house—if it weren’t for the careful details that mark it as a vestige of a long-lost Gilded Age. The Mediterranean-style villa’s grand archways are adorned with intricate bird and vine motifs. Oriental rugs and tiles collected from castles cover the floors. Because Mar-a-Lago was named a national historic landmark in 1980, Trump has been unable to remodel in his signature gaudy style.20

Mar-a-Lago was built as a dwelling for the oldest of old money—the kind that few possess in modern times. The estate was so extravagant that no one could afford to live there after Post’s death.

Trump tried. He bought the property from Post’s estate in 1985 after it sat vacant for years.21

For Trump, the palatial private residence served as a winter home, a notice to the world of his tremendous success, and a ticket into an exclusive upper crust that no amount of money can typically buy. For its part, Palm Beach society was horrified to learn their new neighbor was a tabloid-chasing womanizer, a tasteless vulgarian. He was not one of them.

Trump’s wave of bankruptcies in the early 1990s22 forced the young tycoon to turn his second home into a moneymaker: Mar-a-Lago became a club.23 Just as Trump would later identify a huge slice of the American electorate that felt cast out by coastal elitists, the developer recognized that Palm Beach was full of outsiders too: new-money billionaires who hated the island’s stuffy old confines. Wealthy Jews who had been excluded from the other WASP-y country clubs. And people who just wanted to party with the Donald, the era’s ultimate playboy.

The club, as members simply call it, was popular. Even some of Palm Beach’s old guard began to gravitate toward the parties Trump hosted. No one could deny that with the Donald in town, Palm Beach got a lot more fun.24

Nearly everything at Mar-a-Lago comes with a reminder that the old-money estate is now owned by a man the town once despised. There’s Trump-branded water, Trump-branded wine, and even hamburger buns with the word “Trump” stamped on top.25

Trump’s biggest addition since taking over Mar-a-Lago has been the construction of the Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom. Now the estate’s largest event space, the freestanding seventeen-thousand-square-foot ballroom stands to the south of the historic twentieth-century mansion. (The club’s promotional materials boast that the building is twenty thousand square feet, contradicting the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser.26)

“The exterior was designed to keep up with the vision of Mrs. Post, but the inside is more me. It’s got the feel and look of Louis XIV, and that’s my favorite style,” Trump told the Palm Beach Daily News soon after his ballroom opened in 2005.27

Lavish coats of gold used to create the world’s most opulent palace at Versailles made Louis XIV one of the most memorable monarchs in history. Gold and gilding provided the king “a look so unique, so self-aggrandizing, that it granted [him] a kind of material immortality,” the Atlantic wrote.28 In his own mind, Trump was already America’s Sun King.

Appearance means everything to Trump. The president is known for his ability to spot a crumb on the floor from across the room. The first thing he noticed when a contractor showed him around his new ballroom was that the vaulted ceilings weren’t shiny enough.29 The seventeen crystal chandeliers, priced at $250,000 apiece, glittered just as they should, but the gilding on the walls and ceiling moldings looked flat.30 The contractor had used paint instead of real gold leaf.

“That doesn’t look very good. That doesn’t really look rich,” Trump said to the man.31

He wanted the paint replaced with the real stuff, and he told the contractor to spare no expense. In the end, Trump spent $7 million putting sheets of twenty-four-karat gold on the walls and ceiling of his new ballroom, just shy of what he paid for the entire property a decade earlier.

What Trump didn’t worry about fixing—either because he didn’t notice or didn’t care—were the acoustics. The mirrored walls of the ballroom may evoke the palace of Versailles, but they and the rest of the architectural elements refract even the slightest sound, converting the niceties of polite society into a deafening chorus of noise. And God help anyone trying to have a conversation if an event includes a live band or singer.

“He is a perfectionist in all things that he is concerned with,” said Mar-a-Lago member Fred Rustmann, a former CIA officer and founder of a corporate intelligence firm in West Palm Beach. “Certainly, acoustics is not one of them.”

FOR DONALD TRUMP, every day at Mar-a-Lago goes much the same.

He is up early in the morning to watch Fox News and to tweet.

Then it’s time to hit the links at Trump International Golf Club in nearby West Palm Beach or, sometimes, Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter.32 He eats lunch at the golf course, where he is joined by the famous golfers he recruits for his foursomes, like Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus, or celebrities like the talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who owns a home in Palm Beach.33 Back at Mar-a-Lago Trump retires to his suite for some pre-dinner tweeting. Before he became president he would often emerge for an afternoon ice cream at the Beach Club. But since the election he’s cut back. In the evening Trump makes a grand entrance to dinner—but only once he’s sure the restaurant is full—and basks in the applause of his members and guests.

“He comes down to Mar-a-Lago to recharge his batteries,” said the billionaire and club member Jeff Greene. “He’s the king of the castle.”34

Mar-a-Lago is the Trump family home.

Don Jr., forty-two, can often be found playing the family man, grilling hot dogs for his five children on the lawn. He and his now ex-wife, Vanessa, were once seen tussling in the grass in front of their kids in full daylight. A person who saw it called it an out-and-out “dry hump.”35

Ivanka, thirty-eight, hangs out by the pool, often escorted by an entourage of terrified attendants. Her husband, Jared Kushner, works out frequently and hits the gym almost every morning.36 At the tennis courts Ivanka can sometimes be seen flouting the club’s all-white dress code. Once, her daughter Arabella was hitting the ball well and yelled, “Mommy, look at me! Look at me!” Ivanka, sitting off to the side, didn’t look up from her phone.37

Eric Trump, thirty-six, now runs the club, in name at least, following his father’s election. He and his wife, Lara, enjoy walking their two beagles near the water.

Tiffany, twenty-six, doesn’t frequent Mar-a-Lago as much as her older half-siblings. A University of Pennsylvania graduate, she prefers to keep a lower profile. But people still come looking. Once, a total stranger showed up to her cabana proposing marriage. Staff had to chase him away.

Barron, fourteen, kicks a soccer ball around the lawn, sometimes accompanied by a trainer.38

Members try to exploit their closeness to Trump’s family. Even his brood of ten grandchildren are sometimes corralled for selfies.

But the kids are hard to catch. It’s not uncommon to see Secret Service agents in pressed suits running across the grounds, trying to keep up with a fleet-footed child.39

For their part, the children think “lose your security detail” is good sport for sunny afternoons spent at Grandpa’s house.

Before he became president, Donald Trump’s preferred dinner table was along the far wall of Mar-a-Lago’s main dining room. The table had a sort of public privacy to it. Perfect for a notorious introvert who built his brand around being a man of the people.

On the way to and from his chambers—a trek that takes him straight through the main dining area—Trump yucks it up with guests, remembers names, asks about sick family members, tosses out generic compliments (“lookin’ good”), and poses for selfies. Though the notorious germaphobe used to back away in alarm from any hand extended in his direction, things changed as he grew more accustomed to glad-handing, and he even began to occasionally shake the hands of his dinner guests on the way to his seat.40

Staff leave an antibacterial towelette waiting for him at his table to wipe the grime from his hands.

Trump’s main table along the wall has just one downside: it is so near to a swinging service door that Trump is in constant danger of getting hit every time an overstressed waiter runs through carrying a tray of food or dishes.41

Once, a young server dropped a dirty fork straight into the president’s lap. Her heart stopped as she waited for the inevitable outburst. Trump is not a forgiving boss. She cringed as the germaphobe-in-chief, who demands individually wrapped packets of butter rather than smearing his pretzel rolls with butter from the communal dishes shared by the rest of the table, looked down at the fallen utensil.42 But after considering for a moment, he simply picked it up, wiped it off, and handed it back to the mortified waitress without a fuss.

Brand is everything to the Donald, and every public interaction matters.

“He’s always careful about everything. Anything that can tarnish his name, his brand,” Lombardi said.43

At Mar-a-Lago the Trump brand is associated with high-end service. Everything has to be about the members who line his pockets with millions of dollars each year. Even a dirty fork in the lap wouldn’t cause him to spoil their evening.

The president is the ultimate maître d’. He’s also the ultimate chameleon. His drive to be the perfect host overrides most of his other personality quirks. When Trump stops in at a party hosted by a member of his club, the notoriously picky eater will have some of whatever is being served.44 When his club is having a holiday buffet, the man who hates not being first will wait his turn in line just like everyone else. When he talks to a member of his club, the world seems to melt away, and they feel as though they have his full attention. No one is a better listener, they say. It is the kind of charisma possessed by only the most successful politicians and dinner-party hosts.

“I’m not a fan of his politics, but he’s a very gracious host. He makes people feel good,” said Jeff Greene, who had smuggled Mike Tyson onto the property in 2019.45

Trump’s behavior as the perfect host is both an act that benefits his bottom line and a genuine reflection of who he is—a man obsessed with having people love him and the empire built in his name.

After Trump’s election, members began to applaud when their new president strolled from his suite to dinner. And there was little doubt that his Pavlovian response to positive attention caused Trump to opt for an even higher-profile dining location: al fresco, in the center of the outdoor terrace. The longer walk to the more prominent table gave his guests longer to clap.

The president’s frequent public appearances at the club are great for business—his business.

Mar-a-Lago is owned by the Trump Organization, a group of companies of which Donald Trump is the sole owner. Every person who walks into the club to eat a steak, play tennis, dance the night away, or relax in the spa benefits the real estate mogul’s bottom line.

The club is more popular than ever now that he’s president, as members invite friends to show off their proximity to the leader of the free world.46 These days, on any Saturday night during Palm Beach society’s high season, which runs roughly from Thanksgiving to Mother’s Day, more than a thousand people may patronize Mar-a-Lago between the restaurant, ballrooms, and various events.47 Some members and their guests have gone so far as to slip managers money to try to bribe their way to a table close to the president.48

“People want to see the president,” said Valentina Deva, a Palm Beach real estate agent from Estonia who can often be seen at the edge of events wearing horn-rimmed glasses and livestreaming the parties out to the world.49 “Many people love him.”

In the months between his victory in the Republican primary and his January 2017 inauguration, dozens of new members joined the club—bringing in at least $5 million in additional revenue for the president’s business and perhaps quite a bit more. Tables at Mar-a-Lago events were selling out well in advance. Club members started planning ahead, booking twelve-person tables months before holidays that Trump was known to spend at home in Florida. Show-offs began trying to reserve such large tables that the club soon had to limit each member to only two dinner guests while the president was in town.50

“For some people it’s a really, really big deal, and they will jump on that and they will pay a lot of money to go there and kind of hob-nob with the president,” Rustmann said.51 “But you’re not hobnobbing with the president. That’s the point. When you go there you may see him and he may pass by and even put his hand on your shoulder while you’re sitting there having dinner, but that’s about it.”

Name dropping and social-media selfies aside, in truth, most people who come to Mar-a-Lago have little to no special influence on Trump or his administration.

It’s a select few of the most loyal members who hold the real power. They have spent years nurturing the relationship at Mar-a-Lago. Kissing the ring.

“He’s got layers of people—they’re political, they’re personal—that he’s known [for so] many years,” said a Mar-a-Lago member.52 “These people have been members for years. It just happens that he became president. So they like it even more.”

SINCE THE 1980S one of Guido Lombardi’s pet projects has been to negotiate a rapprochement between North Korea and the West.

The fixer believes that seeking a formal peace with the world’s most dangerous rogue nation is one of the most pressing issues of modern times.53

And given Trump’s inclination to conduct diplomacy at high-profile summits, Lombardi hoped to set up a meeting between the president and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In his eyes there was an ideal place, although few Americans could find it on a map: Mongolia.


  • "The Grifter's Club is an illuminating, funny, and often outrageous peek behind the walls of Mar-a-Lago in the time of Trump. The stuffy elite of Palm Beach will merely be mortified, but hard-working taxpayers will be incensed."—Carl Hiaasen

On Sale
Aug 4, 2020
Page Count
256 pages

Sarah Blaskey

About the Author

Sarah Blaskey is an investigative reporter and data specialist at the Miami Herald. For their reporting on Trump tourism, she, Nicholas Nehamas, and Caitlin Ostroff were named finalists for the 2020 Livingston Award for Excellence in National Reporting.

Learn more about this author

Nicholas Nehamas

About the Author

Nicholas Nehamas is an investigative reporter for the Miami Herald. He was part of a team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting on the Panama Papers.

Learn more about this author