His presidential career, filled with the bombast and showmanship he displayed while announcing his candidacy after a golden escalator ride in New York, ended quietly and in private, behind the groomed hedges of his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach.
The wealthy have long sought to retreat from public life on this chichi barrier island. High society knows a thing or two about discretion, and one could hardly pick a better place for seclusion than a luxurious oceanfront mansion during the glorious South Florida winter.
But in seeking refuge in Florida, as so many have done before him, Trump may find that some in Palm Beach are not exactly eager to embrace the former president as a full-time neighbour, not after he incited a mob of his supporters two weeks ago to storm the US Capitol.
“Nobody that I’ve spoken to is looking forward to him coming back to Palm Beach,” said Richard J Steinberg, a real estate broker who works in Palm Beach and New York. “Quite honestly, I think that whether you’re a Trump supporter or not, I don’t think that there are many people that in good conscience can justify what happened on Jan 6, and I think that most — most — people hold him at least partially responsible.”
Throngs of Trump’s supporters greeted his motorcade on Wednesday as it made one last trip along Southern Boulevard from Palm Beach International Airport to Mar-a-Lago, with many screaming in delight to catch a glimpse of him in his final moments as president.
“He gave us freedom,” said Valéry Barto of West Palm Beach, who sported a Make America Great Again hat and waited nearly three hours before Trump rolled by. “He was for us. Now it’s going to be all messed up.”
No local leaders met Trump at the airport, as they might have on an official visit. Only a small group of supporters, many of them former campaign volunteers, waved silently when he walked off the plane. CNN did not carry Air Force One’s landing live.
But few people expect Trump’s presence to remain low-key for long.
Several of Trump’s children and associates are also decamping to South Florida. Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, have reportedly acquired a property on the exclusive island of Indian Creek, north of Miami, and rented an apartment in nearby Surfside. Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, have been spotted house-hunting in Jupiter, where The Palm Beach Post reported that some neighbors were already objecting to the couple’s possible presence.
The town has also been abuzz about which (presumably) private school will enroll Barron Trump, and whether it will be near Mar-a-Lago or further south in Boca Raton or Fort Lauderdale, a move that would require the 14-year-old to while away many hours in South Florida’s notoriously dense traffic.
Michael Barnett, the chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, said he had fielded calls in recent days from reporters from as far away as Germany and Japan asking about Trump’s post-presidency plans and the local GOP’s political future.
“I’m sure he’s going to want to take some time to relax and rest,” Barnett said. “It’s been a long and tough four years, and he’s getting beaten up a lot. But all of us are sad to see the end of his presidency — or, some would say, his first term.”
As President Joe Biden proclaimed during his inauguration speech in Washington that “democracy has prevailed,” a gaggle of Trump supporters near Mar-a-Lago cheered as a dark pickup truck passed waving a massive flag that read “TRUMP 2024.”
“The good news: He’s no longer at the White House,” said Terrie Rizzo, the chairwoman of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party. “The bad news is he’s going to be in our backyard.”
Rizzo noted that some local Republicans have left the party since the insurrection at the Capitol — 1,488, according to the Palm Beach County elections supervisor’s office. “I won’t have to do a lot of rallying because having him here will be a rallying cry for Democrats,” Rizzo said.
Trump may find that his broader surroundings have changed somewhat since he was last a private citizen. The nation’s political divide is evident: An intersection in Palm Beach Gardens has been nicknamed “Trump Corner” because the former president’s supporters like to gather there. A big mural painted in black and white in downtown West Palm Beach reads “I can’t breathe.”
More celebrities have bought property in the area, surely taking advantage of the fact that Florida does not have a state income tax. The coronavirus pandemic led to the arrival of a frenzy of New Yorkers fleeing lockdowns, said Steinberg, the real estate broker. Sales have been up 70% since April. No one-year rentals are left on Palm Beach island, he said. Renovated properties for sale start at $10 million.
“It’s just unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this in my real estate career.”
Some of those New Yorkers might find security measures around Mar-a-Lago to be too inconvenient if Trump’s return leads to long-term road closures or other annoyances, Steinberg predicted. A couple of part-timers interviewed this week said they were more worried that the former president’s presence would empower some of his rowdy supporters.
“His followers are scary,” Olivia Pall said. “Would one want someone of his personality moving into your neighborhood? He’s a nasty person in every way. He’s such an obnoxious influence on our environment.”
Even some longtime Mar-a-Lago members have parted ways with the resort during the Trump era. Curren Robbins and Kylie Bell, sisters from New York who were visiting their parents this week in Palm Beach, said the family gave up its membership in 2017 after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when Trump said there had been “very fine people on both sides” of the clashes.
“I met the Trumps a few times. I knew him to be a humble person and voted for him,” Robbins said. But the rally was a turning point, she said. “Our family is Jewish,” she said. “We felt it was just too much.”
If Trump intends to live here permanently, there is likely to be some friction. He signed an agreement with Palm Beach in 1993 that said Mar-a-Lago, a private social club, could not be used as a full-time residence, and some neighbours have pressed Palm Beach officials to enforce the pact. Local reporters spotted moving trucks outside of Mar-a-Lago earlier in the week.
Kirk Blouin, the town manager, said in a statement on Wednesday that officials were “not aware of the president’s intent in this regard.”
“If and when the town learns, as a matter of fact, that President Trump intends to reside at Mar-a-Lago, it will address the matter appropriately at that time,” he said. (Trump and his relatives own other houses neighboring Mar-a-Lago.)
This month, Palm Beach County officials warned Mar-a-Lago that a New Year’s Eve party held at the venue violated a local mask mandate, as evidenced by social media posts featuring revellers who did not wear face coverings. But no citations were issued, and state Rep. Omari Hardy, a Democrat whose district includes parts of the county, said officials gave Trump’s club special treatment.
“Rather than treating him as the other businesses, we’re going easy on him,” he said. “If Palm Beach County isn’t tough, then the president will walk all over us.”
When they are in town, the Trumps rarely leave the cocooned comforts of Mar-a-Lago. Few people expect that to change. The former president and first lady are unlikely to be seen perusing the designer stores on Worth Avenue or dining at La Goulue, the recently opened sister restaurant to the French bistro on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“He never leaves his house,” said Jeff Greene, a Palm Beach real estate investor and former Mar-a-Lago member. “He goes to the golf club and back.”
Carey O’Donnell, a Palm Beach native who runs a marketing and public relations agency, said that isolation had always kept the Trumps from becoming fully enmeshed in the fabric of the town’s social life.
“Palm Beach has its own circulatory system,” she said. “As a private citizen, really, he’s never been a part of that, and I don’t see him changing the game much, except for the factor of having a child in school. That may bring the Trumps out a little bit more.”
Grant Scott Krym, 29, a doorman working at a ritzy Palm Beach condo on Wednesday, said he voted for Trump in 2016 but did not cast a presidential ballot in 2020. He was ambivalent about Trump’s return.
“Now he’s just another guy,” he said. Still, he said, he understood why the former president had fled south.
“What’s not to love about Palm Beach?” he said. “There’s the beach, great restaurants — and it’s a good place to get a suntan.”
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