Inauguration Day Special: My Night at Mar-a-Lago

I spent one night at Mar-a-Lago back in 2012, after playing golf that afternoon with the man about to be sworn in as the President of the United States. At dinner that night, Trump served himself roughly a lobster and a half’s worth of shelled lobster claws and split lobster tails from the seafood buffet, then went back and for big plate of sweet-and-sour shrimp on rice. While we were having dessert, two giggly little girls from New Jersey, whose parents were part of a group from Trump’s golf club in Bedminster—“one of the richest places in the country”—came over to our table and asked Trump to dance. He said that he would dance with them in Bedminster. Then he asked them if they wanted to be supermodels when they grew up. (They said yes). Then he asked them to kiss him. (And they did.)

You can read a little more my Mar-a-Lago visit on the New Yorker’s website today. My New Yorker colleague Mark Singer, who has written a lot about Trump, including this book, emailed me recently: “Trump, standing on the lawn at Mar-a-Lago and hitting balls into the Intracoastal Waterway with a 3-iron, told me that Claude Harmon called him ‘the best weekend player’ he’d ever seen. Such an innocent time. . . . I suspect it won’t be during my lifetime when historians come up with a fully coherent explanation of how/why it came to this. I have no faith in my ability to predict what lies ahead; everything I thought I knew was mistaken.”

The Trump Files: “Do You Girls Want to be Supermodels When You Grow Up?”

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Eleven friends and I just returned from a golf trip to Ireland. Something you have to be ready for when you travel outside the United States is hearing what people in other countries think about whatever the United States has been up to lately—and this year the main thing the United States has been up to is Donald Trump. He’s not easy to talk about with foreigners, because people who haven’t had much exposure to him tend to view him as a standard-issue American greed-driven mega-mogul—Michael Douglas in “Wall Street”—rather than seeing him the way most of his countrymen do, as the only conceivable member of whatever category he actually belongs in.

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I met Trump four years ago, while working on an article about him and his golf courses for Golf Digest. Our first encounter was at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach. (Trump’s courses, like his buildings, are easy to alphabetize.) When I pulled up at the club’s bag drop, a parking attendant, who was dressed in white trousers, a white shirt and a white cap, stepped briskly toward my rental car. I popped my trunk, palmed a five-dollar bill, opened the car door and then—with a possibly audible gasp—realized that the guy I’d taken for an attendant was actually Trump himself, who had come out to the curb to greet me. I (slipped the fiver back into my pocket and) enthusiastically shook his hand.

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In the clubhouse, Trump introduced me to various distinguished members and guests, including the the former tennis star John Lloyd; the CEOs of AT&T, NASDAQ, Macy’s and several other corporations; and the head coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, and his girlfriend, Linda Holliday. Trump seemed genuinely excited to see all these people—and even more excited to see that I was seeing all these people, right there in his own club. False modesty, much less actual modesty, is not among Trump’s vices. “We have the big people here, in terms of membership,” he said. “Everybody who’s anybody in Palm Beach is a member here. So, anyway. . . .” He invited Belichick and Holliday to come for dinner that night at the Mar-a-Lago Club, which he also owns, then told a waitress that he wanted the golf club to pick up their lunch check. He was being genuinely gracious and welcoming, but you could also see how extraordinarily eager he was to be liked, and to be seen being liked.

Raymond Floyd, who was leading an outing of business executives, walked toward our table.

“The great Ray Floyd,” Trump said.

“Hi, Donald. Don’t get up.”

“You look beautiful.”

“I keep fooling them. That’s what I say. I’m following your lead.”

“I love this guy,” Trump said. “This guy—the greatest chipper. He’s going to teach me how to chip someday. Have a good time, Ray.”

Floyd walked away, and Trump said to me: “He’s a member. We have the best members here. Everybody. He’s a wonderful guy, Ray, actually. And one great competitor. He was the oldest guy ever to win the Open. Remember, at Shinnecock? He was the oldest guy ever to win the Open. Great guy.”

Floyd walked by again. Trump asked him, “How old were you when you won the U.S. Open. Forty-six?”

“Forty-six? No, forty-four.”

“Is that the record?”

“No, Irwin surpassed me by a few months.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that. Ah, you’re something, Ray. How’s your wife doing?” (Floyd’s wife, Maria, was being treated for bladder cancer. She died six months later.)

“She’s doing great. She’s cancer-free.”

“Give her my regards,” Trump said. Then, to me: “His wife had a little problem, to put it mildly, but I’m hearing good things.”

“We go every three months,” Floyd said. “We go back in the first of next month.”

“That’s great. She’s a fantastic woman. She kept him under check, which is not easy, OK? I knew him before and after.”

“Changed the lifestyle.”

“She did a good job. Ivanka tells me Christina’s doing good.”

“I think she’s using Ivanka’s baby nurse.”

“Well, Ivanka has good taste, so follow Ivanka. Have a good time, Ray. Enjoy it.”

Floyd went out to join his corporate clients, and Trump, beaming, said, “So, I do it for fun. It’s become a very successful business, because of the level of quality. When other clubs are empty, everybody wants to join here. And by ‘here’ I mean all of my clubs. Every one of them works, and works really well.” We talked quite a bit about his course in Aberdeen, Scotland, which was just about to open. “Look, I get a kick,” he said. “I know Bandon Dunes. The biggest dune there is like one tenth the size of our smallest dune. It’s a toy. And they get such great reviews. Every one of my courses is, like, amazing.”

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Either you find Trump’s manner repellent or—because his need is so palpable that his fawning seems guileless—you can decide to give him a break and be impressed by whatever it is that he wants you to be impressed by. “Palm Beach is the richest place anywhere on the planet, in terms of, you know, wealth,” he said at one point. “And yet it takes me four minutes to get to my course from Mar-a-Lago. That’s called location. The course was designed by Jim Fazio [Tom’s brother], and it’s considered the best one in Florida, but even if it were terrible it would be a big success, because of where it is.” And so forth.

The easiest thing to do is to nod, even if you aren’t quite sure what you’re nodding about. At one point, Trump pointed to some nice-looking trees on the golf course and said, “Those trees cost $25,000 apiece—but of course I got them for less”—a sort of double-reverse brag, since he wanted me to be impressed by both how expensive the trees were and how little they had cost. Similarly, when we were talking about the golf courses he owns, he said, “I don’t believe in building them now, because I can buy them for 10 cents on the dollar—so why should I build them? Although the prices are going way up. There was an article recently. Because of me, people are starting to say, Wow, what a good investment.” Golf courses are cheap—but because of Trump they’re also expensive. It’s a fine line.

After lunch, in the locker room, Trump introduced me to a man he called “the richest guy in Germany.” To be a member of one of his clubs, you have to have a high tolerance for that sort of thing: other people’s wealth is one of his main topics, when his main topic isn’t his own wealth. And, apparently, there are quite a few people who do have a high tolerance for it. (The face of “the richest guy in Germany” lit up when Trump called him that; a woman he introduced to me, on the driving range, as “a very rich lady” didn’t seem bothered at all.)

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We ran into the crooner Vic Damone, who was getting ready to play golf. Trump knew that Damone’s wife had had a stroke not long before, and, by way of conversation, he said that he would gladly “be a character witness” for Damone in any legal action her children might take to prevent him from receiving any of her estate—his version of brotherly compassion. I told Damone that I was sorry about his wife’s illness. He seemed shaken, but said that she was a little better. He said that he had been staying up with her at night and sleeping in the afternoon, and that recently he had begun playing a little golf late in the day, as a break. Trump told me later that Damone and his wife had met at Mar-a-Lago, where she was staying and he was singing—and added (for the second time) that she was worth $900 million.

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That night, Trump put me up at Mar-a-Lago, in a room called the Adam Suite, whose next resident, the woman at the front desk told me, was going to be Bill Clinton. An hour or so after I checked in, the phone rang—and it was Trump, calling to make sure I was still having a good time. (The night before, he’d called my home, in Connecticut, to make sure I was really coming down. I was already in Florida, so he chatted with my wife, and invited her to come, too.)

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We met for dinner at 8. It was seafood-buffet night at Mar-a-Lago, and Trump ate roughly a lobster and a half’s worth of shelled lobster claws and split lobster tails, then went back and for big plate of sweet-and-sour shrimp on rice. As we were standing near the buffet line, one of the Nederlanders, of the Nederlander Organization, greeted Trump warmly, and said something like, “Donald, you’ve done a great job, and you’ve done it all by yourself, independent of your father’s accomplishments”—something so on-the-mark, in terms of Trump’s clear yearning for affirmation and reassurance, that I thought Trump might be embarrassed. But he beamed. And back at the table, speaking of Nederlander, he told me, “Off the record, he says my golf course is the best one in Florida.” (By “off the record” Trump means roughly the opposite of what other people mean by it. At lunch, he had told me about some trees he had gotten in trouble for cutting down, on a golf course he owns near Washington, D.C. “You probably heard about that,” he said. “It’s the only place on the Potomac River without trees. Off the record, I took down the trees and made the front page of the Washington Post four days in a row.”)

While we were having dessert, two giggly little girls from New Jersey, whose parents were part of a group from Trump’s golf club in Bedminster—“one of the richest places in the country”—came over to our table and asked Trump to dance. He said that he would dance with them in Bedminster. Then he asked them if they wanted to be supermodels when they grew up. (They said yes). Then he asked them to kiss him. (And they did.)

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My Close Personal Friend Donald Trump

Donald T. and David O. in front of the waterfall at Trump International Golf Club, West Palm Beach, Florida, March, 2012.

For the July issue of Golf Digest, I wrote an article about Donald Trump and his newest golf course, Trump International Golf Links, near Aberdeen, Scotland. Back in March, Trump and I played  a round at his course in Palm Beach (photo above), and I spent one night at Mar-a-Lago, which Trump saved from demolition in the 1980s and now operates as a private club (photo of in-room amenities below).

Mar-a-Lago: only the best.

Trump is unimpressed by golf courses he doesn’t own, especially when he compares them with his Scottish course (which will open next week). “I know Bandon Dunes,” he told me over lunch. “The biggest dune there is like one tenth the size of our smallest dune. It’s a toy. And they get such great reviews. Every one of my courses is, like, amazing.”

Trump’s courses really are amazing; the one in Bedminster, New Jersey, was recently chosen by the U.S.G.A. to host the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open, and the others are stand-outs, too, although they aren’t necessarily as great as he says they are. A few years ago, he bought a bankrupt course in southern New Jersey, called Pine Hill, and turned it into Trump National Golf Club Philadelphia (it’s just over the state line from Pennsylvania). According to him, it should probably be considered the best course in the world (other than his course in Scotland).

“It’s a better course than Pine Valley,” he told me, “because it has much better elevation. And I love Pine Valley, but this course is better. Now, it will never be judged better, because nobody will ever give me the fair shake of doing that. But that’s OK. It’s a better course than Pine Valley—and the Pine Valley people say that, too, although they won’t say it publicly. Two of them came over to me and said, ‘Mr. Trump, this is better than Pine Valley, but please don’t ever quote me.'”

Trump’s courses, wherever they are, do often have cool cars parked in front of them:

Three Ferraris plus my rented maroon Kia, Trump International Golf Club, West Palm Beach.

Automobile arrangements like that don’t happen by accident. When I told the parking attendant I didn’t think I’d ever seen three Ferraris in a row, he said the boss had told him to be sure I noticed.

Trump is a very good golfer, even though he says he is.

In the photo above, Trump’s hair is hidden by his hat, which he didn’t take off during golf or at lunch, but I got to study it over dinner that night, at Mar-a-Lago. From straight on—which is presumably how he sees it in a mirror—it looks almost normal, but if you get any kind of an angle on it you can tell how structurally complex it is. And he must do it himself, because his wife wasn’t with him and I don’t think he was traveling with a hairdresser. I was impressed.

D.T. and John Nieporte, the head pro.

Off the record, I had a swell time hanging around with Trump. (Trump uses “off the record” not to protect confidences but to give emphasis to public knowledge he hopes you’ll quote—as in, “Off the record, I took down the trees and made the front page of the Washington Post four days in a row”—and I’m going to start doing that, too.) He’s a little exhausting to be with, because his only real topic of conversation is himself, but he doesn’t make you feel nervous or inferior, the way so many billionaires seem to do nowadays.

He’s also accessible. A decade ago, I wrote a long article for The New Yorker about concrete, and in it I quoted him at some length, since he built the first concrete office building in New York and knows a lot about the subject—although he was sometimes hard to understand because during our entire telephone conversation he was eating an apple. But he took my call, and he had interesting things to say.