Trump’s Florida sanctuary becomes a gilded petri dish for a global disease

Mar-a-Lago festivities: President Donald Trump is seated before a dinner with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (left), national security adviser Robert O’Brien, and daughter Ivanka Trump on March 7, 2020. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

Mar-a-Lago, the president’s favorite property, is suddenly under a dark cloud as a nexus where the novel coronavirus could have spread among elites in the U.S. and around the world.

 By Meridith McGraw

Mar-a-Lago, the crown jewel of President Donald Trump’s real estate empire, has been his refuge and sanctuary throughout his time in office.

Unlike in Washington, where the president is mostly cloistered inside the White House and interacts with a constant stream of aides and lawmakers, he gets to rub elbows and hobnob with his friends and other glitterati at his Palm Beach estate showing off a real estate beauty to other elites.

Now, it could take a place in history as an international transfer point for a deadly virus spreading across the globe.

At least three people who visited Mar-a-Lago in the past 10 days have tested positive for the deadly virus and were spotted in photographs with the president and other club members. A top Brazilian official, Ambassador to the U.S. Nestor Forster, who was seated with the president at a Saturday night dinner at the club, tested positive for COVID-19. So did Fabio Wajngarten, the press secretary to President Jair Bolsonaro who was spotted standing next to Trump in an Instagram post. An email to Trump supporters who attended a fundraiser at the club last Sunday suggests there was now also a mysterious third person who was at the club last weekend with the virus.

The chairwoman of the Republican National Com-mittee, Ronna McDaniel, came down with flu-like symptoms on Friday and her doctor determined a test for coronavirus was necessary, a spokesman said.

The handshakes, diplomatic huddles, cozy VIP photo-ops and meet-and-greets at Mar-a-Lago became a potential nexus for other cases — the mayor of Miami, Francis Suarez, tested positive after being in the same area as the Brazilian officials. Since last weekend, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez and several Republican lawmakers close to the White House — Rep. Matt Gaetz and Sens. Rick Scott and Lindsey Graham — all self-quarantined as a precaution.

The dark cloud over Mar-a-Lago, where Trump often spends holidays and hosts foreign leaders, threatens to mar its reputation as a social destination for elites after a mountain of headlines about an invisible disease spreading through the complex.

The sprawling 20-acre estate sits along the Atlantic Ocean in ritzy Palm Beach, surrounded by some of the most exclusive addresses in America. Trump bought the pink stucco property — built by heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post nearly a century ago — for a reported $8 million in 1985 and turned it into a private club by adding a giant gold ballroom and amenities like a dining room, pool, and spa to cater to the elite. Dreamed up by Joseph Urban, who designed Ziegfeld Follies, the mansion is an ode to the Roaring ’20s, with an interior that resembles Norma Desmond’s old Hollywood mansion in “Sunset Boulevard.”

Members can dine at the beach club or on the patio, and on weekends when Trump is in town, be entertained by the action of a presidential entourage and annoyed by the increase in security. The quintessential host, Trump is known to hold court in the club going from member to member to chit-chat. The ballroom is a regular venue for fundraisers on the Palm Beach charity circuit, a place where visitors in designer garb and jewels can dance under the giant chandeliers and wealthy members and their guests can sunbathe under yellow striped umbrellas at the outdoor pool.

Mar-a-Lago becoming the scene of an international virus outbreak has spooked some members of the club, where membership goes for $200,000 a year.

George Guido Lombardi, a longtime club member and Trump supporter, said he was at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday during the Brazilians’ visit, and does not plan to return anytime soon.

“Since that day, I didn’t go back there,” Lombardi said. “And at least for the next few weeks, I do not intend to go back there.”

Splashed across the front of the Sunday Palm Beach Post was the headline, “Four Mar-a-Lago visitors test positive.” And the front page of one of Florida’s biggest newspapers, The Miami Herald, read: “A member of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club delivered a letter requesting a summit with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. The meeting ended up inadvertently exposing Trump and others to the coronavirus.”

While the club remains open, an email was sent to members describing best practices with the coronavirus.

When asked about Mar-a-Lago’s exposure to the virus, Eric Trump, executive vice president of the Trump Organization, said in a statement to POLITICO: “The safety of our members and guests are of our utmost importance. We are monitoring all of our businesses closely and are following the guidelines provided by the CDC.”

Despite the mounting attention, some members were still carrying on at the club. Jeff Greene, a Palm Beach real estate mogul and former member, had lunch with friends at the Beach Club on Saturday and noted it was “packed.”

“I wouldn’t have gone there if I felt I was at risk,” Greene said, though he noted he didn’t see hand sanitizer anywhere.

As president, Trump has enjoyed hosting at Mar-a-Lago foreign dignitaries including Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and Bolsonaro. At times, it has also turned into a kind of open-air, open-source situation room, with the president giving members a front-row seat at serious international deliberations, like during the North Korea missile launch and the decision to strike a Syrian airfield in 2017.

Last weekend’s visit with Bolsonaro was a more casual affair. Trump and Bolsonaro dined on the outdoor patio with their aides, and then mingled among the members inside the club. That same night, a coterie of some of the most powerful people in Washington shook hands, shared meals, and danced in the lavish ballrooms. Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Jesse Watters were spotted at the club, and Donald Trump Jr. hosted a wedding-size birthday bash under pink lights in the ballroom for his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle with guests that included lawmakers such as Sen. Graham, administration officials including State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus and acting Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell and conservative activists such as Charlie Kirk.

The next day, Trump attended a fundraiser for which high-profile donors paid thousands of dollars for a chance to take a photo with the president, although not before a squirt of hand sanitizer and the disclosure of their travels.

The atmosphere at the club was described as “carefree” and “happy” by one guest. Mar-a-Lago, like much of the nation at the time, did not seem concerned by the virus that was only just blistering up in the United States. Guests in formal wear were taking selfies cheek to cheek, standing shoulder to shoulder for Instagram posts, and seen leaning in closely to hear each other amid the noise drifting through crowded rooms.

Then days later, this past Thursday, news broke that one of the Brazilian guests milling about Mar-a-Lago tested positive for the virus, raising concerns about whether the club became a giant, gilded petri dish for coronavirus.

The president himself was unfazed. When asked Friday whether he would get tested, the president said he might “fairly soon.”

White House physician Sean Conley — in a memo referencing the events with Brazilians — described the president as “LOW risk” on Friday night, and stated he showed no symptoms and did not need to be tested.

“The President’s exposure to the first individual was extremely limited (photograph, handshake), and though he spent more time in close proximity to the second case, all interactions occurred before any symptom onset,” Conley wrote.

“These interactions would be categorized as LOW risk for transmission per CDC guidelines, and as such, there is no indication for home quarantine at this time,” Conley continued.

Eventually, citing pressure from the media, the president took the test which came back negative.

His reluctance to get tested went against the advice of the very man leading the charge on the coronavirus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said that yes he would recommend that someone like Trump, who was exposed to people with the virus, be tested.

Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle sought out medical advice after the weekend but were advised against quarantine, according to a person familiar with the matter. Graham, however, decided to self-quarantine after his weekend at Mar-a-Lago as a “precautionary measure.”

And on Friday, Trump Victory sent an email to supporters who attended a massive fundraiser at Trump’s club on Sunday informing them someone at the event tested positive for the virus.

“We unfortunately write today to notify you that an attendee at the Trump Victory-sponsored event you attended at Mar-a-Lago on Sunday, March 8, has tested positive for the Coronavirus (COVID-19). We do not know if the individual had the virus by the time of the event, but out of an abundance of caution, wanted to call this to your attention,” read the email, which was first reported by The New York Times.

“If you or any of your loved ones is ill or develops a fever, shortness of breath, or other respiratory symptoms, please contact your medical provider,” the email said.

The RNC chairwoman, McDaniel, was one such person who came down with flu-like symptoms after the event. She was tested, according to an RNC spokesperson, and is self-quarantined while waiting on test results.

The club remains open, although big gatherings, like an annual Lincoln Day dinner and a fundraiser chaired by Lara Trump for the animal rescue organization Big Dog Ranch, which Trump stopped by last year, have been postponed.

For now, members will go to Mar-a-Lago at their own risk.

“The average age of the members there is probably around 80,” Lombardi said. “It’s in the danger zone.”

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    About Carma Henry 15184 Articles
    Carma Lynn Henry Westside Gazette Newspaper 545 N.W. 7th Terrace, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33311 Office: (954) 525-1489 Fax: (954) 525-1861

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