FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — As the Senate's impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump begins Tuesday in Washington, a matter even more important to his immediate future is being discussed some 990 miles to the south by the Palm Beach Town Council: Whether he can continue living at Mar-a-Lago.
The council members will hear their attorney's opinion on whether the town can bar Trump from living at his club. That was the deal Trump's lawyer offered nearly 30 years ago: He told the town in 1993 that Trump would be prohibited from living there if it allowed him to convert it from a residence to a club. But this promise was not specifically included in the written agreement, which may take precedence.
That's because, technically, Trump is an employee of the corporation that officially owns Mar-a-Lago — and the written agreement only bars members from living there. Under town regulations, a club can provide onsite housing to its employees. Trump moved into Mar-a-Lago on Jan. 20, the day he left office.
The South Florida town in December received a letter from an attorney representing a Mar-a-Lago neighbor demanding it bar Trump from living there. The unnamed neighbor believes Trump's residency would decrease property values.
Trump and former first lady Melania Trump changed their residency from New York City to Mar-a-Lago in 2019. The Trump Organization, the family's business entity, has issued a statement saying, "There is no document or agreement in place that prohibits President Trump from using Mar-A-Lago as his residence." Trump owns two other homes near Mar-a-Lago.
Trump purchased Mar-a-Lago for $10 million in 1985 from the estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the owner of General Foods. The 126-room mansion had deteriorated after her death in 1973, when she left it to the U.S. government as a possible presidential vacation home. The government gave it back in 1981.
After Trump bought it, he spent millions upgrading the property while living there part-time.
By the early 1990s, however, Trump was in financial distress. Real estate prices dropped and several of his businesses flopped, including a New Jersey casino. He told the town he could no longer afford the $3 million annual upkeep and it was unfair that he shouldered the costs alone. He proposed subdividing the property and building mansions. The town rejected the proposal.
In 1993, Trump and the town agreed he could turn the estate into a private club. It would be limited to 500 members — the initiation fee is now $200,000 and annual dues are $14,000.
Under that agreement, members can stay in a suite for no more than seven consecutive days and 21 days a year — but there is no prohibition on employees living there.
Still, according to 1993 Palm Beach Post articles, Trump attorney Paul Rampell told the town council that if the agreement were approved, Trump would be treated like any other member.
"Another question that's often asked to me is whether Mr. Trump will continue to live at Mar-a-Lago," Rampell told the council, according to the Post. "No, except that he will be a member of the club and therefore will be entitled to the use of guest rooms."
The length of Trump's stays at Mar-a-Lago before his presidency are unknown, but they often exceeded seven consecutive days while he was in office, including visits of about two weeks during the Christmas holidays. His stays added up to well more than 21 days a year.
Trump clashed frequently with the town and its mostly staid residents over the club's operation even before he became president. Neighbors complained about noise, traffic and a car lot-sized U.S. flag and its 80-foot (24-meter) pole, which Trump erected in 2006 without proper permits. The two sides eventually settled: Trump got a shorter pole and agreed to have his foundation give $100,000 to veteran charities.
Trump then put the pole on a mound so it would still rise to 80 feet (24 meters).
Despite the public squabbles, Trump performed well in November's election among his neighbors — in Mar-a-Lago's precinct, he got 62% of the vote.