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Donald Trump's past, future in Palm Beach

A look back at three decades, and what's to come
Posted: 3:59 PM, Jan 18, 2017
Updated: 2017-01-20 20:32:35Z

As Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States, we take a look at the imprint the billionaire developer and celebrity has had on our area over the past three decades. From his purchase of Mar-a-Lago and turning it into a private club, his fights with the Town of Palm Beach and Palm Beach County, his local real estate deals, controversies and what having the president living here part time will mean to South Floridians. 

Timeline of Donald Trump's three decades in Palm Beach

A timeline of Donald Trump's presence in Palm Beach County. By Niels Heimricks/WPTV

'He came in here flamboyantly. He irritated the establishment, he didn't care...'

By Kelley Dunn

Donald Trump made a huge splash in Palm Beach when he purchased Mar-a-Lago in 1985, the stunning estate that stretches from the Intracoastal to the ocean.

Laurence Leamer
The Palm Beach Post

"He came in here flamboyantly. He irritated the establishment, he didn't care they didn't like him. He sued them again and again," said best-selling author Laurence Leamer, who has studied Trump for some of his books chronicling life in Palm Beach. 

'He fights over everything, no battle is too small for him.'

"He fights over everything, no battle is too small for him," he said.

One battle was over the flagpole on his property. It was almost twice as tall as the town's regulations permitted. But after a lawsuit, he ended up with a shorter flag pole but still higher than the town originally allowed.

On another occasion, he wanted to build mini-mansions on his property. When the town council said no, he sued and settled by getting approval to build a private club and sell memberships.

 

"He was very gracious and welcoming, and what struck me was the splendor of Mar-a-Lago; everything was so pristine, everything was top of the line," is the way Robin Bernstein remembers the impression she had of Trump and the club. She and her husband have done business with Trump for years. They joined his club when it first opened 22 years ago. She says she saw similarities in the way he runs Mar-a-Lago with the way he ran for president.

Robin and Richard Bernstein
The Palm Beach Post

"It seems to me Donald Trump has a pattern and Donald Trump's pattern is he has a vision, he sets his goals very, very high. And then what he does to get to that vision, he will surround himself with the best and the brightest people in order to accomplish his goals."

"He loves to play golf, so he saw this piece of land by the airport and he actually sued Palm Beach County over the airplane noise. This was brilliant. So he got the best land use attorney, he got the best planners," she said. "He sued them and made a deal."

She points to his lawsuit against Palm Beach County over the planes taking off from PBIA that flew over Mar-a-Lago.

Donald Trump plays golf at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach. Photo by The Palm Beach Post

Leamer says part of the Trump style is that people underestimate him. It happened in Palm Beach, it happened in the presidential campaign.

"He loves to play golf, so he saw this piece of land by the airport and he actually sued Palm Beach County over the airplane noise. This was brilliant. So he got the best land use attorney, he got the best planners," she said. "He sued them and made a deal."

In exchange for dropping the noise lawsuit, Trump got the land that's now Trump International Golf Course.

It's going to be the most fascinating presidency we've ever had, and we better have our fingers crossed.'

"The candidates were dismissive of him. They thought it was impossible that he would get very far, and they are just stunned and the same thing in Palm Beach with the establishment here," he said.

What does this portend for his presidency?

"People that didn't know Donald Trump didn't understand his M.O.," said Bernstein. "He is brilliant. He loves to win."

"It's going to be the most fascinating presidency we've ever had, and we better have our fingers crossed," said Leamer

From Mar-a-Lago to the Glades: A world apart in one county

By Michael Williams

It's an easy drive from President Donald Trump's palatial Mar-a-Lago estate to the Glades; just go west on Southern Boulevard and up U.S. 441.

Just 44 miles but a world apart is Pahokee - the poorest city in Palm Beach County, where broken down buildings and empty storefronts are far too evident.

That’s where I met Heather Boardwine and Shane Fricker. They came to Pahokee from Tennessee. They are out of work for now and growing up fast with their 4-month-old son, Phoenyx.

Heather Boardwine and Shane Fricker with their 4-month-old son Phoenyx. They recently moved to Pahokee from Tennessee
 
 
 
' I personally
don't think
Donald Trump
will make a difference simply because he is more concerned about himself and money than actually caring about people.'

"Do you think Donald Trump will make a difference,” I asked.

“I personally don't think Donald Trump will make a difference simply because he is more concerned about himself and money than actually caring about people,” said Boardwine.

Elsewhere in Pahokee, hard times, help and hope come together at the Glades Area pantry. I met parishioners who came here from the Restoration Christian Life Church.

 

"I'd like to see more jobs, more young men get jobs because if they have jobs there would be less violence,” one man told me.

A cry for a hand-up they emphasize, not a hand-out. Reverend Patti Aupperlee hopes the distance from Pahokee to Mar-a-Lago might be bridged, at least a bit.

"We are in the same county,” she said. “This has never taken place before so there may be some people in his administration willing to take a look at the Pahokees of our area.”

'We are over here, we need you, please don't forget us. We are not the forgotten people of the Glades. We are here and we need your help!'

An investment of time and money and businesses willing to give Pahokee a chance.  That is the prayer here.

"I would say Donald Trump, ‘Hello!'” said Pastor Linnette Christian of the Restoration Church. “We are over here, we need you, please don't forget us. We are not the forgotten people of the Glades. We are here and we need your help!”

From Kennedy to Trump, a lifetime arc
for one Palm Beacher

By Tory Dunnan

When President John Kennedy was delivering his inaugural address in that cold January morning in 1961, there was a 23-year-old Harvard Law School graduate in the crowd.

That attorney - Brian Burns - can still recite parts of that speech.

"Let the word go forth from this day and place, that the torch has been passed to a new generation," he says in his Palm Beach office.

Attorney Brian Burns in his Palm Beach Office.

Burns today practices business law, and is a Donald Trump supporter.

"People are going to be surprised what a great president he will be," he says.

Politics goes deep in Burns' family. His father worked for John Kennedy's father, Joe. In his office Burns keeps a picture the elder Kennedy signed and gave to his father. It says, "My counsel, but more importantly my pal."

Burns sees similarities between Trump and John Kennedy.

"They were both great dreamers and very courageous," he said.

"People are going to be surprised what a great president he will be.'

But he's a long-time supporter of Trump and a member of his club at Mar-a-Lago.

"Unlike his reputation that some might take as brash," Burns says of Trump, "He's a man of his word. He keeps his word and he's very tough."

Now reports say Trump is going to name Burns the new ambassador to Ireland, something he and his wife already are thinking about.

"We know the house," he said. "The name of it is Deerfield, It's on 63 acres and rather magnificent."

 

It brings a sparkle to the eye of this member of Irish America's Hall of Fame.

"It's like a dream come true. I'm an immigrant from County Kerry."

The Negotiator-in-Chief

By Alex Hagen

Palm Beach County is a prime example of President Trump’s success as a businessman.

"Very concerned with the details," is the way Michael LaForgia, Investigations editor at the Tampa Bay Times, describes him.

He’s reported on Trump’s deals in Palm Beach County and says he "likes to have his hand in even the smallest details."

'Tampa Bay Times' Investigations Editor Michael LaForgia

LaForgia says Trump is someone who gets what he wants, "whether the person he's getting it from wants to give it to him or not."

The perfect example may be just down the street from Mar-a-Lago at a chandelier shop on Southern Boulevard.

LaForgia says the owner of the shop agreed to sell Trump several chandeliers for more than $30,000.

The president gave him a down payment of about half that and LaForgia reported Trump didn't pay the rest, leading to a legal dispute.

LaForgia said the chandelier owner "did end up having to settle for much less than Trump had originally agreed to pay him."

 

Now this born negotiator is our next president.

Joy Howell is a Democratic political strategist with a business background who's studied Trump's book The Art of The Deal.

'We have to see what kind of character traits and ethical standards he brings to the office of the president.'

She said he’s "good at figuring out who could do what job" and that he "does seem to be a good negotiator. does seem to be a very brilliant marketer."

"We have to see what kind of character traits and ethical standards he brings to the office of the president," she said.

Joy Howell is a Democratic political strategist with a business background who's studied Trump's book 'The Art of The Deal.'

Now she's looking at his future in the White House.

"We have to see what kind of character traits and ethical standards he brings to the office of the president," she said.

Howell says she hopes he uses his business lessons in the Oval Office, but doesn't forget his history classes.

"I want him to be able to use his business skills and be an effective leader for our government and our country, and I think people are generally concerned that in some ways he doesn't seem to be studying history and learning from the mistakes of past presidents, success of presidents."

Trump Plaza, today, in name only

By Wanda Moore

Ride along Flagler Drive in West Palm Beach and there’s a good chance you’ll come across the Trump Plaza sign in front of two neighboring high-rise condominium buildings.

Some probably wonder if the buildings are owned by the next president. The answer is Donald Trump once owned them, but today the only connection he has to them is the name on the building.

It started in 1986 when the plaza was a troubled project.

'Palm Beach Post' business reporter Jeff Ostrowski.

“Only a few units had sold,” said Palm Beach Post business reporter Jeff Ostrowski.

Trump had just bought Mar-a-Lago when the plaza caught his eye.

“He said he was going to rescue this struggling project and turn it around and make a lot of money,” said Ostrowski.

He bought the two, 32-story condo complex for $40 million in a foreclosure sale. People who knew the local real estate market predicted it would be a tough sell. But Trump pushed ahead anyway.

“He is probably one of the most optimistic and laser like people I've ever met,” said West Palm Beach real estate agent Douglas Rill.

Three years later, after borrowing $60 million to complete the project, Trump Plaza was struggling.

“The units were pretty slow to sell,” Ostrowski said, “and 1991 most of the units were sold at auction.

But the name remained. The condo owners voted to keep the name and Trump paid for the restoration of the signs. The name, the condo owners argued, added value to the property.

 

Ostrowski says more recently Trump rarely develops condo projects.  Usually he just licenses his name.

“Probably his struggles with Trump Plaza here pushed him to change his business strategy,” said Ostrowski.

In his book, The Art of The Deal, Trump said when it came to the plaza he managed to "turn a bankrupt operation into a big success story."

'He is probably one of the most optimistic and laser like people I've ever met.'

Real estate agent Rill remembers interviewing Trump on his radio show when he was looking at buying the plaza.

“He was adamant,” Rill recalls, “You make your money when you buy it, and when you buy it at 50 cents on the dollar, you've already made your money."

Real estate agent Douglas Rill in front of Trump Plaza.

Rill also remembers asking Trump what happens when some of his projects fail.

"That was a question he didn't like. He threw a verbal hand grenade at me and said: ‘I haven't had any, and certainly not as many as you've had.’

As for the Trump Plaza, the condo board of directors decided in 2015 again to keep the name after some residents wanted it to be put up for a vote. So when you drive by you’ll see the sign of the 45th President of the United States.

'They can expect the unexpected'

By Michelle Quesada

President Donald Trump's name is on the lips of every major politician in the country, some complimentary, some critical. Hollywood is one place jabbing against him, as Jimmy Fallon showed in the recent Golden Globes show.

“This is the Golden Globes, one of the few places left where America still honors the popular vote,” said the comedian. 

While some see him having a polarizing effect on the nation, his supporters love him.

“Everything that Donald Trump touches turns to gold,” said one.

His opponents despise and protest him.

Bestselling author Laurence Leamer.

Best-selling author and historian Laurence Leamer says it his style that generates the different feelings.

“He has this litigious lifestyle. He's going to sue you if he doesn't get his way. He pays a lot of money to lawyers and he's just in your face.”

'They can expect the unexpected, that's what this guy is; he's theater.'

Leamer has been studying Trump for more than two decades. He says no one knows what will happen in the next four years.

“They can expect the unexpected, that's what this guy is; he's theater, he's theater.”

 

Even his biggest fans agree, but don't see it as a negative. Trump's long-time butler at Mar-a-Lago, Tony Senecal, says a lot of the anger towards his former boss is due to bad publicity.

Trump's former Mar-a-Lago butler Tony Senecal.

“The thing that used to upset me the most is when they would call him a racist and a bigot. Those words are foreign to him. If you could see him intermingle with the Hispanic that work on that property, it's incredible. He's so good to them. He's so good to everybody,”

Senecal says he's mostly shocked by some of those who critique the president, people he says he's served at Mar-a-Lago.

“Some of the ones that criticize him that stayed there as a guest and I go, ‘My God you ate off the man's table and you have the audacity,’ but that's politics.”

The next question is: will Trump change political opinions once he becomes president?

Donald Trump's many local lawsuits

By Jon Shainman

Before running for president, Donald Trump had some battles with Palm Beach and Palm Beach County officials. So we went back into the archives to hear what he said about those fights back then.

"They want me to essentially rip down the American flag and I'm not doing that,” he said in 2006.

'They want me to essentially rip down the American flag and I'm not doing that.'

He was referring to a 15-by-25-foot flag on an 80-foot flagpole on the Mar-a-Lago property. The flag, and the pole, were in violation of Palm Beach town ordinances.

 

At the time, the president-elect told NewsChannel 5 the town was charging him to fly the American flag.

"This is just selective prosecution against Donald Trump because the Mar-a-Lago club became a great success and there are certain people in town who don't like that."

The town fined Trump to the tune of more than $100,000. Trump countered with a $25 million lawsuit against the town.

 

"They have no guidelines. There are 20 flags up in Palm Beach. They have no guidelines. If they had guidelines, I'd have no problem. But you have American flags all over Palm Beach. At the Breakers, you have flags at the top of the Breakers. They never got any permit,” he said at the time.

The suit was dropped after a mediator allowed Mr. Trump to keep a shorter flagpole at a different spot on the property, while Trump donated $100,000 to veterans’ charities.

From flag flap to flights

"These people are absolutely incompetent,” he said in 2010 about those running Palm Beach International Airport.

"Palm Beach International has been terribly run.  They built a road system which is an absolute atrocity,” he said.

Trump's gripes were not limited to the roads, but primarily with the air traffic over Mar-a-Lago.

Donald Trump's former 727 jet flies over Mar-a-Lago. The photograph was staged with Trump's cooperation. Photo: The Palm Beach Post

In the 1990s, he sued the county over the airport noise, then dropped that suit after the county gave him a lease on a piece of property that he eventually turned into Trump International Golf Club.

The course is next to not only the airport, but also the county jail, providing green-side views for those in this "bunker."

Despite the golf course construction, the president continued to have issues with PBIA  He filed a lawsuit back in 2010 when there was talk of expansion.

'These people are absolutely incompetent,' Trump said in 2010 about those running PBIA.

"We don't need another runway because we do less traffic right now at PBI then they did 10 years ago because the planes are bigger," he said at the time.

No expansion has taken place this decade and that suit was dropped the following year.  A third suit was filed in early 2015 and was dropped after the election. Why?

Security restrictions when the president is here on Palm Beach likely will include the establishment of a no fly zone over Mar-a-Lago. It could be the end of this two-decade flight fight.

Securing the winter White House

By Chris Stewart

It's 17 acres of prime real estate that bills itself as the crown jewel of Palm Beach. A one of a kind property and a one of a kind challenge for the Secret Service.

"This is a unique situation,” said former FBI agent Stuart Kaplan.

He takes one look at Mar-a-Lago and sees several risks.

Former FBI agent Stuart Kaplan.

"Generally wide open to the general public. You have this access which is this beach, the water access which gives direct view, visual site into the property itself,” he said. “Then of course you have properties across from Mar-a-Lago itself so there are strategic issues that are going to need to be addressed."

The Secret Service is working with other agencies, like the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office, to make sure the new winter White House is secure.

That doesn't come cheap. Palm Beach County taxpayers spent approximately $250,000 helping the Secret Service protect President Trump during his Thanksgiving stay.

'There are strategic issues that are going to need to be addressed.'

"I don't think they have realized the extent of what the cost is going to be, because right now any of the protection that's been afforded to the president-elect is much, much different than it's going to be when he actually becomes the president of the United States."

Kaplan says that's nothing compared to what the cost may be once Trump is in office.

In terms of everyday life, Kaplan says he expects Trump's motorcade to cause road blocks at every intersection it passes when he's going from Mar-a-Lago to a golf course or any other location in the area. 

But there might be some relief as Palm Beach recently approved allowing Trump as president to land a helicopter on his property.

 

Still, Kaplan warns while you may not see a lot of security now, that could change once president trump is in the oval office.

"I can tell you right now while you don't see any security here because he's not here, that is not going to be a case once he's sworn in this is going to be a different place to be"

For now, the county is trying to get reimbursed from the federal government for the security costs. But officials in Honolulu have said they were never reimbursed for the security costs that came when President Obama went there for his vacations.

Credits: Tom Kastanotis, Niels Heimeriks, Cody Jackson, Kaan Pala, Ian Dorety

Story design: Eric Weiss