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Trump will arrive as charities flee Mar-a-Lago

Posted at 12:28 PM, Nov 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-04 12:28:55-04

PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — It's November, which means President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago is reopening after being closed during the brutal heat and humidity of Florida's summer. If last season is a guide, the president will soon visit his Winter White House, staying several days at Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's and then return many more weekends until May.

But he will find a major difference this season. Because of the outcry that followed Trump's remarks in connection with a white nationalist rally, Mar-a-Lago will host many fewer galas: about 20 charities have cancelled or moved their events, with only a few newcomers taking their place.

Trump caused an uproar after blaming the violence that erupted in Charlottesville on both sides: on the white nationalists who came to protest the removal of a Confederate statue from a city park and on the counterprotesters who opposed them. A counterprotester was killed.

Since Mar-a-Lago's grand ballroom opened more than 20 years ago, it has annually hosted numerous charity galas between Thanksgiving and Easter, the time of year Palm Beach's wealthy part-time residents flock south from colder climes. The events raise tens of thousands of dollars or more for worthy causes while allowing the givers a chance to dine, show off their finest and mingle amid the ballroom's gold-leaf bedecked halls. Trump often pops in to greet his guests.

But there won't be many galas at Mar-a-Lago this season. Several major national charities moved or canceled their fundraisers after Trump's Charlottesville comments, including the American Cancer Society, Cleveland Clinic, the International Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the breast cancer organization Susan G. Komen. Many cited the diversity of their donors and clients for their decision while acknowledging they might take a financial hit. Others, including the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, canceled earlier under pressure from anti-Trump donors and protesters.

Still, at least two national nonprofits have stepped into the void.

Orphan's Promise, a charity affiliated with the Christian Broadcasting Network that funds programs at orphanages in 67 countries, will be having its first Mar-a-Lago fundraiser in February. The network's founder, televangelist Pat Robertson, is an outspoken supporter of the president. His son, CBN chief executive officer Gordon Robertson, said the decision to hold the gala at Mar-a-Lago was made last January when some donors offered to pick up all expenses, which often well exceed $100,000. He said his father played no part.

"It is a place that, because of the expense, we wouldn't have considered," Robertson said. "I can count on one finger the number of times I have been offered an absolutely free event. This is the first and only so when it was proposed, I just said yes." He said no consideration was given to moving the event after the president's Charlottesville remarks, but added that the driver who slammed into a group of counterprotesters, killing one, committed an act of "evil."

The organizer of a gala supporting the group The Truth About Israel relocated his event to Mar-a-Lago from a nearby resort, grabbing the Feb. 25 slot vacated by supporters of an Israeli medical charity. Steven M. Alembik said he moved his benefit specifically because the other charities bolted.

"This is ridiculous," Alembik said of the cancellations. "The president has Israel's back like no other president since the days of Ronald Reagan. He supports Israel, we support him. It's that simple." He said he has sold all 700 tickets, which cost $750 each.

Neither Mar-a-Lago managing director Bernd Lembcke nor Trump Organization spokeswoman Amanda Miller returned calls seeking comment. Lembcke told The Palm Beach Post recently that despite the cancellations, he expects a profitable season as the resort has scheduled more weddings, meetings and other events. A recent 700-guest wedding party lasted four days, the Post reported.

A lingering problem also remains unresolved in the area - the Secret Service will again force the small Lantana Airport and most of its two dozen businesses to close anytime Trump is in town, costing them some of their most profitable weekends. Airport manager Jonathan Miller said several meetings were held to discuss possible solutions but to no avail.

"The Secret Service is not budging," he said.

Secret Service spokesman Joseph A. Casey said in a statement the agency tries to minimize disruptions but its primary responsibility is protecting the president.