Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The Great Game: Eyewitness to Trump’s first post-presidential Super Bowl party

There were sombre scenes at Donald Trump’s Palm Beach Super Bowl party

“President Trump, Papa?,” asked my perspicacious five-year old son when I told him I was going out on a rare Sunday evening to do the most surreally American thing imaginable – watch the Super Bowl with a president of the United States … in Florida. These days, even a child knows that something has changed at the highest level, and that for tens of millions of Americans the results of last year’s presidential election remain the subject of debate.

The atmosphere down the street at Mar-a-Lago is said to be austere and even gloomy

An air of exile has surrounded Donald Trump since he came here on 20 January, having skipped his rival Joe Biden’s inauguration so that he could arrive in Palm Beach, the delightful outpost for the overprivileged we both inhabit, while still technically in office. He settled at his Mar-a-Lago property, the nearby palatial estate built by Marjorie Merriweather Post, which he has declared his legal residence. Even this is disputed, however, since an agreement with the municipal authorities dating back to Mar-a-Lago’s opening as a private club in 1993 both prohibits residential accommodation there and imposes limits on how often a member may come to stay. Trump seems to have found a loophole, for the dictate exempts from the restriction club employees, a broad category that includes proprietors, which he very much is. The town is considering the matter, but if that should not work, Trump and his family own a number of other properties in the vicinity and can be assured residence among sympathetic townspeople who voted in his favour by about 70 per cent in the last two elections.

Trump is here to stay, but until last night I was unaware of any sightings of the former president since he left office. The atmosphere down the street at Mar-a-Lago is said to be austere and even gloomy. Trump’s failure to reverse the election results has cast a depressing pall. He is said to be moody and downbeat. Back in Washington, he faces an unprecedented second Senate impeachment trial and was just cut off from the intelligence briefings normally provided to former presidents. New York investigations continue without the shield of presidential incumbency to protect him. He cut short his usual Christmas stay here and missed his own New Year’s party, which loyalists and their friends paid a reported USD 1,000 to attend.

Now that Mar-a-Lago membership no longer offers the advantages of relatively easy access to a sitting US president, many members are said to have slipped away, despite in some cases having paid initiation fees as high as USD 200,000, enough to secure a family citizenship in certain Caribbean island nations. The helipad, which the town approved conditionally for the duration of Trump’s presidency, is due to be demolished. The lights seem to go out early.

For the Super Bowl, the culmination of American football season that is now in its fifty-fifth year, Trump followed his usual practice of hosting not at Mar-a-Lago, but at his sportier local property, the Trump International Golf Club in inland West Palm Beach. “West Palm,” as Island residents usually call it with a sneer, has not been nearly as accommodating of the former president. The residents’ committee of the luxurious Trump condominium just unceremoniously voted to remove his name. Solidly Democratic in government, the commission of surrounding Palm Beach County has scotched a suggestion that our highly convenient international airport be named for Trump. It also sent a health warning to Mar-a-Lago over its alleged New Years’ failure to enforce the county mask mandate for indoor gatherings.

There was the usual Palm Beach game of guessing whether a man’s female guest was his wife or his daughter

Though lacking Mar-a-Lago’s glamour, Trump International has its own storied past. Trump acquired a lease on the land, a swampy sprawl just south of the airport, from the surrounding city as part of a settlement in a lawsuit over noise caused by air traffic over Mar-a-Lago. It opened in 1999 as the first of his seventeen golf club properties, which can be found up and down the east coast and in Britain, Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates. Surrounded by a twenty-seven-hole golf course, its clubhouse rises on a sloped berm like the country pile of a minor Spanish grandee. The interior is typically Trumpian, with lots of marble, dark wood panelling, and gilt finishes that are more appropriate to glitzy Manhattan real estate than tropical Florida. A large porcelain globe of the world stands centrally in the lobby; it once projected power but now looks like an instrument of mockery. The walls, however, still recall Trump’s former glories, with elegantly framed magazine covers and news articles recording his glory days and reminding you just where you are and who you are with.

The Super Bowl party had the makings of a grand evening. Four huge screens broadcast the game, which only a few of the two hundred or so guests seemed to care about beyond Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady’s commanding gridiron presence at the not-quite-young age of forty-three. A generous patio barbeque offered heaps of classic American fare, which for me stopped with a massive pile of ribs. Booze flowed freely, but no one was out of control in the presence of the teetotaling former president. The service was impeccable.

The crowd had a great many familiar faces, but apart from Sylvester Stallone, himself a new Palm Beach resident installed at a neighbouring table, I did not recognize any celebrities. The Washington political-media caste appears to have given it a miss – no power, no draw – yielding to guests whose combination of high-end but eccentric fashion, well-manicured looks, and steely froideur recalled lesser James Bond villains and their molls. They would have looked at home on a mega-yacht trying to steal a submarine while sipping champagne and braying “Muhahahahaha” over some evil deed. There was the usual Palm Beach game of guessing whether a man’s female guest was his wife or his daughter. An arresting number of matches of the rich-but-ugly with the beautiful-but-uninterested staggered the comprehension of the confident young hedge fund bros in attendance while expanding the hopes of unattached young hotties one sees around town a little too often. Masks were more frequent than I expected, though the preferred method of avoiding Covid-19 infection seemed to be to keep to one’s own table and not interact much beyond it. Palm Beach, in any case, started vaccinating its residents as early as 5 January, and most now bear the benefits of Pfizer or Moderna.

Trump certainly had no desire to work the room as he did at his events in better times

Trump himself cut a sad and solitary figure. Melania did not attend (she usually does), prompting rumours of domestic discontentment. The former president’s table, separated from the rest by red velvet ropes familiar from similar gatherings at Mar-a-Lago, had few visitors. He offered polite but unsmiling hellos and was clearly uninterested in any real conversation. He certainly had no desire to work the room as he did at his events in better times. There were no selfies being taken or lines of admirers hoping for a word or two. “I just want to give him a hug,” said one lady who identified herself as a “Trumpette,” a local squadron of ladies of means who figure among his most fervent supporters. But she didn’t dare.

The Secret Service detail to which Trump is entitled for life as a former US president was strategically placed and visibly monitored him and his surroundings. The level of security is now noticeably lighter than when he was president, but when he wanted his ribs they escorted him at a discreet distance as he walked with a bit of a slouch to the buffet and then back to his table, with a waiter bussing his plate a deferential step behind him. By the game’s half-time interval, he was gone.

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