National News

For Trump, a Glittering Gala Ends a Winter Vacation Rooted in Routine

Posted January 1, 2018 12:04 a.m. EST

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — As he walked down the red carpet to begin his New Year’s Eve celebrations Sunday night, President Donald Trump stopped to predict “a tremendous year” ahead.

It certainly appeared to be getting off to a lavish start at his Mar-a-Lago club. Before the president arrived — flanked by his 11-year-old son, Barron, and his wife, Melania — a string of guests decked out in jewels, fur and sequins had streamed in, having paid hundreds of dollars each to celebrate with the president and his family.

But for all the opulence of the annual gala, it was also something else for Trump: familiar. He has been ringing in the new year at Mar-a-Lago for more than a decade, surrounded by his private club members in the glittering halls of the renovated home of the cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.

It was perhaps the fitting culmination of 10 days of vacation firmly rooted in old routines: days at his golf course, nights at Mar-a-Lago, and a smattering of Twitter posts and meetings punctuating the moments in between.

“Donald Trump knows that he will not be measured on how much time he spent here,” said Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media and a longtime confidant. “He will be measured on the results, and be judged on how the economy has done and how he’s protected the security of the country.”

He is certainly not the first president to indulge in multiple days of golf or evade the press pool that trails him in white vans. And he and Melania Trump, the first lady, did have breaks from routine. They made phone calls to military members stationed overseas, spoke on the phone with children tracking Santa Claus, attended evening Mass on Christmas Eve and visited a local fire station.

But Trump’s pattern of private phone calls and meetings, golf course mornings and private club evenings appeared far more relaxed than the vacation habits of his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, who in 2015 spent a day crisscrossing a Hawaiian island to socialize with family and friends, go to the beach with his daughters and visit his grandfather’s grave.

And compared with the explosive news announcements that often drove coverage during his predecessor’s Christmas vacations — implementing sanctions against North Korea in late 2014, and last year, retaliating against Russia for its meddling in the presidential election — the news this time has been fueled primarily by Trump’s words instead of his actions. When asked Sunday night about the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s assertion that he has a nuclear button on his desk, the president said: “We’ll see. We’ll see.”

Before the celebration Sunday, the president jabbed at some of his favorite targets even amid his holiday Twitter greetings as he wished “friends, supporters, enemies, haters, and even the very dishonest Fake News Media, a Happy and Healthy New Year.”

Here at Mar-a-Lago, the property the president refers to as the “winter White House,” Trump is often without aides and at home among his people, mingling and tweeting. This trip, he also had previously unannounced meetings and phone calls with a variety of professional golfers and politicians, including Gov. Rick Scott of Florida.

He also opened up to people outside his usual circle. On Thursday, Trump sat down for 30 minutes with a New York Times reporter who approached him in the middle of lunch at the Trump International Golf Club.

And Saturday, Trump reached out to a group he affectionately refers to as his “bridge people” — the clump of supporters who religiously gather on the bridge corner near Mar-a-Lago every day they know the president is there. After the motorcade passed by, with Trump flashing a wide grin and two thumbs up through the window, two cars with Secret Service members circled back. They passed out flag pins and swept about 16 people back to the club. “He’s a classic extrovert,” Ruddy said, adding that the people Trump sees at Mar-a-Lago are the ones he feels most connected to. “He’ll ask everyone their opinion, from the guys parking the car to the sommelier.”

On Saturday, Trump, in a gray sweater and white USA hat, chatted with the bridge people by the pool, posing for pictures and complimenting the beauty of the people who came and their Trump paraphernalia. They were also given a tour of Mar-a-Lago, including the Trump-branded helicopter parked on a helipad intended for presidential business, and a buffet spread with meatballs, fresh fruit and chocolate chip cookies.

“It was an honor to be chosen by the most powerful man in the world, to be chosen to go to his home,” said Nicolas Giacalone, 14, a Palm Beach resident who started coming to the street corner last month to show his support for Trump. “He’s a really nice guy.”

On Sunday night, guests needed tickets for a four-course meal featuring the Trump iceberg wedge salad (with his trademark Roquefort dressing), Maine lobster ravioli, pan-seared sea bass and sliced tenderloin, and baked Alaska.

Guests crossed a lengthy red carpet with Champagne flutes and martini glasses in their hands to get to the ballroom doors. In a nod to the brisk 60-degree Florida weather and the time of year, many women wrapped themselves in fluffy white and black fur stoles, some trailing down to the floor. Among them: Louise Linton, who arrived with her husband, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, in a white fur capelet. “Great year,” Mnuchin said of the coming 12 months. “Big year!” Trump’s elder daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, arrived with two of their children. They were soon followed by Trump’s sons Eric, who arrived with his wife, Lara, and Donald Trump Jr., who brought one of his sons. Fox Business host Lou Dobbs and former New York Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez also joined the celebration.

“It’s a very exciting evening,” said Steve Levine, co-owner of Jose Graterol Designs, a South Florida design studio that fashioned the gala for the fourth time. He described this year’s theme as an “elegant, modern fantasy garden,” brought to life through dozens of 5-foot-long white, cream and silver roses suspended from the ceiling, a metallic color scheme, and sequined and velvet table linens and chairs.

Inside the ballroom, the president found himself happily surrounded: A crowd of guests, breaking into applause and cheers, raised their cellphones to capture him shaking hands.