At a certain point in an average evening at Mar-a-Lago, the lights go down and the volume goes up, as the proprietor and former president of the United States turns DJ for the night.
A member of the Mar-a-Lago private club said that following a period of withdrawal after his election defeat, Donald Trump has in recent months assumed the role of social ringmaster, deciding to bring a disco vibe to the Palm Beach resort after dark.
“At about 9.30pm every night, he’s sitting at his table, whether on the patio or inside, and they bring a laptop over and he starts picking songs, and he starts being a DJ for the night, but it’s sort of funny because he picks like the same 10 songs every night,” the club member said.
The Trump playlist is of a certain era, when he was a regular clubber in New York. The signature tune is the Village People’s YMCA, alongside The Greatest Love of All by Whitney Houston, and a few Elton John numbers.
“Sometimes he dances to it,” the club member said. “He will be at his table and he’ll dance while sitting.”
Towards the end of the evening, Trump will play a hymn, How Great Thou Art, which topped the charts when Elvis Presley sang it. It was a favorite of Trump’s father, Fred, a sentimental way of drawing a Mar-a-Lago soiree to a close.
What might have otherwise seemed no more than a characteristically bizarre twist for a post-presidential career, looks more significant now that it is known that all the while the lights were low, the music was playing, guests were tipsy and the host was otherwise engaged, there were thousands of government documents, many of them highly sensitive, and at least one of them containing nuclear secrets, being kept illicitly in rooms and closets nearby. And all of this was unfolding in a venue described by former intelligence officials as a priority target for foreign spies.
“Without any question the former president, and those in his circle will be very important targets for any foreign intelligence service. They will be looking at: how do we get into that circle?” said Douglas London, a 34-year veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service, and author of The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence.
London added: “He’s brought in really questionable people with various skeletons in their closets, financial or personal or political, who have vulnerabilities a foreign intelligence service could exploit.”
It is a scenario which in other circumstances, might make for an uproarious comedy series, featuring spies from around the world tripping over each other in the dark as they race each other to grab hold of the motherlode of state secrets, as YMCA echoes around the darkened corridors.
The setting is suitably flamboyant. When it was built in the 1920s for a cereal heiress, Marjorie Merriweather Post, the style of the 58-bedroom palace was described as Spanish-Moorish-Portuguese-Venetian. There are gargoyles that look like they were borrowed from medieval Britain. The original decor was chosen by a Viennese theatrical designer.
When Trump bought it for $10m (£8.75m) in 1985, it had 58 bedrooms, an adjoining golf course and three bomb shelters. He said at the time he thought of the purchase as a “statement” rather than somewhere he could imagine living, but the high-end Floridian lifestyle grew on him and the place became his favourite home.
In the 1990s, after a string of bankruptcies, he tried to squeeze desperately needed cash out of the property by trying to split it into plots, hold on to the main house, and sell the rest, but he was blocked by the local planning board.
The board also tried to veto his plan B, turning the estate into a private club, but he was able to outmanoeuvre his opponents on the panel by assiduously cultivating individual members and pointing out publicly and embarrassingly that almost all the other clubs in Palm Beach did not admit Jews or Black people.
There were few if any African Americans in the area who could afford the $100,000 (£87,454) initiation fee, which was doubled in 2017, but plenty of wealthy Jews, who had made their money in real estate and clothing. They became the bulk of the membership, the majority of them Democrats.
When Trump succeeded Obama as president, and Mar-a-Lago became the “winter White House”, the ambience began to change. Trump had no time for the official presidential retreat at Camp David, which he saw as too rustic. Also the Trump Organization made no money from him staying there. Mar-a-Lago was another matter.
The president saw no distinction between his personal life, his business and the public office, and Trump’s presidency became one of the club’s leading attractions. It was another label under the Trump brand. Paying guests were able to witness real-life scenes like Trump huddling with the then Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and his aides to hammer out a joint response to a North Korean missile test.
In April 2017, Trump told the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, about the missile strikes he had authorized in Syria while the leaders sat in the Mar-a-Lago dining room eating what the former president described as “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you have ever seen”.
After Trump was defeated in 2020, he decamped to his Florida retreat, taking with him boxes full of secret documents and a new clientele. The crowd that hung around Trump International hotel in Washington followed him to Mar-a-Lago.
“The club used to be serious money, serious players in business. Some really big players through the years have been members,” a longtime member reflected somewhat ruefully.
“The new members of the club are a little bit Maga,” the veteran member said. “It’s very eclectic, a lot of foreigners, people that have made money in cryptocurrency, Oklahoma, fracking money. It looks more like the menagerie at the Trump Hotel in Washington.”
Asked specifically about the foreigners, this member said: “A lot of different people there that they didn’t really have before. You’ll have Chinese people. You’ll have maybe some additional Arab people.”
Even during the Trump presidency, there were significant holes in Mar-a-Lago’s security. Over the 2018 Thanksgiving holiday, a teenager, Mike Lindbloom, slipped past guards and entered the club through a tunnel from the beach.
Two Chinese women were caught trespassing. One of them, Yujing Zhang, had no fewer than four mobile phones, an external hard drive, as well as five sim cards and a “signal detector” gadget for locating hidden microphones or cameras. She was deported without any clarity on what she was doing there and why she was in possession of such an array of electronics.
In the post-presidency, there are far fewer controls.
“Typically once a president becomes former president, there’s a scale-back in resources at the Secret Service, but that really is something that doesn’t lend itself to the Mar-a-Lago environment because of the obvious threats there,” said Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence.
Each year the club hires 80 to 90 foreign workers. They at least get vetted, but that is no guarantee against an insider threat, Figliuzzi said
“The fact that four years ago, the Secret Service vetted the guy who serves Trump Diet Coke 12 times a day, doesn’t mean that that guy is invulnerable to a $200,000 [£174,936] payment from a foreign intelligence agency,” he said.
The problem of the club members and their guests is far greater.
“Who are these members? Who’s vetting them?” Figliuzzi asked. “If you have the requisite money and you plunk it down, it appears you’re a member. And now here come your family members and guests and their cousins and their in-laws. And is it really possible for the Secret Service to even begin to think that they could vet the guest side of the house?”
All this helps explain why a Russian-speaking Ukrainian-born woman called Inna Yashchyshyn was able to mingle with club members and Trump himself in the spring and summer of 2021, posing as Anna de Rothschild, a Monaco-bred scion of the banking family.
Whether Yashchyshyn, and the two Chinese interlopers, were just opportunists or connected to something more sinister, remains unknown. But then the same could be said of much of the Mar-a-Lago crowd, especially the new arrivals. But perhaps the biggest question mark is hanging over the resort’s wounded and vengeful owner and DJ. No one knows what plans he had for his stolen trove of state secrets.
“Whatever he selected was because he had some intent to do something with it,” London said. “The question mark is: what were his intentions? But none of it is going to be a happy story. None of it is going to end well, in terms of the impact on national security.”