Neighbors of Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Fla., that he has called his Winter White House, have a message for the outgoing commander in chief: We don’t want you to be our neighbor.
That message in a demand letter was delivered Tuesday to the town of Palm Beach and was addressed to the U.S. Secret Service, saying Trump lost his legal right to live at Mar-a-Lago because of an agreement he signed in the early 1990s when he converted the storied estate from his private residence to a private club. The legal maneuver could force Palm Beach to publicly address whether Trump can make Mar-a-Lago his legal residence and home, as he has been expected to do, when he becomes an ex-president after the swearing-in of Joe Biden on Jan. 20.
The contretemps sets up a potentially awkward scenario, unique in recent history, in which a former Oval Office occupant would find himself having to officially defend his choice of a place to live. It also could create a legal headache for Trump because he changed his official domicile to Mar-a-Lago, leaving behind Manhattan, where he lived before being elected president and came to fame as a brash, self-promoting developer. (Trump originally tried to register to vote in Florida using the White House in Washington as his address, which is not allowed under Florida law. He later changed the registration to the Mar-a-Lago address.)
In the demand letter, obtained by The Washington Post, an attorney for the Mar-a-Lago neighbors says the town should notify Trump that he cannot use Mar-a-Lago as his residence. Making that move would “avoid an embarrassing situation” if the outgoing president moves to the club and later has to be ordered to leave, according to the letter sent on behalf of the DeMoss family neighbors, who run an international missionary foundation.
For years, neighbors have raised concerns about disruptions, such as clogged traffic and blocked streets, caused by the president’s frequent trips to the club. Even before he was president, Trump created ill will in the town by refusing to comply with even basic local requirements, such as adhering to height limits for a massive flagpole he installed, and frequently attempting to get out of the promises he had made when he converted Mar-a-Lago into a private club.
“There’s absolutely no legal theory under which he can use that property as both a residence and a club,” said Glenn Zeitz, another nearby Palm Beach homeowner who has joined the fight against Trump and had previously tangled with him over Trump’s attempt to seize a private home to expand his Atlantic City casino. “Basically he’s playing a dead hand. He’s not going to intimidate or bluff people, because we’re going to be there.”
A White House spokesperson, Trump’s local attorney and Palm Beach’s mayor did not respond to requests for comment. Palm Beach has made no public attempt to prevent Trump from living at Mar-a-Lago or from using it as his legal residence.
The residency controversy tracks back to a deal Trump cut in 1993, when his finances were foundering and the cost of maintaining Mar-a-Lago was soaring into the multimillions each year. Under the agreement, club members are barred from spending more than 21 days a year in the club’s guest suites and cannot stay there for any longer than seven consecutive days. Before the arrangement was sealed, an attorney for Trump assured the town council in a public meeting that he would not live at Mar-a-Lago.
At the time, the town’s leaders were wary of Trump because he had sued them after they blocked his attempt to subdivide the historic Mar-a-Lago property into multiple housing lots. Placing the limitations on lengths of stays assured that Trump’s property would remain a private club, as he had promised, rather than a residential hotel.
Documents obtained by The Washington Post through a public records request suggest that there may be gaps in Palm Beach’s enforcement of key provisions of the agreement that could affect Trump’s ability to live at the club. Each year, the club is required to report whether at least 50% of Mar-a-Lago’s members live or work in Palm Beach, that the club has fewer than 500 members, and that no one is using the guest suites more than 21 days a year. However, the town says it has no records of the reports for four of the past 20 years.
Trump has repeatedly attempted to change parts of his agreement. In 2018 he asked the town to waive a provision banning him from building a dock at the club, initially saying the Secret Service and local law enforcement officials needed the structure for his protection. The reasoning was later changed to say the dock was for the private use of the president and first lady Melania Trump. Neighbors feared that the dock would be used for rowdy booze cruises. Trump withdrew the dock request early this year, three days after a Washington Post report that unearthed the details of his 1993 agreement with the town.
Trump has traveled to Mar-a-Lago at least 30 times during his presidency, and he spent at least 130 days there, according to a Post tally. There has been no public indication that the town has raised objections about that practice. Trump also has appeared to openly flout the agreement, stating on Mar-a-Lago’s website that he maintains private quarters there.
During Trump’s presidency, Palm Beach has shown deference on security issues, allowing a helipad that was expressly prohibited in his 1993 agreement. Once Trump leaves office, he will no longer have use of the helipad.
The 1993 Palm Beach agreement is not the only document that raises questions about whether Trump can legally live at Mar-a-Lago. He also signed a document ceding development rights for Mar-a-Lago to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Washington-based, privately funded nonprofit organization that works to save historic sites across the country. As part of the National Trust deal, Trump agreed to “forever” relinquish his rights to develop Mar-a-Lago or to use it for “any purpose other than club use.”
The National Trust did not respond to requests for comment.
The controversy over Trump’s expected move to Mar-a-Lago could muddy matters for the Secret Service, which will continue to protect him after he leaves office. Government agencies take pains to comply with all federal and local laws in their activities, and a legal dispute over Trump’s right to set up residence at Mar-a-Lago could complicate the Secret Service’s ongoing work to prepare for staffers to secure his home and safety there.
A Secret Service spokesperson declined to comment.
Since November’s election, the Secret Service has been preparing for Trump’s life after the White House and the protections he is legally due as a former president. A much-reduced set of Secret Service agents will shadow him in his private life, and the agency will crew and occupy a separate room at his property as a base of security operations.
The protective service would need to make living arrangements for its agents before he leaves the White House – wherever he ends up living. If he is blocked from living at Mar-a-Lago, the Secret Service probably would have to scramble to develop a new plan to protect him at a different location.
The Mar-a-Lago neighbors would be OK with Trump finding a new place to bunk. Their letter, written by West Palm Beach attorney Reginald Stambaugh, includes a zinger that harks to the vibe of the old-money enclave on Florida’s east coast: “Palm Beach has many lovely estates for sale, and we are confident President Trump will find one which meets his needs.”
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The Washington Post’s Philip Bump contributed to this report.