Trump’s Florida sanctuary becomes a gilded petri dish for a global disease

At least three people who visited Mar-a-Lago in the past 10 days have tested positive for the deadly virus, and were spotted in photographs with the president and other club members. A top Brazilian official, Ambassador to the U.S. Nestor Forster, who was seated with the president at a Saturday night dinner at the club, tested positive for COVID-19. So did Fabio Wajngarten, the press secretary to President Jair Bolsonaro who was spotted standing next to Trump in an Instagram post. An email to Trump supporters who attended a fundraiser at the club last Sunday suggests there was now also a mysterious third person who was at the club last weekend with the virus.

The chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, came down with flu-like symptoms on Friday and her doctor determined a test for coronavirus was necessary, a spokesman said.

The handshakes, diplomatic huddles, cozy VIP photo-ops and meet-and-greets at Mar-a-Lago became a potential nexus for other cases — the mayor of Miami, Francis Suarez, tested positive after being in the same area as the Brazilian officials. Since last weekend, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez and several Republican lawmakers close to the White House — Rep. Matt Gaetz, Sen. Rick Scott and Sen. Lindsey Graham — all self-quarantined as a precaution.

The dark cloud over Mar-a-Lago, where Trump often spends holidays and hosts foreign leaders, threatens to mar its reputation as a social destination for elites after a mountain of headlines about an invisible disease spreading through the complex.

The sprawling 20-acre estate sits along the Atlantic Ocean in ritzy Palm Beach, surrounded by some of the most exclusive addresses in America. Trump bought the pink stucco property — built by heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post nearly a century ago — for a reported $8 million in 1985 and turned it into a private club by adding a giant gold ballroom and amenities like a dining room, pool, and spa to cater to the elite. Dreamed up by Joseph Urban, who designed Ziegfeld Follies, the mansion is an ode to the Roaring 20s, with an interior that resembles Norma Desmond’s old Hollywood mansion in “Sunset Boulevard.”

Members can dine at the beach club or on the patio, and on weekends when Trump is in town, be entertained by the action of a presidential entourage and annoyed by the increase in security. The quintessential host, Trump is known to hold court in the club going from member to member to chit-chat. The ballroom is a regular venue for fundraisers on the Palm Beach charity circuit, a place where visitors in designer garb and jewels can dance under the giant chandeliers and wealthy members and their guests can sunbathe under yellow striped umbrellas at the outdoor pool.

Mar-a-Lago becoming the scene of an international virus outbreak has spooked some members of the club, where membership goes for $200,000 a year.

George Guido Lombardi, a longtime club member and Trump supporter, said he was at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday during the Brazilians’ visit, and does not plan to return any time soon.

“Since that day I didn’t go back there,” Lombardi said. “And at least for the next few weeks I do not intend to go back there.”

Splashed across the front of the Sunday Palm Beach Post was the headline, “Four Mar-a-Lago visitors test positive.” And the front page of one of Florida’s biggest newspapers, the Miami Herald, read: “A member of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club delivered a letter requesting a summit with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. The meeting ended up inadvertently exposing Trump and others to the coronavirus.”

While the club remains open, an email was sent out to members describing best practices with the coronavirus.

When asked about Mar-a-Lago’s exposure to the virus, Eric Trump, executive vice president of the Trump Organization, said in a statement to POLITICO: “The safety of our members and guests are of our utmost importance. We are monitoring all of our businesses closely and are following the guidelines provided by the CDC.”

Despite the mounting attention, some members were still carrying on at the club. Jeff Greene, a Palm Beach real estate mogul and former member, had lunch with friends at the Beach Club on Saturday and noted it was “packed.”

“I wouldn’t have gone there if I felt I was at risk,” Greene said, though he noted he didn’t see hand sanitizer anywhere.

As president, Trump has enjoyed hosting at Mar-a-Lago foreign dignitaries including Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. At times, it has also turned into a kind of open-air, open-source situation room, with the president giving members a front-row seat at serious international deliberations, like during the North Korea missile launch and the decision to strike a Syrian airfield in 2017.

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