Tony Senecal no longer brings Donald Trump breakfast, presses his suits or restocks his Diet-Coke stash at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. He retired in 2009. But the billionaire’s former butler still spends his days in gilded splendor.
Senecal is working at a West Palm Beach antique showroom, where he can meander beneath dozens of chandeliers, stop to admire a 19th Century relic of neoclassical France, and pause to catch his reflection in an ornate, Louis XVI-style mirror.
Best of all for a loyal ex-butler now enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, thanks to the global spotlight on Trumpian tangents during the 2016 presidential race, Senecal can linger in Mar-a-Lago memories.
“Those were the best years of my life,” says Senecal, who now serves as the estate’s historian.
At 74, he is a man of many lives. A native of upstate New York, he once worked as a schoolteacher. He owned a cigar shop. He took off a couple of his butler years to run for and serve as mayor of Martinsburg, a small city in West Virginia where he made headlines for his failed attempt to impose a licensing fee on “wino” panhandlers.
And but for a twist of fate, he might have gone off to serve another strongman-in-the-making. It’s what brought him to Palm Beach in the first place as a revolution churned in Cuba: A teenage Senecal was to meet about a dozen other guys at a local bar and plot a secret mission to join Fidel Castro’s rebels.
“But no one showed up,” he recalls.
He did have some luck at another bar, where he met a security guard for cereal heir Marjorie Merriweather Post. That contact help him score a chance to join the staff at Mar-a-Lago, the iconic oceanfront mansion Post built in 1927. Fate may have denied Senecal a role as foot soldier in the Cuban mountains, but not one as footman at Mar-a-Lago.
And certainly not one as butler to a man he would come to idolize.
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Anthony “Tony” Senecal sits on a red velvet-lined chair in the showroom of Cedric DuPont Antiques in West Palm Beach, catching his breath in the midst of a hectic few days. The man who called Donald J. Trump master for 20 years seems to be the man of the moment.
Senecal is now one of the GOP frontrunner’s most interviewed cheerleaders. In the past few weeks, he’s been interviewed by TV and print reporters, from CNN to the U.K.’s Daily Mail to the New York Times, pressed to say something deep and different about Trump.
His memories come back in a jumble of scenes, two decades worth of Mar-a-Lago moments linked only by the fact that they involve Trump. In fact, in the world of Tony Senecal, life itself spins on his allegiance to Trump.
Never mind that he had worked at Mar-a-Lago for 26 years before Trump moved into the oceanfront mansion, having purchased the estate and private beach for $10 million in 1985.
“I came with the furniture,” says Senecal, who had been promoted to steward by the time Trump made his entrance.
During Trump’s early years at the mansion, Senecal would become one of the family’s four butlers at the mansion.
“Ivana wanted uniformed staff,” he says, emphasizing that last word to indicate volume.
But that changed once Trump’s first marriage was over, he says.
“Ivana was gone and (Trump) couldn’t see the need for four butlers. One day, he says to me, ‘Tony, do I really need four butlers?’” recalls Senecal. “I told him, ‘Sir, as long as I’m here, you only need one. Me.’ He says, ‘Good! Fire the others.’”
The following years deepened a friendship with his celebrity boss, he says. Senecal learned to anticipate Trump’s whims and to soothe his bruised ego.
He remembers getting a call from Trump’s “gal Friday” once, as the boss was traveling to Palm Beach.
“She said, ‘It hasn’t been the best day. He’s in a bit of a mood. Do something to cheer him up,’” Senecal recalls.
So he hired a bugler to greet Trump.
“The limo arrives and the doors open,” Senecal says as if to set a cinematic scene. “And just as Mr. Trump steps out of the car, the bugler starts to play ‘Hail to the Chief.’ The boss smiled.’”
As the pro he learned to be during his decades at Mar-a-Lago, the butler complied with his boss’ whims, tastes and requests without judgment. Even when it came to putting in food requests that might cause chefs to wince. Trump liked his steaks and burgers overcooked, with ketchup.
“He liked his meat well-done and he’d say, ‘No garbage with it,’” says Senecal. By “garbage,” he knew Trump meant no garnish, relishes or vegetables.
He recalls one time when Trump put in a typical breakfast order: “Three eggs over-easy with bacon. That’s all.”
But when Senecal went to the kitchen to put in the order, he found the chef had stepped out. He knew his boss was in a hurry that morning, so he grabbed a pan and attempted to fry the three eggs. But each time he tried to flip over an egg, it would break. This happened over and over, until Senecal decided this was a request he could not fill as ordered.
He scrambled the eggs and arranged them on the plate with the bacon as elegantly as he could. He delivered them to the boss with a formal air.
“The chef couldn’t get the eggs quite right this morning, so they are scrambled,” the butler explained.
“So, no chef,” Trump replied. He knew.
Later that day, the boss called him over with this review: “Hey, Tony, those eggs were good.”
The butler’s duties included some only-in-Palm-Beach tasks. When ascending jets from PBIA roared overhead – a frequent occurrence that caused an irked Trump to sue Palm Beach County – the boss would call out: “Tony, call the tower!”
Senecal says he would ring air traffic controllers and say, “Guess who it is?”
Through the years, the butler saw a blur of celebrities and visiting dignitaries at the mansion, some more memorable than others. Perhaps most memorable on this recent afternoon is the one Trump could face in the November presidential election.
Senecal says he remembers Hillary Clinton as the most annoying visitor during Trump’s 2005 wedding to Melania Knauss.
“When you’re talking to a receptionist, you don’t have to talk down to them. But that’s exactly what she does to everyone,” says Senecal, who then described the Democratic presidential candidate with a word that rhymes with “witch.”
As for his former boss, “he was a friend to everyone.”
Senecal touts Trump’s shrill approach to politics as genius.
“He’s a very, very clear thinker. He’s concerned with common sense, cutting the crap and bringing it all back to basics,” says Senecal.
The ex-butler embraces even his boss’ more bombastic positions and propositions.
“I love the wall! Build it 10 feet taller!” he cheers, as if he were at a rally instead of an antique shop. He takes a smiling pause, then: “He’s just so great!”
He also embraces the notion of keeping out Muslim immigrants, as proposed by Trump.
“I couldn’t agree with him more. We don’t know who those people are,” says Senecal, taking on a cable pundit’s tone as he addresses the current president’s immigration policy: “O’Zero has opened the floodgates!”
Senecal downplays the protests and skirmishes that have erupted during Trump rallies, saying such things are bound to happen in crowds so large. Under his breath, he says of the protesters: “Kick them all out.”
He believes he bonded with Trump through the years, thanks to their similar political feelings.
In recent days, when he has returned to Mar-a-Lago in his historian capacity, Senecal says he has been overwhelmed to observe history in the making. He has seen Trump several times in recent weeks, once while leading one of his tours.
“Is he doing a good job?” Seneca says Trump asked of his guests. “Do I need to fire him?”
One recent day, he happened upon Trump as he met with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Trump introduced him to the governor.
“You know, Tony was mayor of the richest and most populous town in West Virginia,” Trump said, according to Senecal.
“It’s not true, of course,” Senecal adds as he retells the story.
But for all their good rapport, the boss and butler roles always were firm in his mind, says Senecal.
Even when Trump jokingly asked if he should take up some of his tasks.
“No, sir. You are the master. I am the servant,” Senecal recalls telling his boss.
On that topic, is there anything about Trump’s persona or nature that connotes servant?
“I don’t think so,” says Senecal.
Asked if he believes the notion of service is part of Trump’s DNA, Senecal replied: “No, I don’t see it. He’s the master.”
But should Trump win the presidency and a transition from master to public servant be required of the businessman, Senecal says he believes it’s possible.
“He can learn anything,” said the former butler.