The theme was Japan for a charity hosting an event at Mar-a-Lago Saturday night.
But the talk was Russia.
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Some 300 guests mingled with donors and doctors from Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, sipping Champagne and admiring the cherry blossoms and hydrangeas that decorated the tables in the grand ballroom, the very one where President Donald Trump and wife Melania had celebrated their 2005 wedding.
But in other parts of the Trump-owned property, the mood was decidedly more serious.
Guests caught glimpses of Trump meeting with members of his team, including Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and Gen. John Kelly, head of the Department of Homeland Security.
According to press reports, they had converged on the ocean-to-lake compound, which Trump calls his “southern White House,” to hash out the fallout from continued revelations about Trump campaign officials meeting with Russian officials, including Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions reportedly earned the ire of Trump when he decided to recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigation after it was revealed Sessions failed to disclose during his Senate confirmation hearings that he had twice spoken to Russian officials. Press reports say he was ordered down to Palm Beach at the last moment to go over the burgeoning crisis.
But if Sessions was taken to the gilded woodshed at Mar-a-Lago, he showed no signs of it during a brief encounter with Bascom Palmer guests.
In Mar-a-Lago’s grand salon, where tapestries hang heavy on the walls, Sessions was all smiles as he greeted the gala’s attendees. Signs posted throughout Mar-a-Lago warned that photographs were not permitted, but Sessions posed for photos with some Bascom Palmer donors attending the institute’s Evening of Vision gala. He also shook hands with several guests.
Later, Trump himself greeted a few guests in the canopied walkway outside the ballroom, but he did not go into the ballroom as someattending the event expected.
Some of the guests openly speculated on whether his damage-control talks over the latest Russia-related revelation had taken more of his time than expected, and thus derailed what could have been a brief appearance in the ballroom.
Indeed, Bascom Palmer guests, mostly donors who had used the services of the renowned eye institute, were aware of the kerfuffle taking place in other parts of the Trump estate. Despite the smiles and the diamonds and the glamorous ballgowns, several were uneasy about Trump’s mysterious ties to Russia.
“It appalls me, the situation we’re in right now,” said one guest who asked not to be named but described himself as a conservative Republican. “It’s frightening.”
Some even posited that Russia had spies in the Trump administration: “Who knows?” asked another guest nervously.
But other guests, including Heidi Klein, of Boca Raton, were nonplussed by any controversy. She praised Mar-a-Lago as the best venue for charity events. “It’s absolutely special, a beautiful place. There’s no other place like it,” Klein said.
The fact that the president of the United States happens to own the property — never mind the controversies — was of little consequence to Klein. “This has nothing to do with it,” she said of the Bascom Palmer event. “Who cares that it’s the president (who owns it?) Mar-a-Lago is the best place in South Florida to have an event.”
And one where international intrigue may play out. On the night of Feb. 11, Mar-a-Lago Club members looked on as Trump, Japan’s prime minister and a slew of aides and advisers addressed a potential international crisis — reports of a North Korean missile launch. Club members pulled out their phones, snapping photos and quickly posting them to social media.
The theme of this past Saturday night’s Bascom Palmer fundraiser was Japan, calling back to the institute’s participation in recovery efforts after a devastating tsunami hit the island nation in 2011: Bascom Palmer shipped its “Vision Van” — which its website describes as “a 40-foot mobile eye clinic” — to Sendai province.
Surveying the ballroom, Dr. Eduardo Alfonso, chairman of Bascom Palmer, praised the evening’s success, calling it a “party for longtime supporters” of the institute.
However, he remained noncommittal about whether Bascom Palmer would hold its event at Mar-a-Lago next year.
The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute released a statement recently stating that the company in the future “will avoid controversial venues that may distract from our focus on cancer care and research.”
Privately, some doctors at Bascom Palmer expressed unease with some of Trump’s policies, including the controversial immigration ban: “We’re research-oriented and community-minded,” one physician said.
Alfonso said Bascom Palmer has held events at The Breakers on Palm Beach and at the Sailfish Marina in the past. The gala “has moved around,” he said. “We’re malleable.”
He added that it’s up to the institute’s donors where the gala is held. “My job,” Alfonso said, “is to save sight.”