- John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
When history is written, Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s winter White House, could well be a landmark forever linked to the investigation into whether there was collusion between the president’s campaign and the Russians during the 2016 election.
Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn on Friday pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in a major development of the Russian probe by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
As part of the plea, federal prosecutors detailed a Dec. 29 phone call Flynn made to Trump’s presidential transition team — who were huddled at Mar-a-Lago — to discuss what to communicate to Russia in light of sanctions ordered by then-President Barack Obama. He was told the team did not want to “escalate the situation,” according to court documents.
And that’s just what Flynn told the Russian ambassador, raising questions of whether the new administration would lift them once in office. He then lied to the FBI, saying that he did not make that request of Russia.
Whether the Flynn telephone call is tantamount to raising Mar-a-Lago to the status of the Watergate — a central fixture in a scandal that reached the president of the United States — remains to be seen.
All of it, though, went down while Trump held court in December 2016 at Mar-a-Lago after his upset victory over Hillary Clinton.
Vice President Mike Pence, head of the transition team, was there. Sean Spicer, then White House press secretary, was there. Adviser Kellyanne Conway was there. Even Flynn made an appearance on Dec. 21 for a meeting with military brass.
Members of the Mar-a-Lago Club and Trump supporters remember the frenzied time as one of immense optimism. Club members would spy Pence, key Trump campaign officials, generals walking within the confines. Sometimes they even were able to say hello.
‘We were all so jovial’
“We were all so jovial. It was exciting,” said Toni Holt Kramer, a Palm Beach resident, club member and founder of the Trumpettes, an organization of women who support the president. “It was very jubilant that the changes that we needed in America were finally coming.”
Trump was busy making appointments to fill his administration. Russia was also front and center.
Obama on Dec. 28 signed the executive order announcing sanctions against nine Russian entities and individuals. Russia, according to U.S. intelligence, had hacked the Democratic National Committee, obtaining 20,000 emails that were released through WikiLeaks. Russia also used social media to influence the vote.
Trump has commented that the Russia investigation is a hoax and “fake news.”
Flynn’s plea deal focuses on the day right after Obama signed the order.
Flynn admits to lying to the FBI — which can carry a five-year prison sentence. As part of the plea deal, he told the federal government that a senior member of the transition team told him to contact Russian officials.
After the Dec. 29 phone call to Mar-a-Lago, Flynn immediately called Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S. at the time, to ask that Russia not retaliate in response to Obama’s sanctions. He then contacted a Trump transition official to update him on the conversation.
The next day, the Russian president discarded a recommendation from his government to impose restrictions. Trump tweeted: “Russian President Vladimir Putin — who denies his country interfered in the election — would not take retaliatory measures. “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!”
‘Get On With Our Lives’
Trump, at Mar-a-Lago on Dec. 28, was asked about the impending sanctions, saying, “I think we ought to get on with our lives.”
Flynn resigned in February after saying he “inadvertently” misled Pence on whether he had spoken to Kislyak. Flynn’s resignation came three days after he had been at Mar-a-Lago with Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. While he was at the estate, Flynn advised Trump that the North Koreans had launched a missile.
According to ABC News on Friday, Flynn is prepared to testify against Trump, members of the president’s family and White House officials. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior member of the transition team, had met with both Kislyak and Flynn at Trump Tower earlier in December.
Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser, reportedly spent the December holidays at a private villa in Hawaii. Photos of their holiday were shared by Ivanka Trump on Dec. 26.
There are no visitor logs or other system of tracking those who visit Trump at Mar-a-Lago, according to the Secret Service.
Before Friday’s bombshell news, Mar-a-Lago again was the setting for a Monday story by Business Insider that a key witness in the Flynn investigation had a “lengthy conversation” with Trump at the historic property during the recent Thanksgiving holiday. The witness, former CIA Director James Woolsey and Flynn ally, dined with Trump.
Woolsey resigned as a member of Trump’s transition team in January, one day before intelligence officials advised Trump on Russian interference in the election.
Mar-a-Lago was built by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and opened for the 1927 winter season with 58 bedrooms and 33 bathrooms. Its name means “sea to lake,” signifying the property’s position stretching between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway.
Post died in 1973 and willed the estate to the U.S. government in the hopes that it would become a winter White House. Former President Richard Nixon signed the bill accepting the estate from Post as a new winter hideaway for presidents. That was one year before he resigned amid the Watergate scandal.
However, Mar-a-Lago’s maintenance costs were too high for the federal government. The estate was empty until Trump bought it in 1985 for $10 million. Trump and his first wife Ivana spent years restoring the property.
Besides serving as a part-time residence for Trump and his family, Mar-a-Lago is an exclusive club with a $200,000 initiation fee and $14,000 yearly dues.
Trump clearly loves the estate, using it as an escape from Washington D.C. in the way George H.W. Bush and his family used his compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, or George W. Bush spent time on his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
It’s also been controversial. Newsweek reported that White House Chief of staff John Kelly wanted Trump to stop dining at Mar-a-Lago for national security reasons. Four of the more than a dozen women who accuse Trump of making unwanted sexual advances have said it occurred at the estate.
Holt Kramer described Mar-a-Lago as an enchanted paradise where there is a feeling of “family, camaraderie, and union.”
She also said the setting makes for an intriguing — but unfair — backdrop for the Flynn saga.
“It makes good press, good conversation and good gossip,” she said. “Why not? It’s one of the most beautiful places in America.”