President Donald Trump didn’t drop in, but Republican donors and activists were wowed by a sport-coated poolside appearance by Donald Trump Jr. before the Palm Beach County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner at Mar-a-Lago on Friday night.
Sarah Palin headlined the event, drawing laughter and cheers when she roasted Hillary Clinton and updated some of her 2008 applause lines for the Trump era — but losing much of the crowd of 700 when she turned to a prolonged defense of steel tariffs and warnings of Chinese hegemonism. Despite the flagging attention during her 30-minute speech, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee was mobbed by selfie-seekers as she exited the Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom at the end of the evening.
Palm Beach County GOP Chairman Michael Barnett said the event was expected to raise $150,000 or more after expenses, which included about $150,000 to rent Mar-a-Lago’s facilities and a $15,000 speaking fee for Palin. Tickets started at $350 for dinner, with about 280 people paying $750 apiece for a photo with Palin in the White and Gold Ballroom and other VIP packages going for as much as $25,000.
County Lincoln Day dinners are traditionally focused on precinct organizing and promoting candidates for school board, county commission and the state Legislature. But the Palm Beach County affair, held at Mar-a-Lago for the sixth consecutive year, was focused largely on Trump and national issues. Conservative activist and celebrity Star Parker, the emcee for the evening, couldn’t pronounce Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s name when she introduced the potential Republican gubernatorial candidate.
The chance that Trump would be in town and stop by the dinner helped the GOP sell tickets, but the president remained in Washington this weekend. Trump attended the 2014 and 2016 GOP dinners, and first lady Melania Trump put in a brief appearance at VIP reception before last year’s event. On Friday, Trump Jr. stopped by a reception and mingled and posed for pictures near the Mar-a-Lago pool before chimes summoned the crowd into the ballroom for dinner.
Even without a corporeal appearance by the president, Trump permeated the event. Attendees walked across a large Trump coat of arms embedded in the marble floor of the ballroom’s foyer. There were bottles of Trump wine at the bar and a dispenser of Trump Spa mouthwash in the men’s restroom. Abraham Lincoln, ostensibly the namesake for the event, was depicted on dinner programs with the Trump campaign’s trademark #MAGA (for “Make America Great Again”) on his stovepipe hat.
In addition to Corcoran, who is expected to launch a campaign for governor soon, Agriculture Commissioner and declared gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam attended. But the other declared Republican in the race, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, skipped the gathering for an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News. Gov. Rick Scott, expected to launch a U.S. Senate campaign in the coming weeks, was scheduled to appear but cancelled because of Thursday’s pedestrian bridge collapse at Florida International University.
Palin, who endorsed Trump early in the 2016 campaign, told the audience she had never been to Mar-a-Lago before Friday.
“This is so beautiful. I bet the first family loves returning here. It must be a nice break from swimming in the swamp and fending off attacks and, shoot, getting blamed for just about everything,” Palin said.
The advocate a “Drill, baby, drill” energy policy when she was John McCain’s running mate called for “Build, baby, build” urgency on Trump’s promised wall between the U.S. and Mexico. She channeled Boomer sitcom icon Jan Brady to slam Democrats for their obsession with “Russia, Russia, Russia” and said Trump supporters “will not just idly sit by and let the deep state nullify the election with their shenanigans and their expensive antics like these resource-sucking investigations to nowhere.”
Besides, Palin charged, it was the Clinton Foundation that was cozy with Russian oligarchs and Clinton’s campaign that paid for Russian-sourced Steele Dossier.
“How do I know all that? Because I keep my eye on Russia — from my house,” Palin said, poking fun at a line she never uttered but that became associated with her through Tina Fey’s portrayal of Palin on Saturday Night Live.
But when Palin veered into tariff talk and a discussion of China’s island-building in the South China Sea, the table talk in the ballroom grew from a murmur to a dull roar and she chided the crowd.
“I wish you guys would pay attention to what I’m saying,” Palin said. “I traveled all the way from Alaska for two days to get here.”
In a brief interview afterward, Palin didn’t seemed perturbed by the audience’s restlessness and said she hoped to return to Florida to campaign for Republican candidates.
“You guys have a lot of energy,” Palin said.