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Palm Beach tentatively approves social club plan

A picture of Donald Trump with Paul Rampell in 1993
Donald Trump shares a laugh with his attorney, Paul Rampell,
Thursday before the Palm Beach Council meeting.

By Elizabeth Aoki

The Palm Beach Post, Friday, May 14, 1993

PALM BEACH—Mar-a-Lago, the former estate of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, can be converted to a private social club as long as owner Donald Trump meets certain conditions, the Town Council tentatively decided Thursday.

After almost 12 hours of hearing from residents, attorneys and traffic engineers, the council voted 4–1 to allow the club. Councilwoman Lesly Smith dissented, saying she wanted the conditions in writing first.

Council members said they wanted the conditions and any additions to be reviewed at a special meeting June 1.

“We’re thrilled,” said Alan Ciklin, one of two attorneys for Trump. “We’re sure we can satisfy the council with those conditions.”

Two years ago, Trump began to explore other ways to finance Mar-a-Lago after finding it cost $2 million a year to maintain. Residents successfully fought his attempts to subdivide the estate, and some neighbors say that converting it to a social club will increase traffic and lower the property values.

Trump left the meeting to go home to Mar-a-Lago an hour before the 8 p.m. decision.

“It’s not really fair to have one person carry the burden of this incredible house,” the developer said. “Beyond anything else I want the long-term preservation of Mar-a-Lago. I want to make sure over the next 100 years it will be here, sound and safe.”

Trump agreed to build a 6-foot wall and 14-foot hedge along the northern boundary of the estate, if the neighbors request it. The amount of traffic in and out of the estate would be limited to 313 trips per day.

Traffic experts disagreed as to whether the club will meet county traffic standards. If the traffic is bad, the club will take steps such as shuttling the entire staff or providing a limousine service.

Neighbors on adjoining streets are especially concerned. “You can’t get out of my street on Ocean Boulevard” during the season, said Jack Callahan, a 40-year resident. “Three more cars would make it intolerable.”

Louis Pryor, president of the Palm Beach Civic Association, warned the council they didn’t know enough about Trump’s financial arrangements for the club nor enough about the club’s future members, who would also be shareholders.

Trump attorney Paul Rampell says he will begin efforts today to settle a $50 million lawsuit against the town. Trump sued the town last year when he was denied permission to subdivide the mansion and sell it as individual units.

Rampells win lawsuit against town for rejecting their modern house

By Aleese Kopf

Palm Beach Daily News, September 4, 2016

The Town Council was blocking a Palm Beach couple’s plans to build a modern-style house in the North End, a court ruled Friday.

Attorney Paul Rampell and his wife, Rita, have won their lawsuit filed in November in Palm Beach County Circuit Court asking a judge to overturn the council’s reversal of the Architectural Commission’s approval of the contemporary single family home at 237 Ridgeview Drive.

“The court finds that the Town Council departed from the essential requirements of law by applying an incorrect standard of review,” the opinion read.

The ruling said the council applied a “de novo” standard of review —meaning members based their decision on new evidence — as opposed to a “first-tier certiorari” review —meaning they only considered facts that were part of the ARCOM record.

The commission voted 4-3 to approve the house design last August. Resident William Cooley appealed the decision, which the council granted two months later.

How Mar-a-Lago Taught Trump to Play Politics

By Laurence Leemer
Politico Magazine, February 1, 2019 PDF



Trump turned to Paul Rampell, a lawyer who lived in Palm Beach and came recommended by a banker with whom Trump had done business.

Rampell had grown up on the north end of the island. He had gone to Princeton and returned to Palm Beach to practice trust law, a lucrative field that had few risks and low visibility. The attorney had a reputation for being able to resolve almost any case out of court. He could have been a successful lawyer in New York or Washington, but he preferred the Palm Beach life.

Rampell had an idea: to turn Mar-a-Lago into the private club it is today, and which also doubles as the president’s “Winter White House,” where he will return this weekend after a long absence.Rampell’s suggested change would require approval from the town council, and the odds were stacked against Trump and Rampell.


Rampell understood far better than Trump how Palm Beach worked. So, in the wake of his failure to divide Mar-a-Lago, Trump invited Rampell for a meeting at the estate.

As a boy, Rampell remembered Mar-a-Lago as being “kind of like the forbidden city in China that hardly anybody went in or out of,” and it was exciting for him to be in the mansion.

Rampell told me that he told Trump it would have been a mistake to divide Mar-a-Lago. It was a risky thing to say to a man who had just spent 18 months trying to do just that.

“I think you ought to turn Mar-a-Lago into a club,” Rampell said.

After thinking about this a little, Trump decided it just didn’t make any sense. According to Rampell, Trump called it a “crazy idea.”

When Trump called Rampell the next day, he squandered not a moment on small talk but carried on as if they were continuing their discussion at Mar-a-Lago.

“The memberships will never sell,” Rampell recalls Trump saying.

“The town of Palm Beach is probably about half Christian and half Jewish,” Rampell, who was Jewish himself, replied. “There are five clubs right now. Four of those clubs are restricted. No Jews. No African-Americans. And there are about four or five thousand members. There’s one club only where Jewish residents can go, and that’s the Palm Beach Country Club. It only has three hundred membership slots. They’re all full, and it’s very expensive. So, you’ve got an island with a lot of Jewish residents who have no club to go to.”

“Well, maybe,” Trump said and hung up.


Trump said how crazy or stupid it was to turn Mar-a-Lago into a club. Then one day, for a reason Rampell never knew, Trump changed his mind. He was going to give it a try.

The first thing Trump needed to do was to hire an attorney versed in property law (Rampell was a trust lawyer). But this idea of creating a new, largely Jewish club in Palm Beach was so controversial that he couldn’t find anyone local to represent him. The lawyers turned him down because they felt that being associated with Trump on this project might lose them clients who didn’t like the idea of a new largely Jewish club on the island. It simply wasn’t worth the risk of offending clients. In the end, Trump had little choice but to ask Rampell to take the job.

Rampell decided that if he asked for a large enough retainer, he would be OK no matter what happened. Trump surprised Rampell by immediately sending a check for the full amount, making Rampell the public face of the proposed club.

In May 1993, a reporter for the Palm Beach Daily News visited Rampell’s office on Worth Avenue to profile him. The attorney had no interest in publicity and cringed at all the attention Trump was bringing him, but he knew that talking to reporters was now part of the job. This interview was supposed to be about turning Mar-a-Lago into a club, but, as Rampell described it, the reporter started talking about how Rampell couldn’t be admitted to certain clubs.

“I don’t think anti-Semitism and bigotry are likely to be resolved by my remarks to you,” Rampell told the newspaper and pushed on to other subjects.

Meanwhile, Rampell got to work. He believed that the two Jewish members of the town council would vote for the club, and the two Christians would likely vote no. That would leave a not-yet-elected fifth member as the likely deciding vote.

Rampell decided that the most likely of the three candidates for that seat to end up voting for the club was Michele Clarke Royal, a third-generation Palm Beacher and a member of the Bath and Tennis, with no political experience. If Trump personally contributed to her campaign, he might appear to be trying to buy her vote. Rampell’s money would be almost as bad, so the lawyer came up with other ways of helping Royal, including running a phone bank from his office and asking friends in the Northeast to donate to Royal’s campaign.

While Rampell was working to win a majority of the town council, two prominent members of the restricted Everglades Club came to the lawyer’s office. The Palm Beach gentlemen told him there was no way the town council would approve Trump’s plan. The sooner he and his patron realized that, the better. They represented a group in whom the town authorities had the highest confidence, and they wanted to buy Mar-a-Lago and turn it into a club themselves.

Although the two men were not so frank in declaring their intentions, they were trying to do what the Committee of the Select 100 had failed to do in 1944: buy up property to prevent the influx of large numbers of Jewish Americans.

Rampell had no doubt but that their club would have the same restricted policies as the Everglades, which did not allow Jews and where he would not be welcome. Rampell had no choice but to take the proposal to Trump.

“F— them,” Trump said, according to Rampell. Rampell felt that Trump wanted no part of handing Mar-a-Lago over to a group that would turn the estate into a restricted club. “They’re assholes.”

The lawyer did not disagree.


Rampell convinced Trump that he would have to fight this as a political battle. To persuade the town council to approve his plan, he would have to build a constituency among town residents who would push the town council to vote in favor of a club.

Every seat was filled for the 9 a.m. special town council hearing. Trump was often a big talker, but this morning he said only that if he “could leave one legacy to Palm Beach, it would be the creation of a nonsectarian club.” This was the first time he or Rampell publicly suggested that one of the primary virtues of the club was that it would have Jewish members.

In his presentation, Rampell argued that a club was the best solution for an estate that no individual could afford to maintain and was costing Donald Trump $7,000 a day. If a club was not permitted, Rampell said a new owner of Mar-a-Lago would likely come back to the town council to ask to subdivide the estate. The attorney didn’t talk about the proposed club being unrestricted.

Most of the criticism of the plan focused on increased traffic and noise. Rampell said they had agreed to limit the club to 611 members and 313 trips a day in and out of the estate. He also promised that his client would drop the $50,000,000 lawsuit Trump had already brought against the island. The suit argued that a number of those who had earlier voted against sub-dividing the estate belonged to organizations opposed to Trump’s plan and should have recused themselves.

“Another question that’s often asked to me, will Mr. Trump continue to live at Mar-a- Lago?” Rampell said. “No. Except that he will be a member of the club, and therefore he will be entitled to the use of guest rooms.”

When Trump left the chambers for a lunch break, he had a good feeling about his chances. But when he came back, he sat for hours listening to representatives of the old Palm Beach, and they were not amused with his proposed club. Louis Pryor, president of the Palm Beach Civic Association, believed Trump was a menace to the island. Pryor referred to “Mr. Trump’s close association with gambling interests and business relations with a broad range of people not indigenous to this area or even to Florida.”

Trump sat through all of this, but he left an hour before the 8 p.m. roll call vote. If he had stayed, he would have watched things proceeding just as Rampell predicted they would. The two Jewish council members voted in favor of the club. The two original Christian council members voted no. And the third Christian member, Michele Clarke Royal, voted yes, providing the crucial vote in passing the measure and allowing Mar-a-Lago to become a club.