Meanwhile, in 1985, Donald Trump had bought the historic estate of Mar-a-Lago: a 128-room mansion on twenty acres in Palm Beach, Florida. He then began the long process of remodeling the property....
At the time, exclusive social clubs in Palm Beach were known for their “anti-Semitic policies.” As reported in the May 1991 issue of New York Magazine, the social clubs at Palm Beach “not only do not allow Jews and blacks to become members, they do not let members bring them as guests.” Accordingly, a town council election was “charged with undercurrents of anti-Semitism,” leading to a sharpening of the debate over the social clubs’ anti-Semitic policies. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) demanded that the mayor of Palm Beach resign from the Sailfish Club because it discriminated.
One occasional visitor described the extraordinary levels of discrimination in Palm Beach: “It’s a theme park of anti-Semitism,” and “Jews go there to be treated like they were in the [nineteen] forties.” For example, Christian members who married Jews were forbidden from bringing their spouses to the clubs. New York Magazine complained: “The towns two most exclusive clubs, the Everglades and the Bath and Tennis Club, remain shameless bastions of anti-Semitism. No one even bothers to deny it.” Likewise, the president of the Beach Club informed a reporter: “According to the Constitution, a private club is permitted to discriminate.”
In 1991, a writer for Vanity Fair asked Donald Trump why he wasn’t a member of the Bath and Tennis Club. Allegedly, he had not been invited to join. But Trump replied: “Utter bullshit!” He referred to them as “phonies!” And he argued: “Do you think if I wanted to be a member they would have turned me down? I wouldn’t join that club, because they don’t take Blacks and Jews.”
[I]n 1995, Donald Trump opened up Mar-a-Lago as a brand new social club. Promptly, the Palm Beach town council tried to impose restrictions on membership, party attendance, photography, etc. But suddenly, Trump undercut them “with a searing attack, claiming that local officials seemed to accept the established private clubs in town that had excluded Jews and Blacks while imposing tough rules on his inclusive one.”
To scorn them, in the fall of 1996 Trump’s lawyer sent copies of classic movies on discrimination to each member of the Palm Beach town council. The movies were A Gentleman’s Agreement, about a journalist exposing anti-Semitism in New York, and the other one was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, about a white woman who brings her black fiancé to meet her white parents.
In December 1996, Donald Trump filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Palm Beach, alleging that the town was discriminating against Mar-a-Lago, partly because Trump’s “Mar-a-Lago was open to Jews and African-Americans.” The lawsuit sought $100 million in damages.
Despite some misgivings, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, was pleased that Trump denounced discriminatory policies at social clubs. Foxman said that Trump had exposed Palm Beach for “its seamier side of discrimination. It has an impact.”
By April 1997, Foxman reported that Jewish residents of Palm Beach had told him that now the clubs were changing, finally starting to admit Jewish patrons. Trump bragged that “Palm Beach is very much changing for the better, and a lot of that is because of Mar-a-Lago.”