"The question is: How tough is the town [going to be] against him now, when they've never been tough with him?" one outside expert says

By Virginia Chamlee
December 18, 2020 12:15 PM
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Trumps at Mar-A-Lago
From left: Barron, Donald and Melania Trump arrive for a New Year's party at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, on Dec. 31, 2017.
| Credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty

President Donald Trump is warmly received at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida — a favored retreat that the first family has been eyeing as their post-White House residency of choice, starting in January.

The problem?

Right outside the bubble of the club, some of Trump's neighbors want the city to at last enforce a rule that would block him from living at Mar-a-Lago for any real length of time.

In a demand letter sent to the town of Palm Beach on Tuesday, as reported by The Washington Post and The New York Times, a group of residents argued that Trump's plans to move to Mar-a-Lago go against a use agreement he entered into in 1993.

As a result, these residents say, he needs to find a new place to live.

“To avoid an embarrassing situation for everyone and to give the president time to make other living arrangements in the area, we trust you will work with his team to remind them of the use agreement parameters,” reads the letter to the city, according to the Post and Times, which was also sent to the Secret Service and includes a pointed message to the president: “Palm Beach has many lovely estates for sale, and surely he can find one which meets his needs.”

Attorney Reginald Stambaugh wrote the demand on behalf of the wealthy DeMoss family, who own a property adjacent to the club, according to the Times. (The DeMosses themselves have a reportedly conservative background.)

Those who don't want the Trumps living at Mar-a-Lago cite a 1993 use agreement, signed after Trump, 74, converted what was then his private residence (purchased in the '80s) into a members-only club.

The document, published by the Post, stipulates that the use of the resort's guest suites "shall be limited to a maximum of three (3) non-consecutive seven (7) day periods by any one member during the year."

Trump signed the agreement, on behalf of the club, in August 1993.

According to the Post, he also entered into a deal with the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation that Mar-a-Lago would be reserved exclusively for "club use."

A Trump Organization spokeswoman defended his potential move, insisting in a statement to PEOPLE, "There is no document or agreement in place that prohibits President Trump from using Mar-a-Lago as his residence."

Not so, say the locals opposing him.

“There’s absolutely no legal theory under which he can use that property as both a residence and a club,” Glenn Zeitz, an attorney involved in the dispute, told the Post. “Basically he’s playing a dead hand. He’s not going to intimidate or bluff people, because we’re going to be there.”

The only question is: Will the city actually care?

Donald Trump
From left: President Donald Trump, son Barron Trump and First Lady Melania Trump at Mar-a-Lago in 2015
The Mar-a-Lago Club
| Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty

The anti-Trump residents argue they are right on the law, citing the '93 agreement. But even a cursory review of Trump's movements over the years show he has traveled to and from Mar-a-Lago in a way that suggests local officials aren't interested in forcing the issue, all things considered, especially now that he is a soon-to-be-former president.

Some of these same critical local residents unsuccessfully pressed the issue before the election, saying it undercut Trump's Florida voter registration. But Florida's residency requirements are somewhat subjective, and he and his wife voted there anyway.

(Messages and requests for comment from Palm Beach officials as well as the attorneys involved were not returned this week. A White House spokesman had no comment.)

Laurence Leamer, author of Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump's Presidential Palace, says Trump's apparent lack of adherence to the use rule is par for the course.

"The agreement is pretty clear that he can only stay so many days a year and so many days in a row, that's it," Leamer tells PEOPLE. "But Trump has violated every norm and law in human history and he's violated this from day one. I mean, for years, he's been staying far more than he's supposed to stay [and] violated all kinds of strictures."

“He's got smart lawyers," Leamer says. "And beyond that, the question is: How tough is the town [going to be] against him now, when they've never been tough with him? He just pushes anybody and everything as far as he can go. And that's what he's done all these years."

Both the Times and the Post reported that there were some missing records that Mar-a-Lago is supposed to provide showing that at least half of its membership goes to locals and that it has no more than 500 members.

According to a tally by the Post, Trump has also spent at least 130 days at Mar-a-Lago during his presidency and the town has yet to raise any objections, at least publicly.

“So my guess is his lawyer would just say, ‘Well, gee, we were already doing this. Why didn't you cite us for this a long time ago?' " Leamer says.

The Mar-a-Lago Club with Donald and Melania Trump (right)
| Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty

The White House hasn't publicly announced what Trump's post-presidency plans will entail, while he continues to try and overturn the election he lost, but he and First Lady Melania Trump switched their permanent residences from New York City to Palm Beach in a "declaration of domicile" filed last year.

Sources previously told PEOPLE that President Trump's private 2,000-square-foot residence at the club would be "expanded and spruced up," and Mrs. Trump, 50, is looking at schools in the area for teenage son Barron.

Trump has chafed at the '93 agreement before (and, according to the Post, sued Palm Beach in 1996 trying to remove some of the restrictions).

The use agreement also states that the land could not be used for "helicopter operations" nor "docks," two stipulations that Trump has specifically challenged. The city made an exception for his use of a helipad while he has been in office but said it must then be removed. He has separately, so far unsuccessfully, tried to build a dock at Mar-a-Lago.

Leamer says that when it comes to Trump, there is a divide among Palm Beach society.

"They didn't like him when he arrived. He's very much the kind of person who kind of lives on an island, and he's very unlike the people that live in Palm Beach," he tells PEOPLE. “The flamboyant, over-the-top guy. That's not the way most of these people are."

The old guard might not be keen on Trump moving back to his members-only property, but the president relishes on the attention he receives at Mar-a-Lago. ("No matter what else is happening in the world, he is treated like royalty at Mar-a-Lago. He loves to be here," a source previously told PEOPLE.)

"Initially, when he turned it into a club, he didn't want to stay here," Leamer says. "His lawyer wasn't lying when his lawyer said that he wouldn't be staying here. He didn't to stay. He thought, 'No way — why am I staying at this club with all these people hanging around? I don't want to do that.' "

But times change.

"He's created his reality. This is the world he loves," Leamer says of Trump now. "And once he became president, a new kind of member came into the club, mainly Trump supporters."

"And they joined just for that one reason," Leamer says. "They didn't care what it cost to get in to be next to him ... They just wanted to be near him."

• With reporting by LIZ McNEIL and SEAN NEUMANN