Donald Trump said he received a $17 million insurance payment in 2005 for hurricane damage to Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, but The Associated Press found little evidence of such large-scale damage.
Two years after a series of storms, the real estate tycoon said he didn't know how much had been spent on repairs but acknowledged he pocketed some of the money. Trump transferred funds into his personal accounts, saying that under the terms of his policy, "you didn't have to reinvest it."
In a deposition in an unrelated civil lawsuit, Trump said he got the cash from a "very good insurance policy" and cited ongoing work to the historic home.
"Landscaping, roofing, walls, painting, leaks, artwork in the — you know, the great tapestries, tiles, Spanish tiles, the beach, the erosion," he said of the storm damage. "It's still not what it was."
Trump's description of extensive damage does not match those of Mar-a-Lago members and even Trump loyalists. In an interview about the estate's history, Trump's longtime former butler, Anthony Senecal, recalled no catastrophic damage. He said Hurricane Wilma, the last of a string of storms that barreled through in 2004 and 2005, flattened trees behind Mar-a-Lago, but the house itself only lost some roof tiles.
"That house has never been seriously damaged," said Senecal, discussing Mar-a-Lago's luck with hurricanes. "I was there for all of them."
Just over two weeks after Wilma, Trump hosted 370 guests at Mar-a-Lago for the wedding of his son Donald Jr.
While part of that celebration did have to be moved away from the front lawn due to hurricane damage, wedding photographs by Getty Images showed the house, pools, cabanas and landscaping in good repair.
Valuations for Mar-a-Lago are subjective, but Forbes estimated the 110,000-square-foot property's value at $150 million in its most recent appraisal of Trump's net worth. The estate's historic nature would add to any repair costs, but Tim Frank, Palm Beach's planning administrator at the time of the hurricanes, said $17 million in work would have required "dozens, maybe scores of workers." In 2004, Trump built a 20,000-square-foot ballroom from scratch for less than $6 million, according to building permits.
Palm Beach building department records show no permits for construction on that scale after the storms. Permits reflected smaller projects, including installation of new grease traps in the kitchen and tree trimming along the road. The only permits that appeared hurricane-related were for $3,000 in repairs to storm-damaged outdoor lighting and the vacuuming of sand from the property's beachfront pool.
Likewise, records of the city's Landmarks and Preservation Commission reflected no repair work conducted following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.
The $17 million Mar-a-Lago insurance payment surfaced during a 2007 deposition in Trump's unsuccessful libel lawsuit against journalist Tim O'Brien, whom Trump accused of underestimating his wealth. As part of the case, O'Brien's attorneys were permitted to review Trump's financial records, including some from the Mar-a-Lago Club. They asked Trump to quantify the damage and explain why he had pocketed money instead of spending it on repairs.
Trump said repairs were ongoing, but acknowledged he could not remember which hurricane had damaged Mar-a-Lago or when it hit.
"We continue to spend the money because we continue to suffer the ravages of that hurricane," Trump said. "We're continuously spending money. It really beat up Mar-a-Lago very badly."
The insurance adjustor who assessed the insurance claim, Hank Stein of VeriClaim Inc., said there had been damage to Trump's golf course in West Palm Beach and damage to Mar-a-Lago's roof and landscaping, but he could not remember details. Trump declined to provide the AP with records about the insurance claim or answer specific questions about damage at Mar-a-Lago.
Stein, who has since left VeriClaim for another firm, said he remembered water damage from rain after windows to an observation deck atop the mansion blew open. "I wish I could give you some more information on the breakdown," he said.
Under local rules, major repairs would have required Trump to request a permit and pay permit fees. If such work were performed without permits, that could have avoided as much as $450,000 in fees but would have likely been illegal.
The city's former planning administrator said getting away with such extensive, unpermitted work would have been unlikely. Frank cited both his own agency's vigilance and wealthy Palm Beach residents' habit of calling out each other's code violations. Once, Trump's neighbors hired lawyers to report suspicions that he improperly let guests sleep in poolside cabanas during a wedding.
"If there were $17 million dollars of damage, we sure as hell would have known about that," said Frank. "I would have known if there was anything in the magnitude of $100,000."
The Republican mayor of Palm Beach at the time -- and Mar-a-Lago member -- Jack McDonald, agreed: "I am unable to comprehend $17 million in reimbursable damage."
Jane Day, the city's former historical preservation consultant, who helped oversee Mar-a-Lago's conversion to a private club and who has visited in the years since as a guest, also was mystified. "This is the first I'm hearing of it."
Frank said the commission would have granted immediate approval to simple repairs, but Trump or his contractors would still have needed to file for permits.
"If they changed the door knobs I was supposed to review it," Frank said.
Much of Trump's property insurance business has long been handled by Pamela Newman, a leading insurance broker for Aon Risk Services Inc. Neither Newman nor AON would discuss the case with AP.
Two former Aon employees familiar with the company's work for Trump said Trump's company was routinely late on insurance premium payments and regularly threatened to take its business elsewhere. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential business matters and because they feared retribution since they continue to work in the insurance industry. Representing Trump allowed Newman to bring up her work on behalf of Trump in sales pitches to wealthy clients, sometimes offering him as a reference, the employees said.
Newman's ties to Trump have endured. He and she both sit on the board of New York's Police Athletic League. She has attended galas at Mar-a-Lago and donated the legal maximum of $2,700 to his presidential exploratory committee before he announced his run. She followed up last July with $25,000 in donations to the Make America Great Again PAC, according to Federal Election Commission records.
According to the Trump deposition, Newman led the effort to obtain a payout on the Mar-a-Lago insurance policy. Trump did not identify which insurer actually footed the bill and the AP was unable to identify who paid the claim.
Documenting an insurance claim as large as the one that Trump made on Mar-a-Lago typically involves extensive verification of the damage. Stein said the process went smoothly and that he worked closely with both Newman and a senior Trump executive, Matt Calamari.
"It would have been myself along with an adjustment team," he said. "It was a thorough investigation."
In the depositions, Trump said he knew little about that process that produced his $17 million payday, but praised the policy and said Newman took care of it.
"We had a very good insurance policy, actually," he said.