Politics

Anti-Muslim extremist group says it will host $1,500-a-plate gala at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago

The anti-Muslim group ACT for America plans to host an annual gala at President Donald Trump’s South Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, according to an invitation posted on the group’s website.

Known for organizing the “March Against Sharia” in 2017, a nationwide protest attended by far-right and white supremacist groups, ACT for America is considered the largest anti-Muslim group in the country by organizations that monitor extremists, including the Anti-Defamation League, Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

While Trump’s properties have drawn scrutiny from good-government watchdogs, ACT for America would likely be the most controversial group to book a major event at Mar-a-Lago. The club, often considered the crown jewel of Trump’s business empire, has seen its revenue dip after the president’s controversial comments on race.

Tickets for the Nov. 7 event start at $1,500, according to ACT’s website. That’s a major increase from the $250-to-$350 prices charged when the group hosted the event at hotels in and around Washington, D.C., according to the SPLC, which first reported ACT’s choice of Mar-a-Lago. VIP seats for the gala — listed at $2,500 — are already sold out, the group’s website shows.

Like most galas at Trump’s Palm Beach club, the ACT event will begin with cocktails at 6:30 p.m. Drinks will be followed by a dinner featuring guest speakers, including conservative commentator Michelle Malkin and ACT’s founder Brigitte Gabriel, who has questioned whether Muslims can be “loyal” citizens of the United States.

“It is totally inappropriate that an Islamophobic hate group would be in effect funneling money to the president of the United States by holding an event in one of his properties,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. “This is a group that has been associated with Islamophobia in the worst form for many years and has also been associated with white supremacists and racist groups.”

Hooper said that the president’s club seemingly agreeing to host the event suggests Trump “endorses” the group’s ideology — and reveals how Trump’s business empire, held alongside his presidential office, opens up a pathway for undue influence and corruption.

“If you want to curry favor with him, you spend money at his properties,” he said.

The jump in ticket prices also reflects how controversial groups may seek to use the president’s properties to boost their own profiles and bottom lines.

“The profit goes both ways,” Hooper said. “The hate group makes money and President Trump makes money. It’s a win-win for bigotry.”

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President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf resort in Palm Beach, Florida. AP File

Trump made $22.7 million from Mar-a-Lago in 2018, according to a financial disclosure form filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. That was a 10 percent drop from 2017. ACT’s ability to book an event at Mar-a-Lago, even before Palm Beach’s social season kicks off, may suggest the club is struggling to find groups willing to host the galas and fundraisers that drive its profits.

Alan Garten, an executive at the Trump Organization, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday. Neither did ACT for America. A security staffer at Mar-a-Lago instructed reporters to call back Monday. The White House declined to comment.

Mar-a-Lago’s grand ballroom, where most galas are hosted, conservatively seats around 700 guests, according to several club employees who spoke to the Miami Herald on condition of anonymity. If the ACT event sells out, it could bring more than $1 million in revenue.

An undisclosed portion of that will go to the Trump Organization, currently run by the president’s two adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. While President Trump is not involved in the day-to-day running of the organization, he did not divest his financial interests after the 2016 election.

ACT for America, founded in 2007, describes itself as a “national security grassroots organization.” Gabriel, a Lebanese-born Christian, is known for espousing anti-Muslim views. In 2007, she declared that a “practicing Muslim ... cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America.” The SPLC says ACT for America is “undoubtedly” the largest anti-Muslim group in the United States.

Mar-a-Lago would be a big step up for the group.

In 2017, for instance, ACT held its annual event at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Virginia, charging $350 for a three-day conference, said a link on Gabriel’s Facebook page. The event’s slogan was “United Against Terror.”

The next year, ACT booked the Hyatt Regency Crystal City. After an outcry, Hyatt’s CEO said it would no longer rent space to hate groups, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Civil rights groups have criticized Trump’s statements and policies concerning Muslims.

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In the past, Act for America’s annual event has drawn many conservative politicians as well as some of President Trump’s closest advisors, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. www.actforamerica.org

Just seven days into his tenure as president, Trump issued an executive order commonly known as the “Muslim Ban” that suspended U.S. entry for people from seven majority-Muslim countries. The ban was blocked by a temporary restraining order later upheld in Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, a modified version of the ban went into effect in 2018 and was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

ACT has claimed direct access to the Trump White House. “We have a president that likes us, President Trump,” Gabriel said during the group’s 2018 event in Washington, D.C.

During Trump’s 2016 campaign, Gabriel visited Mar-a-Lago to meet with the candidate, the SPLC said. In 2017, Gabriel visited the White House, meeting with a member of the administration’s legislative staff, the Guardian reported.

“Very productive day at the White House,” Gabriel posted on Facebook.

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn served on ACT’s board and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke at an ACT event, according to the Bridge Initiative’s description of the group. ACT events have featured other Republicans, include Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who spoke at the 2017 event, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

“ACT purports to advocate for national security and against the threat of radical Islam, but in fact promotes conspiracy theories about all Muslims, including the 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States,” the ADL said.

ACT has said it welcomes “peaceful Muslims.”

The group’s keynote speaker for its Mar-a-Lago event, Michelle Malkin, is a controversial right-wing pundit, having published a 2004 book called “In Defense of Internment,” which argued the United States was right to imprison Japanese Americans during World War II. This year, she was a featured speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., where President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence also spoke. She called current immigration levels an “invasion” and said “diversity is not our strength,” HuffPost reported.

Malkin tweeted at Herald reporters after the publication of this article, stating: “The smear merchants of CAIR & SPLC have ruthlessly attacked patriots of all colors who expose the dangers of radical Islam and open borders.”

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The anti-Muslim group Act for America is advertising a gala at Mar-a-Lago featuring pundit Michelle Malkin as the keynote speaker. www.actforamerica.org

Mar-a-Lago, formerly the estate of early-20th century cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, has long hosted high-profile galas for charities like the Red Cross popular in Palm Beach society circles. Many of those events pulled out of the club, however, after Trump’s controversial comments about “very fine people on both sides” of the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville that left one counter-protester dead.

But the financial void was filled in part as Trump supporters organized last-minute galas.

The degree to which Trump’s elected office is making him money has also come under scrutiny.

Last month, the Herald reported that a U.S. Marine Corps unit stationed in South Florida hoped to have its annual ball at Mar-a-Lago. The event was quickly scrapped over concerns that the Marines would be seen as taking a political stance. The U.S. Air Force launched an inquiry after Politico reported on air crews staying at a Trump hotel in Scotland. And Trump has hosted foreign leaders at Mar-a-Lago and talked of hosting the Group of Seven summit in 2020 at his resort in Doral.

This article was updated to include a comment from Michelle Malkin.

Nicholas Nehamas is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, where he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the Panama Papers in 2016. He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He joined the Herald in 2014.
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Sarah Blaskey is an investigative and data reporter at the Miami Herald. She holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism and is a recent recipient of a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant for her work on shark fishing and human trafficking in Central America.
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