It had already been a pretty rum week for Donald Trump. Imagine leaving Washington under a cloud, with your VP attending your successor’s inauguration rather than your leaving do.
And now there was a Brit standing at his lunch table in the sanctuary of the Grill Room of his golf club.
“How did you get here,” he asked.
“I’m in the pool. I came down on Air Force One. At the back,” I offered unhelpfully.
It was unhelpful given the current line of questioning, which was intended to ascertain exactly how a journalist had got inside his club. Unhelpful but true.
On Wednesday I flew down to Florida with President Trump as part of the travelling press pool. We motorcaded with him from the airport to his Mar-a-Lago club, dropping him off at 11:31 with about 15 minutes of his presidency remaining.
And then I hung around. My pool colleagues – White House wire reporters, a TV crew, a radio reporter and photographers — didn’t. Most were on the next flight back to Washington.
So when Thursday came around I had the sidewalk opposite the Trump International Golf Club West Palm Beach to myself. I wanted to know what the most powerful man in the world did on the day after became a private citizen again.
For such an unpredictable character, he was satisfyingly predictable.
At about 10:46 his motorcade appeared along the palm-lined road and pulled into the golf club. He spent his first day of freedom playing golf at his club. Much as he had done during holidays and weekends throughout his presidency.
The next day I was back. But this time it didn’t look like he was showing. The clock ticked almost up to midday — too late for the president’s usual morning round — as I stood in a shady spot chatting with a Trump fan who didn’t have anywhere else to be.
It didn’t matter that he hadn’t appeared. I had other plans. A friend of a friend had invited me to lunch at the club. It was all part of my effort to get behind the bougainvillea-dappled hedges and inside Palm Beach’s moneyed world. Who are these people? What do they think of Trump? And can I get a quote to go in my story?
So at midday my friend picked me up from my spot in a parking lot across from the club and drove me up a drive I had only ever looked down from afar. He handed the keys of his Lincoln to a valet as we wondered whether the blond with her head in the boot of her Range Rover was Ivanka.
Our host was already there, tucking into a bowl of crab bisque on the shady outdoor terrace. Carl Domino is an investment manager and former state lawmaker. And a generous guide to Trump world.
He had been club chairman when it opened in 1999, presenting prizes alongside the owner. (The honours board in the hallway records that one Donald J. Trump was men’s champion that year.)
He told the story of how a few years later he played a round with Trump. Domino was running for Congress and his campaign team was also working for Sen. Paul Rand. Trump was thinking about running for governor of New York. Introductions were made. And 18 holes were duly played.
“He’s a great golfer. Great golfer,” said Domino. “That day he hit even. We were playing off the white tees, but that was for me.”
From our spot on the terrace we could look across the gentle folds of the Trump course. I ate my soup listening to the gentle rushing of a waterfall. The courses ups and downs had all been carved and constructed from flat ground. And the grass was so well-watered that it put me in mind of astroturf. Fake views in the modern parlance, perhaps, if you want to be snide. But still there is something about a waterfall that is good for the soul and something about rolling hills that is restful.
“Have a burger,” said Domino. “They look great.”
And they were. A grill was running on the edge of the golf course. My burger was blackened on the outside and pink in the middle. I took a fat pickle on the side, ketchup, mustard and onions in the bun. Let the burger be the star.
OK. I also added some big fat prawns from the buffet. (The non-self serve buffet, tended by waiters in gloves behind a plastic screen.) It felt like a surf and turf kind of day.
We rounded things off with cookies after discussing Georgia’s run-off elections, Tesla stocks and what Trump might do next. The conclusion: Who knows?
It was only as we left and approached the windows leading to the Grill Room that I saw the white polo shirt and familiar red cap. “Is that…?”
It was. I should have been alerted by the sniffer dog that made its rounds just as I was adding ketchup to my burger.
Two days out of office, Trump was right there in his regular spot, back to the window so that his two guests had the benefit of the view. His skin looked paler than the last time I saw him mouthing “thank you” to us journalists who had travelled down on Air Force One. Perhaps, with no (scheduled) media appearances, he had simply forgone his usual skin powder.
He didn’t much like being interrupted during lunch. I asked if he would talk to me about his plans but he gently declined with a few words about not wanting to do anything just yet.
An aide stepped in to get me on my way. “Do you need me to step back?” I asked, stepping back, well aware that a three-man secret service detail was eyeing me with a measure of intent.
But Trump called me back closer. Make sure I give my details to his chap, he said.
And with that we were done. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. The first words from Trump after his term ended.
I headed down the corridor – decorated with magazine front covers featuring Trump and signed NFL helmets – to the gift shop, where a frazzled club manager quickly caught up with me among the souvenir divot repair tools and the driver headcovers sprouting a shock of blond hair. He asked me how I had got in.
Minutes later I was back at my car in the parking lot across the road. The Trump fan had gone. But she left me a note tucked into my car door. It said simply: “He came at 1:20pm.”