Mr. Trump encouraged one organizer to pack the ballroom for a February event beyond the 700-person limit, advising that person to tell his staff at Mar-a-Lago that he said he would allow the increase. That organizer was told that the Mar-a-Lago security team had no final say over crowd numbers, but the event still grew to around 730 guests.
In the end, Mr. Trump did not attend, and it was screened by Mar-a-Lago officials and a private security firm hired by the event’s organizers.
When the president is not at his club, the security bubble becomes easier to break.
Members and guests must still present identification and check in with the club’s security team, but several layers of Secret Service protection are not in place. Laurence Leamer, a Palm Beach resident who wrote a book about Mar-a-Lago, said in an interview that the scene could be freewheeling, “like having dinner at the Outback Steakhouse,” adding that the security “seems to me to be incredibly lax.”
Mr. Trump was at his nearby golf club four miles away when Ms. Zhang showed up at the resort on Saturday, and the process that the Secret Service uses to check visitors when he is in town was in place, officials said. Ms. Zhang was screened by agents before reaching the club’s reception area, but confusion over her name and a potential communication barrier led to her entering.
On Wednesday, the Secret Service was reviewing the Saturday incident with security at Mar-a-Lago. John Cohen, a former acting under secretary at the Department of Homeland Security who worked closely with the Secret Service on protection details, said the president’s “predictable” travel to the resort had made the location vulnerable.
“That’s a nightmare for the Secret Service,” he said. “A privately owned ranch where the president and his people use the location is much easier than protecting the president when he chooses to go to a private club that’s open to members that provides services to those people in exchange for a fee.”
When people approach a checkpoint at Mar-a-Lago, the Secret Service is focused on screening them for weapons or explosives, Mr. Mihalek said.