- Nearly 20 years after coming to Bedminster, New Jersey, Donald Trump remains a stranger to most.
- The town would like to forget him, especially after the January 6 Capitol attack by his supporters.
- “He didn’t exactly help the local economy while building his golf course,” a resident told Insider.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
BEDMINSTER, New Jersey — “I’m shocked that they’re not stopping me,” the tour guide said as their dark-colored SUV kicked up a cloud of dust while heading into the heart of Donald Trump’s summer retreat.
It’s not that the back road, well known to locals and intrepid journalists alike, was left unguarded on that sunny Wednesday in August.
Two men sitting in a pickup truck parked by the not-so-secret entrance watched us roll right on through the members-only Trump National Golf Club.
No alarms blared.
Nobody stopped the car or demanded any type of identification.
One waved “hello” and nodded.
Incredibly hospitable, given the volatile reactions the twice-impeached former president provokes wherever he goes.
And a very different scene from back in 2017 when protesters still wounded from the stunning election result would drive by the club’s far-flung main entrance, honk their horns, and parade around a Pinocchio-nosed Trump statue on a pickup truck to taunt the newly minted president.
“Maybe he’s not here,” the tour guide said as the window-wrapped clubhouse rose in the distance. The thought hung there for a moment — until a more cynical view of how locals really feel about sharing a ZIP code with the embattled agitator-in-chief took its place.
“Maybe they don’t care.”
Donald Trump was at a very different point in his life back in 2002 when he began hunting for something to slap his name on in the Garden State.
The self-styled playboy was between his second and third wives; he’d begun dating the model Melania Knauss after divorcing the actor Marla Maples. Only four of his family-run businesses had filed for bankruptcy, at the time, according to The Washington Post. And while the then-registered Democrat had flirted with running for political office, Trump appeared far more interested in the entertainment world — frequently bragging about his sex life on “The Howard Stern Show” — than in dissecting policy proposals.
Trump got to brand-building by snatching the estate of the scandal-plagued automaker John DeLorean from bankruptcy and mapped out plans for an exclusive golf club he could market to Manhattanites craving a change of scenery.
Nearly two decades later, the same man who brought Republicans to heel over the past five years still doesn’t command blind fealty in this slice of horse country.
Though the five-member Bedminster Township Committee has been solidly Republican since 2015, the surrounding Somerset County and the area’s congressional delegation shifted to majority Democratic control during Trump’s polarizing one-term presidency.
A local Democrat, who requested anonymity to avoid retribution from “the Trump crazies,” said disillusionment among local conservatives had swelled in recent years.
“They started out by saying, ‘Well, we’re proud to have the president come to our town,'” the Democrat told Insider. “They don’t say that anymore.”
That’s led to some awkwardness for Mayor Larry Jacobs and Committeewoman Renee Mareski, both of whom are Republicans running for reelection in the 8,300-person town and trying to distance themselves from the guy Joe Biden beat here by nearly 400 votes last fall.
“They don’t want to align themselves with Trump at all,” the Democrat said. “It’s kind of the opposite of what you see happening in the rest of the country.”
Nearly two weeks after the deadly January 6 attack on the US Capitol, Jacobs issued a statement attempting to defuse tensions in the area, where reactions to the destruction were as strong on each side as in any part of the country. Jacobs pleaded with residents to let congressional investigators, federal authorities, and possibly the Supreme Court decide Trump’s fate, rather than condemning him themselves.
“The Bedminster Township Committee and Land Use Board are not appropriate forums for defending or prosecuting the President’s actions or words,” Jacobs posted on the town’s Facebook page on January 18. “Our focus should remain squarely on Bedminster and our residents, and not on pushing any extraneous political agenda.”
Hope Kaufman, who along with a fellow Democrat, Nicholas LaBelle, is running for state assembly in the legislative district that covers Bedminster, said ignoring Trump was a luxury dismissive local Republicans no longer had.
“After the insurrection, a lot of the people that were very vocally Trump in town dialed it back a lot and took a really good long stare at themselves,” she told Insider.
It’s unclear how many local residents had the come-to-Jesus moment Kaufman described. Many, it would seem, appear content to stick with the strategy that’s made Trump’s annual sojourns manageable: memory-holing the entire affair.
On a scale of existential threat to local hero, the consensus among the 16 public officials, private citizens, and political observers Insider interviewed for this story placed Trump in the “are we still talking about that guy?” camp.
Love him or loathe him, Trump is probably sticking around his Bedminster golf club for a while.
He hunkers down here about half the year, beelining for Bedminster once his Palm Beach, Florida, property of Mar-a-Lago shuts down for the summer, typically from May to October. A Washington Post report estimates that Trump spent 106 days at his Bedminster club while president, squeezing in nearly three dozen rounds of golf in New Jersey compared with the 230 games he played elsewhere.
This latest incursion kicked off in May, following months of golf-based postelection self-care in Florida. Stripped of access to Twitter and other social-media platforms, Trump has had to seek out other distractions. In addition to hitting the links at his 36-hole summer hideout, Trump has busied himself by auditioning MAGA-aligned challengers to unleash on the 17 Republicans who voted for either of his back-to-back impeachments and airing grievances to power-hungry acolytes awaiting their 2024 marching orders.
The retirement-age man, sporting a shock of white hair and a rumpled golf shirt, politely asked whether the seat was taken before plopping down one stool over at the bustling Time to Eat Diner, some 12 miles south of Trump National Golf Club.
He tuned out the English Premier League game playing out on TV as he pored over the New York Post, with its daily Biden-bashing stories. He glossed over the featured Polish delicacies, which included pierogi, kielbasa, and stuffed cabbage, before ordering an all-American brunch of fried eggs, bacon (extra crispy), and generously buttered rye toast.
When asked what it was like having Trump around all summer, the sunny disposition he’d displayed earlier quickly faded. His face clouded over. The man polished off the breakfast platter and bottomless cup of decaf coffee in silence — never again making eye contact, even as he shuffled out the door.
Was that too personal? Too poignant?
Bizarre, actually, according to a New Jersey native named Steve Parker.
“We’re kind of back to normal here,” said Parker, who now runs his family’s business, Somerset Airport, a privately owned public-use airport in the area.
A former Republican committeeman who served as mayor of Bedminster during the first two years of the Trump administration, Parker said the only ones who’d kept tabs on Trump — before, during, or after his presidency — were members of the media. Locals, he added, were probably oblivious of his whereabouts.
“It wasn’t like he was going down to the local pizzeria every Friday night,” Parker told Insider of Trump’s penchant for sticking to his home bases, noting that “the beauty of the golf club is he kind of has everything he needs there.”
One such amenity is the helipad Trump lands on or takes off from when traveling to and from Bedminster. During his presidency, the presidential jet Air Force One would fly into the airport in neighboring Morristown — which happened at least two dozen times, according to this Trump travel tracker. Trump would then helicopter the 24 miles to Bedminster, landing at his own helipad and sparing the locals any motorcade-related traffic jams.
At times, Trump directly affected Parker’s livelihood. “The one business in town that was affected was the local airport, which basically had to close down when he was here,” he said.
Still, he bears no grudges.
“It didn’t bother anybody when he was here,” Parker said. “People just kind of went on about their business.”
Sally Rubin, a former GOP committeewoman who is now the executive director of the conservation group Great Swamp Watershed Association, said she typically divined Trump’s presence by catching glimpses of the presidential helicopter, Marine One, zooming in from Morristown.
“You’d go out and you’d look up and you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s the helicopters,’ and then two seconds later, he’d be gone,” Rubin, who grew up in Bedminster, told Insider. The other giveaway: “Occasionally, you’d see very large men who you presume to be Secret Service ordering coffee at Starbucks.”
Otherwise, Rubin said, “his existence in my town is a nonevent.”
Trump’s northern getaway very much sneaks up on you.
There are more real-estate signs than Trump-Pence placards planted along the two-lane stretch of Route 202 that leads — via an abrupt turn — to a mile-long driveway that snakes past Trump National Golf Club’s well-manicured greens.
Once inside, the roughly 400 members who’ve paid up to $350,000 a person in initiation fees are greeted by the converted 80-year old clubhouse where DeLorean used to live. That’s where members slide into leather-wrapped chairs to eat gourmet meals and swig self-supplied wines.
An aerial tour of the grounds posted by the local news outlet NJ.com sweeps past the myriad fairways, sand traps, and water hazards that dot the Old Course, which debuted in 2004, and the New Course, which was unveiled in 2008.
Half a dozen rental cottages ring a 25-meter swimming pool, while Trump reportedly keeps to a personal villa elsewhere. There are also tennis courts, a conference center, and a 5,000-square-foot ballroom that’s primed for wedding receptions.
And while the Trump Organization guards its membership list like state secrets, Trump National Golf Club’s general manager, David Schutzenhofer, let the veil slip a little bit in a promotional video from 2014.
During a tour of the mahogany-covered men’s locker room, the camera captured personalized plaques inscribed with the names of the golf legend Arnold Palmer (who died in 2016), the Republican former Gov. Thomas Kean, the NFL quarterback Tom Brady, and Mike Davis, then the CEO of the United States Golf Association.
Avoiding prying eyes has always been part of the program.
While he made a big show of the groundbreaking in October 2002, Trump has attempted to keep much about his golf club hidden.
At the groundbreaking, the future president joked, “Let’s take a little dirt out of here” and “now let’s throw it on the press,” foreshadowing the rocky relationship he’d have with nosy reporters more than a decade later.
According to The Washington Post, Trump’s company secretly hired unauthorized Costa Rican workers to shape his suburban retreat for a fraction of what he would have had to pay unionized locals.
“He didn’t exactly help the local economy while building his golf course,” the local Democrat who requested anonymity said.
Importing foreign laborers cut costs on the front end.
He didn’t exactly help the local economy while building his golf course.A Bedminster Democrat
He’s kept that ball rolling by having ravenous goats take care of the landscaping from time to time. Introducing working animals into the equation has allowed Trump to claim the Garden State’s farmland assessment tax break, saving him a ton of money.
Filings for 2020 reviewed by Insider show Trump paid $400,000 in property taxes for the 244-acre portion of the golf club, which Bedminister calculates is worth $29 million. In comparison, he paid just $700 in property taxes for the 119-acre “qualified farm” where the goats munch, which is assessed at $51,000.
Other property owners in the area have taken advantage of that tax-shaving strategy, including DeLorean, according to Bedminster’s tax assessor, Edward Kerwin.
Every once in a while Trump has tried to be the life of the party in Bedminster.
His eldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, got married at the club in 2009. And Trump National hosted the US Women’s Open in 2017 — under intense pressure from the newly minted commander in chief.
Golf tournaments aside, Trump has hatched a plan — sort of — to keep cashing in on his property even long after he’s gone.
A nearly decade-old plan to turn part of Trump National into a cemetery remains in limbo. The Bedminster Land Use Board secretary, Janine De Leon, said she didn’t have any updates about the plans Trump pitched to town leaders before becoming president. One was for an immediate family-only resting place planting Trump behind the first tee of the new course, the other envisioned selling approximately 300 plots exclusively to club members.
Rubin, the former GOP committeewoman who negotiated the standing agreement while in office, said the town’s approval was contingent on staying low-key.
“The rules we’ve put in were limited to a certain number and could not be seen from Lamington Road,” she said.
“So who cares what he does on his hundreds of acres of property?”
The Trump spokeswoman Liz Harrington, Trump National Golf Club, and the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment about Trump’s nebulous burial arrangements.
The local Democrat who requested anonymity is far less interested in the possibility of Trump fleecing the dead than in the harm that person thinks he’s doing to those living in the area right now. This particular outrage stems from Trump National’s siphoning of up to 63 million gallons of water a year to maintain the golf course.
“The people who live around him, their wells are going dry, because he’s sucking up the aquifer,” the Democrat railed. “You don’t hear that from the neighbors of the other two golf courses.”
State officials seem fine with it, for now, at least. The New Jersey Water Supply Authority approved a one-year extension of Trump National’s contract in December 2020.
Having learned their lesson from public outbursts during the early stages of Trump’s presidency, local leaders attempted to placate protesters by erecting a police-enforced Free Speech Zone just steps from the Clarence Dillon Public Library, which is approximately 4 miles from the golf club and sits at the intersection leading to the three-quarter-mile-long, restaurant-lined stretch of Main Street that Trump by all accounts has never visited.
Parker, the former GOP leader who runs Somerset Airport, said the weekend protests, which were separated into pro- and anti-Trump-related events held on separate days, didn’t cause much of a stir on his watch.
“Those gatherings and the press that accompanies such gatherings did cause some concern,” he said. “But most understood what was behind it, on both sides.”
Former GOP committeewoman Rubin said she heard that Trump once swung by the area when his supporters were around. “He got out of the car and threw them all MAGA hats. Everybody was all excited,” she said.
The saga continues.
A trip in August to the Free Speech Zone, which is less than 50 yards from a flower-filled children’s garden, revealed a festering proxy war.
The surrounding light poles and street signs at the busy intersection near the Free Speech Zone are plastered with dueling political propaganda.
Critics annotated a “Keep America Great” sticker with a message reading #biggestloserever. A series of “Facts matter” stickers cover up three Trump-related stickers posted above a “Do Not Enter” sign.
A few feet away a pro-Trump mural of overlapping bumper stickers proclaims “only you can prevent socialism” and declares someone there is “proud to be a Trump girl.”
There’s even a parting message for those who might disagree: “Fuck your feelings.”
Flare-ups have happened.
Town leaders braced for a backlash following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. And one woman told The Bernardsville News that roving Trump fans bullied Biden supporters in October 2020 by screaming “foul language and sexual references” at them and intimidated young women by “leaning in toward them while not wearing masks.”
Jacobs, the town’s Republican mayor, responded to accusations of police favoring pro-Trump demonstrators last fall by praising Bedminster Police Chief Karl Rock for maintaining order during unprecedented times. The official statement said local authorities had been forced to contend with threats to “burn Bedminster to the ground,” rhetoric that only amplified as Trump howled falsely about rigged elections.
2020 was the first year since we’ve been here that there was definitive signage in town regarding political parties. It was almost as if these were the camps.Tewksbury resident Hope Kaufman
Since Trump lost the 2020 election, the local Democrat who requested anonymity said liberals hadn’t really frequented the Free Speech Zone.
“Lately it’s been used more and more by Trump people,” specifically the “Stop the Steal crowd,” the Democrat said. “It’s boys that I’m sure wish they had been part of the January 6 crap. Or were part of it.”
Confrontation, the Democratic candidate Kaufman said, consumed the entire area last fall.
“2020 was the first year since we’ve been here that there was definitive signage in town regarding political parties. It was almost as if these were the camps,” she said of the uncharacteristic displays of tribalism.
Kaufman said her Biden yard sign got stolen three times. When she alerted the local police, she learned she wasn’t alone.
A review of Tewksbury police reports filed from August 2020 through December 2020 chronicles dirty tricks including:
- One resident of Lebanon, New Jersey, told the police her Trump flag had been vandalized and reported feeling targeted after someone scrawled “Fuck Trump” on her driveway. Her rationale: “People don’t just drive around with chalk in their cars.”
- Another Lebanon resident reported having three yard signs stolen — two Biden signs and one for Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski — in one month.
- Two Tewksbury residents reported having unspecified yard signs defaced or stolen on consecutive days.
- One Califon, New Jersey, resident reported having three yard signs stolen. His tormentors absconded with signs for Biden as well as the Democratic Senate hopefuls Amy McGrath, who lost to Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, and Jaime Harrison, who lost to the Trump confidant Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.
We’re a wonderful town. Everything’s fine.Former GOP leader Steve Parker
No need to worry about Trump, Parker said, or anyone else in Bedminster.
“We’re a wonderful town. Everything’s fine.”
No one Insider spoke with for this story recalled Trump ever setting foot outside the golf club in the 19 years since he arrived.
That means he’s missed out on the weekly Saturday farmers market, where locals rub elbows with area celebs like the former governor Kean — the former GOP committeewoman Rubin said he was “lovely” — and James S. Brady Jr., who helps coordinate parking. Brady is the son of the former White House press secretary and Reagan administration alum James S. Brady.
Trump also missed out on people-watching or joining sweat-drenched joggers for a lap around the gravelly Great Meadow Loop at the neighboring Natirar Park.
And he doesn’t get to cheer on champion thoroughbreds at the annual horse races — the centennial running of which is scheduled for Saturday, October 16 — hosted by Moorland Farm in the neighboring Far Hills.
There’s really no reason for nonmembers to trek over to Trump National, which rarely welcomes the general public.
One exception was the town committee’s annual reorganization dinner, which takes place each January.
Rubin said the Betty Merck dinner, named for the former committee member and late pharmaceutical heiress, was originally held in town at the local restaurant Willie’s Tavern.
“When Delicious Heights bought Willie’s Tavern, they changed the configuration,” she said of the ownership change and subsequent renovation that sent the committee in search of a new celebratory spot. Enter Trump National, which Rubin said in her day charged about $35 a person to attend.
“It was a cash bar and whatever buffet,” she said. “And it was the opportunity for everybody to mix and mingle: Democrat, Republican, new resident, old resident. Didn’t matter.”
A review of the committee’s meeting minutes shows Trump National was the designated dinner option for most of the past decade, save for a detour in 2015, when the meeting was held at a fire station in the neighboring Pottersville. The town hasn’t broken bread at Trump National for at least two years now, meeting instead at Fiddler’s Elbow in 2020 and hosting a virtual event this pandemic-plagued year.
He’s a great neighbor. I’m glad to have him.Trump National fan William Mosca Jr.
The attorney William Mosca Jr., a cofounder of the firm Bevan, Mosca & Giuditta who periodically advised the town committee, said Trump didn’t get enough credit.
“He’s a great neighbor. I’m glad to have him,” he told Insider.
He said he’s not a member of the club but had spent time there and loved every minute of it.
“My most cherished memory is the time I spent volunteering on the US Women’s Open and the US Junior Amateur and Girls’ Junior Amateur Championships,” Mosca said, adding that Trump had “done a lot for women’s golf.”
“He made certain that everything was made equally great for the women as for the men.”
Whether it’s a tough break or just deserts, Rubin said there’s no way Trump enjoyed being the persona non grata in chief.
It just seems like a very cloistered, fishbowl kind of life.Former GOP Committeewoman Sally Rubin
“I really feel sorry for Donald Trump. Not, you know, Donald Trump the person. But Donald Trump the former president,” she said toward the close of our nearly two-hour discussion. “Because he can’t go out to dinner, right? Like, Don’t you get tired of eating club food? Wouldn’t you like to go out to some restaurant and have dinner with friends?”
“It just seems like a very cloistered, fishbowl kind of life,” Rubin said.
Just 4 miles away, the former Trump White House press secretary Sean Spicer found himself not in a fishbowl but in a bit of a time warp, telling stories about the way things were to a crowd of Trump supporters pining for the former president’s return to power.
Spicer was at the smaller, more publicly accessible Fox Hollow Golf Club on August 22, headlining a fundraiser for Mike Pappas, a former one-term New Jersey congressman now running for the state Senate. The private event drew a 50-person crowd of mostly white, older women.
One woman asked Spicer to please tell Trump that she was breathlessly awaiting his social-media workaround, as she missed having a “direct line” to his unfiltered rants.
Vinny Panico, a Republican New Jersey native also running for a state assembly seat in the 16th District, said Trump barely came up during canvassing.
“If I walk up to somebody’s door and they want to talk about the president, that’s rare,” he told Insider. “That’s not what gets people fired up in this area.”
Back on the Trump National golf course, a stroll through the unsecured portion of the grounds reveals an object glinting in the verdant rough.
Two swift kicks to the tangled grass, and a long-forgotten Titleist golf ball rolled free.
“It’s probably Trump’s,” the tour guide said. “He’s terrible at this.”
Hannah Beckler contributed reporting.