Behind the Scenes at Mar-a-Lago Gala

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Maryanne Trump Barry, the sister of former president and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, died on the morning of November 13, 2023. That evening, Trump held a lavish “Gala VIP Dinner” for people who bought at least $4,700 worth of “Trump Cards” — an NFT collection of digital trading cards that depict various portraits of Trump as a superhero, a cowboy, or a god.

“I wish I looked as good as those NFTs,” Trump said that night, standing behind a white podium with “COLLECT TRUMP CARDS” embossed in gold. “The muscles, I look like the most powerful guy. But I tell you, I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I don’t know if you look at the pop art or modern art or whatever, but it really is, the job they do is fantastic.”

The Trump on his NFT trading cards is a paper doll-like version of the former president, reimagined with an athletic build and a frozen half-smirk. The 150,000-odd combinations of costumes and backgrounds seem to capture every possible mythological Trump, all of the heroes he creates and sells to different audiences. There’s a three-earths-tall Trump standing on top of the world. There’s a hunter Trump donning camo in the western wilderness with a black labrador. There’s a Trump with a raised fist in front of the U.S. Capitol, and another in front of a Hollywood-style “Trumpworld” sign.

An “NFT,” or “non-fungible token,” is a digital item (a picture, a song, etc.) that you can buy and therefore “own.” You can say your receipt is on the blockchain, if that kind of thing matters to you. Owning a Trump Card is not much different than having a picture of Trump on your computer. Even among NFT enthusiasts, Trump Cards are seen as a “gimmick.” Notably, when Trump Cards launched in December 2022, it was at the tail end of a major hype boom for NFTs. But by late 2023, the hype had faded, and many NFTs across the market are next to worthless. 

So who would buy one of these Trump Cards, never mind $4,700 worth of them? The Trump NFTs effectively pander to a younger crowd, one more likely to be familiar with NFTs, and one perhaps eager to fully indulge in the feverish gaudiness that MAGA culture embodies. They also appeal to an older crowd willing to buy anything with Trump’s name on it. In this context, the gala was a pilgrimage of sorts. With the high price of entry, it was a safe space for relatively like-minded people. 

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Photo from Trump’s NFT gala on Nov. 13, 2023. (Credit: Poon Da Qian)

For Trump, the NFTs look like just another experiment in branding and money-making, coming from a man who tried “Trump Steaks” and “Trump University.” Conveniently, the Trump NFTs are not subject to the same campaign finance laws and regulations that govern official campaign merchandise, but it’s not as if the NFTs are a necessary income stream. 

Trump Cards have had mixed success. They briefly soared in value in March 2023, after Trump was indicted in Manhattan for allegedly paying hush money to Stormy Daniels from his 2016 campaign funds. The value of the NFTs plummeted shortly after “Series 2” of Trump Cards was released on April 18, flooding the market with new cartoon Trumps. 

The gala was subject to some light news coverage and teasing, including a Jimmy Kimmel segment that discussed the gala based on what’s posted to the Trump Cards website. But now, based on pictures and videos shared with Rolling Stone, and conversations with attendees, Rolling Stone can provide an exclusive look inside the event. 

“The Mar-a-Lago Trio”

The gala guests didn’t receive their tickets until a day before the event.

This was a source of some stress for people who traveled a long way to get there. One of these people was Poon Da Qian, the Singapore-based founder and CEO of the hospitality group Butler, who attended the gala with his wife. While he’s interested in NFTs, Da Qian said he didn’t purchase Trump Cards as an investment vehicle. He purchased them for the novelty of it — an attitude which also drew him to the gala, when he was invited. 

“It’s hilarious,” he said. “But I think as a Singaporean… It is truly entertaining. Because we are simply so far away. We simply do not get the chance to actually be there, to rub shoulders. I even had a selfie with Donald Trump.”

Da Qian told Rolling Stone that he and his wife traveled for about 30 hours to attend the gala, which he described as a “once in a lifetime experience.” They flew from Singapore to San Francisco, and then to Fort Lauderdale, where they drove the rest of the way to Mar-a-Lago. People from Ireland, Australia, and Estonia also attended, according to the NFT website, and Da Qian mentioned meeting people from Ukraine and India.

After the news of Maryanne’s passing became public in the early afternoon, Da Qian said he was concerned that the gala would not happen at all. 

However, the event proceeded as scheduled. 

At around 6:30 p.m., gala guests were welcomed into the Mar-a-Lago resort. It was a black-tie event, so the men wore tuxedos, while the women largely opted for floor-length gowns. They were led to the venue’s ballroom, where Trump launched his ongoing presidential campaign in November 2022. Trump constructed the ballroom after he bought the historic property in 1985, as a part of his efforts to convert the residential home into a private club. 

The ballroom was not lit in its typical warm lighting, designed to highlight the ornate gold detailing throughout the room. Instead, overhead lights cast the room in a frosty purple. Small LED spotlights scattered dozens of bluish dots across the floor. 

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Photo from Trump’s NFT gala on Nov. 13, 2023. (Credit: Poon Da Qian)

Some of the tables had a Trump Card print out as a centerpiece, mounted high upon a clear column. There was also a gigantic print-out of a Trump Card, meant as an Instagrammable photo op, showing a steroid-huge Trump in a red superhero costume. 

Gala attendees were served a three course meal on Mar-a-Lago club silverware, with the alcohol options of 2020 “Trump Heritage” red wine and Chardonnay.  For dessert, guests were given “The Mar-a-Lago Trio,” which consists of “Trump Chocolate Cake,” vanilla creme brulee, and key lime pie.

At least one attendee raved about the food online. “Getting to shake my Presidents hand,” she wrote on X, formerly Twitter, with a heart emoji, “the truly amazing people I met, the divine food and wine was incredible!”

“Of Course, That Would’ve Impacted Your NFTs”

When it was time for Trump’s speech, he made his way to the stage slowly, shaking hands with guests as a woman sang “God Bless the U.S.A.” After the song ended, some people in the crowd began chanting “USA! USA! USA!” 

At one point, Trump autographed someone’s arm with a Sharpie.

“Thank you Donald Trump!” one woman shouted. “We love Trump! Love you Trump!” 

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Photo from Trump’s NFT gala on Nov. 13, 2023. (Credit: Poon Da Qian)

Guests stood through the entirety of Trump’s speech, which Da Qian said lasted about an hour. He said Trump did not mention the death of his sister.

Rolling Stone viewed a 20-minute video of Trump’s entrance and speech. Early in it, he thanked Bill Zanker, who reportedly runs the Trump NFT business with his son, Dylan. The business did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But Da Qian said that Dylan personally introduced himself to guests as one of the owners of the NFT collection. Trump’s relationship with Bill Zanker goes far back. They’ve written two books together, titled “Think Big” and “Think Big and Kick Ass,” respectively.

Trump Cards are “not owned, managed, or controlled” by Trump, according to the website. Rather, it’s owned by “NFT INT LLC.” Trump licenses his image to this company, which then pays a portion of the profits to a company owned by Trump. In 2023, Trump made between $500,000 and $1 million from licensing his image for Trump Card NFTs, according to his financial disclosures.

The first collection of Trump NFT Digital Trading Cards, which included about 50,000 NFTs, sold out in less than a day. They went for $99 each. Only people who purchased NFTs from this first collection were eligible to go to the gala, though two more collections have launched since then. (They’re called “Series 2” and “MugShot Edition,” in celebration of the mugshot from his August arrest in Fulton County, Georgia, for conspiring to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.)

According to the Trump Cards website, the trading cards “are not political and have nothing to do with any political campaign.” So on paper, this was not a campaign event. However, Trump’s remarks closely aligned with his usual campaign speeches. 

For instance, Trump repeated a claim he’s now been making for months — that if he were currently the president, he could have prevented the violence in Israel on October 7. 

“And what happened with the attack on Israel, and all the fighting and all of the fighting that they’re going to be enduring over the next,” Trump said before trailing off. “It never would’ve happened. I guarantee you, it never would’ve happened if I were president.”

He also spent about five minutes telling a rambling anecdote about negotiating the Boeing payments for two new Air Force One planes. (At least one person appears to have loved this part, according to a testimony on the Trump Cards website. “I loved The President’s amazing story about Air Force One!” said someone named John G. from Texas.)

Of course, he repeated lies about how the 2020 election was stolen. “We had an election where we did much better the second time than we did the first time, we had millions and millions of votes, and it was terrible,” Trump said. 

Trump suggested his loss may have hurt NFT owners. “You wouldn’t have had inflation either,” he said. “Of course, that would’ve impacted your NFTs. It might’ve impacted that. Let’s think about that for a second.”

“Are You Like My QT3.14 Glowie Waifu”

Several attendees posted pictures from the event on Twitter and Instagram, who all appear to have had a great time. CEO Lance Custen attended the gala, and told Rolling Stone that he had a wonderful time, but he was disappointed about one thing.

He said that he brought Trump a $10,000 gift card for, a Texas-based company that lets people pay to drive around in military tanks and use machine guns, but security wouldn’t let Custen give it to him. 

“Since they didn’t allow me to give it to him, I used it myself,” he added.

Da Qian said that he made several friends, and thought the event was fabulous. He added that his left-leaning friend “didn’t like me going there,” but he tried to explain his reasoning. “I told him like, having a photo with Hulk Hogan, would you do it?” Da Qian said. “If you could have a photo with Obama, would you do it?”

Custen claimed that he primarily bought Trump Cards to make money (despite offering Trump a $10,000 gift upon arrival). “I bought it from an investment standpoint, got a cool dinner out of it,” he said. 

While he couldn’t provide substantiation, Custen claimed that he bought $1,000 worth of Series 1 Trump Cards, and was able to sell half of them last year for about $15,000. He said he’s waiting for the value to go up before trying to sell again. 

Most of the gala attendees contacted by Rolling Stone did not respond. An exception, initially, was a man who posted an Instagram photo dump from the gala. It included pictures of himself posing on the stage Trump delivered his speech. In one picture, he stood behind the podium; in another, he hugged an American flag.

This attendee was Anthony Vo, who was found guilty of four charges related to his actions at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. He participated in the riot with his mom, who was not charged with any crimes. “President [Trump] asked me to be here tomorrow so I am with my mom LOL,” he posted on social media, according to the Department of Justice.

Vo initially agreed to an interview with Rolling Stone, but then switched his tone a day later. “Soooo are you like my QT3.14 glowie waifu assigned to monitor me like I keep hearing about on Mongolian basket weaving image boards?” he said in a direct message. 

“QT3.14” means “cutie pie.” Meanwhile, “glowie waifu” refers to the idea of an undercover federal agent, sometimes depicted as a young woman with brown hair and bangs, who entraps 4chan posters into incriminating themselves. Vo did not end up doing an interview.

”Have a Good Life”

Even though Trump’s on the campaign trail, he’s still advertising the NFT collection on Truth Social, an X alternative that he partially owns. 

“Go and collect your own piece of American history and we’ll all have fun together,” Trump said in an ad for the NFT collection posted late last year. “Have a good life.”

There’s another NFT gala on the horizon, according to the Collect Trump Cards website. (“This event will be a memory you will talk about forever!”) It’s only available for people who buy at least 47 NFTs from the third collection, worth about $4,700. 

In case that wasn’t enough, they’re also giving away physical pieces of the suit that Trump wore when he was arrested in Fulton County. It’s easy to see how this would appeal to an audience that doesn’t quite get NFTs, but can understand a piece of Trump’s suit arriving in the mail.

“The Most Historically Significant Artifact in United States History,” the website says.

Perhaps the most important claim on the website is that Trump Card owners “join Trump’s community.” For NFT owners, it’s a community united by Trump, but made up of their peers. Meanwhile, for Trump, the community is a group of followers existing on unequal terms to himself. But that’s the only meaningful sense of community for him. 


A quote attributed to Trump on the Trump Cards website puts it best, “The People That Are Buying These Trump Digital Trading Cards Are (New) Friends Of Mine, More Than Anything Else.”

When Trump attended his sister’s funeral on November 17, four days after the NFT gala, he did not deliver a eulogy. Maryanne Trump Barry forbade her siblings from speaking at her funeral, according to recorded interviews, because of what happened at their father’s funeral in 1999. Trump had taken the pulpit, and spoke only about himself.

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