It was supposed to be an exclusive party at Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s members-only club at Palm Beach, Florida.
But other than the two dozen or so women flown in to provide the entertainment, the only guests were Trump and Jeffrey Epstein.
The year was 1992 and the event was a “calendar girl” competition, something that George Houraney, a Florida-based businessman who ran American Dream Enterprise, had organised at Trump’s request.
“I arranged to have some contestants fly in,” Houraney recalled in an interview on Monday.
“At the very first party, I said, ‘Who’s coming tonight? I have 28 girls coming’. It was him and Epstein.”
Houraney, who had just partnered with Trump to host events at his casinos, said he was surprised.
“I said, ‘Donald, this is supposed to be a party with VIPs. You’re telling me it’s you and Epstein?’”
In fact, that was the case, an indication of a years-long friendship between the president and Epstein that some say ended only after a failed business arrangement between them.
The full nature of their eventual falling out is not clear.
But through a mutual appreciation of wealth, women and years of occupying adjacent real estate in Palm Beach and on Page Six, the lives of the two men routinely intersected for decades – until the connection turned from a status symbol into a liability, and Trump made sure to publicise the fact he had barred his one-time friend from his clubs.
“In those days, if you didn’t know Trump and you didn’t know Epstein, you were a nobody,” said Alan Dershowitz, the long-time Harvard University Law School professor who later served on Epstein’s defence team when he was charged with unlawful sex with minors in 2006.
Before Epstein pleaded guilty to the charges, and was mainly known as a reclusive, sweatshirt-sporting billionaire who liked the company of young women, Trump spoke enthusiastically about their relationship.
“I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy,” Trump told New York magazine in 2002. “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”
He also dismissed Houraney’s warning about his friend’s conduct.
“I said, ‘Look, Donald, I know Jeff really well, I can’t have him going after younger girls’,” Houraney remembers.
“He said, ‘Look I’m putting my name on this. I wouldn’t put my name on it and have a scandal’.”
Houraney said he “pretty much had to ban Jeff from my events – Trump didn’t care about that.”
Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, Houraney accused Trump of inappropriate behaviour toward his girlfriend and business partner, Jill Harth, during their business dealings.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
But speaking on Tuesday to reporters in the Oval Office, the president distanced himself from Epstein, noting that he “knew him like everybody in Palm Beach knew him.”
But Trump added: “I had a falling out with him. I haven’t spoken to him in 15 years. I was not a fan of his, that I can tell you.”
Epstein, who was charged on Monday in Manhattan with sex trafficking, is better known as a long-time friend of former president Bill Clinton than as a close associate of Trump’s.
In fact, the relationship with Trump turned so toxic that Epstein at one point told friends that he blamed Trump for his legal problems with the Palm Beach County police.
But while Trump has dismissed the relationship, Epstein, since the election, has played it up, claiming to people that he was the one who introduced Trump to his third wife, Melania Trump, though neither of the Trumps has ever mentioned Epstein playing a role in their meeting.
Melania Trump has said that her future husband simply asked for her phone number at a party at the Kit Kat Club during Fashion Week in 1998.
Epstein was never a dues-paying member of the Mar-a-Lago club, according to an official at the Trump Organisation.
But as a guest of a guest, he was treated like a close friend by the club’s owner and self-appointed head waiter, Trump.
The two were photographed together there in the 1990s and early 2000s, Trump always in a tie, Epstein always without.
And in Manhattan, they attended many of the same dinner parties, like the one that Epstein hosted for Prince Andrew, where the guest list also included Ron Perelman and Mort Zuckerman, among others.
But long-time Trump associates played down their closeness, saying that was simply how Trump treated any guest at his club – checking on their steaks, bragging about his meatloaf, scanning the room for a better table so guests felt like they were getting special treatment.
Since Trump’s decision to enter the presidential race in 2015, his aides and allies have been eager to minimise any connection to Epstein, knowing that Epstein’s relationship with Bill Clinton would be investigated at a time Hillary Clinton was likely to be his opponent.
–New York Times