“I was with Trump the night he decided to attack Iran,” gushes Croatian American tycoon Vladimir Kraljević, who was at an exclusive New Year’s Eve party with the US president, the night he made that fateful decision. It felt tenser than usual that night. He came to the party late and was among the first to leave. But he still said to me, “Love you man.”
It all started abruptly and took place in 30 seconds. Trump got up from the table and headed for the exit. Frowning, he crossed the hall, then noticed a man he knew among the crowd. Vladimir Kraljević waved at him immediately, and Trump in a rare rush of goodwill that evening, smiled and pointed his thumbs up. It was a sign that Kraljević could approach him, as he excitedly recounted his in-person encounter with the US President.
Trump’s Ardent Supporter Gets to Shake His Hand
“A firm handshake, two or three sentences and a photo opportunity, that’s how it always goes with Trump,” Kraljević tells me. I am your ardent supporter, and a loyal American from Europe; was the first thing he said to the president and put out his hand.
“Love you, love you man,” Trump replied as Kraljević’s wife breathlessly pulled out her cellphone and took pictures of them together, according to Tomislav Novak/Jutarnji List on January 12, 2020.
Trump patted Kraljević on the shoulder and then, with Melania dressed in a spectacular Givenchy dress, retired for the evening. It was just past midnight, at the luxurious Mar-a-Lago resort, and the world had just sailed into 2020. At Trump’s traditional New Year’s party of 740 people, Vladimir Kraljević and his wife Marija were the only Croatians and among only a few from Europe who attended.
Kraljević Witnesses History in the Making
So, by chance, Kraljević witnessed a crucial moment in history, because Trump made a risky decision at his resort that day: to execute Iranian General Kasem Suleimani and put him in danger of a serious conflict with Iran.
“It felt like Trump was a little more tense than usual that night,” Kraljević remembers. The US president is among the first to arrive at his New Year’s party, giving speeches, a toast, and sometimes leading the countdown to midnight while the entire ballroom watches the ball roll down Times Square in New York.
“This time he was among the last to arrive. He briefly addressed the press at the entrance, and immediately after midnight he was among the first to leave. He didn’t hold a toast,” describes a disappointed Kraljević ten days later at the Esplanada Hotel, a sort of Kraljević pop up office, where he often holds court and receives reporters as a Miss Universe Croatia license holder.
Tuđman Ordered Kraljević to Obtain Miss Universe License
That license is also the most important link between him and Trump. The US president was one of New York’s leading businessmen when he bought the stumbling enterprise from ITT in 1996, and along with NBC, turned it into an event that is watched by more than one billion people. And Kraljević, who was living in New York at the time, was contacted by President Franjo Tudjman himself regarding the license Trump owned.
“I remember as if it were yesterday, it was three o’clock in the morning when the phone rang in my apartment. I heard a voice on the other end when I answered, but didn’t immediately recognize that it was Tudjman, Kraljević recounts.
“Kraljević, by God, so everyone, including Serbia, is licensed for Miss Universe. Bring that opportunity to us in Zagreb, it will be a great promotion of the country,” the late Croatian President proclaimed to him.
After meeting Tuđman in Zagreb, Kraljević reached out to Trump through his acquaintances and settled the license and gained a rather powerful acquaintance at the same time. A member of the Republican Party member since the 1970s, he has managed to get a coveted seat at Trump’s exclusive New Year’s Eve celebration.
Membership Fee for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago $200,000
This is a very exclusive event for Mar-a-Lago club members and Trump’s closest friends. And the cost of joining the club is about 200,000 USD (180,000 EUR) upfront, plus an annual fee of 14,000 USD (12,500 EUR). The price tag of a chair at the New Year’s Eve party was 560 USD (504 EUR) three years ago, according to foreign media, but that has risen to a thousand USD (900 EUR).
“Once they approved me for a table with eight seats, preparations began for the trip, which lasted four months in total. I needed to find people to come with me and my wife, Marija, and hand over my passport for a background check,” he tells me.
Regarding the background check, Kraljević assumes that the CIA plays a role. In the end, besides Marija, they were joined by Michael Pfaller, one of the sponsors of Miss Universe Croatia and entrepreneur from Graz; New York entrepreneur Charles Paris, and Stephen Fanuka, an interior designer for the rich and famous whose father is a Croat from Ugljan.
People Arrive at Mar-a-Lago by Limo or Private Plane Only
They arrived from Paris three days early, and the Kraljevićs stayed at their summer residence in Pompano Beach. Then they headed to the Mar-a-Lago resort in a rented limo the afternoon of the party. Or as Kraljević points out, it’s a place where taxi drivers refuse to drive. People only fly to Mar-a-Lago in private jets or arrive in limousines.
“We waited half an hour in the limo. During this time, the Secret Service checked our information and the limo itself, from the undercarriage to the engine. The level of security was intense but very professional and friendly. The day before, we had to send over the limo driver’s personal information even though he had to leave us at the entrance. Once they checked everything, we were allowed inside, through the first, second and third entrance,” says Kraljević.
Despite all these checks, everything went without a hitch, so right before 7pm, they finally found themselves in line for the red carpet draped across a perfectly landscaped lawn, where they arrived at a welcome cocktail set up by the outdoor pool. Each guest was personally greeted by managing director, Bernd Lembcke, who was very hospitable.
“During the welcome cocktail, we chatted with other guests. Some of them were curious about how we had arrived, specifically on what kind of private jet. They were confused when we told them Lufthansa,” he laughs.
“And the ensuing dinner is between nine in the evening and half past one in the morning,” Kraljević says, while eagerly showing off the menu. Trump appeared later at the beginning of dinner and gave a brief speech to reporters.
Trump Rule: Must Give Thumbs Up Before Photo Opportunity
Everyone who has ever been to his New Year’s Eve knows the one key rule. Trump will shake hands with everyone, but he can only be approached for a photo shoot if he gives a thumbs up.
“Simply, 740 guests are too many people to talk to. For the same reason, he did not approach Trump at the table where he sat with his family, because otherwise he would spend the entire evening welcoming guests,” explains Kraljević.
Kraljević’s life path is already well-known, as a young immigrant to America in the 1970s he worked as a maître d’ at many famous New York restaurants of that era, such as the Russian Tea Room, a cult Art Deco hangout located between Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Tower, and Central Park’s Tavern on the Green.
His boss was the legendary Warner LeRoy, both the son of Mervyn LeRoy and grandson of Harry Warner, one of the founders of Warner Bros. Kraljević, who served many celebrities there such like John Wayne, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra and others, first met Donald’s father Fred, who gave him some essential advice.
Kraljević Confused by Trump Senior’s Advice for Success
“I was young, crazy and eager for success. ‘Happy go lucky’ is a term that describes it well (laughs). I approached Fred and asked him directly: ‘I want to be successful and rich like you, what do I do?’ Fred Trump paused, looked into the distance and answered.
“Do something nice for the people around you,” he told him. Kraljević didn’t understand him at first.
“It took me years to conclude that this was the best piece of advice he could have given me,” he reveals.
Fred occasionally came to the restaurant for lunch with Donald, so Kraljević met him too, and the rest is history. He recalls traveling Europe with Marija during the presidential election and lobbying American citizens who live here to vote for Trump.
“There are three million Americans living in Europe, but you won’t find a more ardent Trump supporter than I am,” he claims.
Kraljević Does Not Need to Boast About Trump Friendship
“I do not want to be misunderstood; we would not meet for coffee. We are not that close, and I have no need to brag about our acquaintance. We have met twenty times over the years, always briefly, but I can say that he is my idol and I believe that he is an honest man, and not racist at all. People often say negative things about Trump, the media doesn’t like him, and much is written about him.
“However, as someone who knows him, I can only praise him. In three years, he has done more for America than all the previous presidents put together: unemployment has never been lower, and the stock market has broken all records. He abolished many unnecessary taxes and has relieved Americans of their tax burdens. He is doing everything to improve the life of an average American,” says Kraljević.
Trump was always a five-sentence man, he says. He is always interested in whether we are going get something done and makes his decisions quickly because he has no time to waste.
“After Trump left, we stayed for another hour and headed home. People were dancing and having a great time. There was an unprecedented crowd on the podium and we soon realized that getting home was even harder than getting into the party. The roads were jammed, and it took us a long time to arrive home. I feel lucky, of course, because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Kraljević gushes.
No Celebrities Present at Trump’s 2020 New Year’s Party
Trump’s New Year’s party has traditionally featured superstars like Sylvester Stallone, Woody Allen, Rod Stewart, Serena Williams and Martha Stewart, but Kraljević says he didn’t notice any prominent celebrities this year.
“I think there were more gems and furs in that room at that moment than anywhere else in the world,” he says excitedly.
Trump’s critics, however, are telling Kraljević that a US president should not holding private dinners on New Year’s Eve, from which he makes an income. He ignores the naysayers. Mar-a-Lago’s revenue is about 27 million USD (24.3 million EUR) a year. Impressive.
“This will be a very good year again,” Trump said at one point that night. If you ask Kraljević, he would surely agree.