Just two days before Thanksgiving, Donald Trump was planning to have a private, uneventful dinner with an old friend: Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West.
The two had arranged to break bread Tuesday night at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida after weeks of private phone conversations as Ye lost lucrative partnerships and became a mainstream cultural pariah for his antisemitic remarks, according to those familiar with the talks between the two men.
But Trump may have been walking into a trap in Mar-a-Lago’s gilded halls — one that leveraged his own penchant for spectacle and showmanship against him. Ye arrived with three guests, including white nationalist and antisemite Nick Fuentes.
Trump has since said he didn’t know Fuentes or his background when they dined together, a claim Fuentes confirmed in an interview, but others at the crowded members-only club figured out his identity. News of the meeting prompted an avalanche of criticism, from some Republican rivals and allies of Trump and his then-week-old presidential campaign.
In damage control, Trump’s campaign is now instituting new vetting procedures and gatekeeping efforts as details emerge about how Fuentes and the former president found themselves at the same table, according to two people briefed on the plans.
The uproar underscores long-standing issues with Trump as Republicans consider whether they want him back as president again in 2024.
Both his campaigns and his administration were often characterized by chaos and buffeted by the consequences of his impulses as they stumbled from crisis to crisis. And Trump has repeatedly put himself in the center of controversies over racism, from falsely accusing the first Black president of not being a natural-born citizen to announcing his 2016 presidential bid by portraying most Mexican migrants as rapists and drug runners.
‘The master troll got trolled’
The headline-grabbing attention on his guests — and therefore the subsequent fallout — were all but ensured by Trump before the dinner when he made a grand entrance at about 8 p.m. on Nov. 22 to meet his guests.
“We saw everybody in the dining room get up and start applauding, and then the president entered,” Fuentes told NBC News. “He greeted us, and he invited Ye into dinner and Ye said that he wanted to bring us with him to the table. So we walked in and Ye took some pictures with some of the guests in the dining room and then we sat down at the table.”
Trump made sure they sat at his specially reserved table on the patio, for all to see, according to Fuentes.
But the dinner wasn’t the happy photo-op the president had planned.
Ye criticized Trump for not doing enough to help pay the legal bills of those arrested in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots; and he also told Trump he might run for president against him and said Trump should instead be his running mate — all of which angered the former president, who attacked Ye’s ex-wife, Kim Kardashian, according to two dinner participants and Ye, who blasted out a “Mar-a-Lago debrief” video to his 32.2 million Twitter followers the next day.
“Trump is really impressed with Nick Fuentes,” Ye said in the video.
Fuentes said that he praised Trump as “my hero” and criticized Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for his potential GOP primary challenge to Trump, but he also told him to his face at the dinner that the onetime 2016 insurgent was in danger of becoming a scripted establishment bore who could lose in 2024.
Some Republicans, including former Vice President Mike Pence, have condemned the dinner, with Pence calling on Trump to apologize.
One longtime Trump adviser, who didn’t want to go on the record criticizing his preferred candidate, said it was clear that Fuentes’ presence was part of a headline-grabbing setup.
“The master troll got trolled,” the adviser said. “Kanye punked Trump.”
As advisers to Trump have attempted to quell the backlash, some have insisted that the former president was essentially tricked by the rapper and his guests — a suspicion backed up by Milo Yiannopoulos, the anti-Trump, far-right provocateur who is now acting as a political adviser to Ye.
Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart editor who was banned from Twitter in 2016 for inciting a racist campaign against the comedian Leslie Jones, told NBC News that he was “the architect” of the plan to have Fuentes travel with Ye in the hopes of slipping him into the dinner with Trump. The intent, according to Yiannopoulos, was for Fuentes to give Trump an unvarnished view of how a portion of his base views his candidacy.
Yiannopoulos persuaded a former Trump 2016 campaign adviser from Florida, Karen Giorno, to give Ye a ride to Mar-a-Lago, which she said led her to become an accidental member of Ye’s dinner party. Yiannopoulos said he also wanted Giorno to brief Ye on Trump and politics and, if she went to the dinner, to lend a sense of political gravitas to the discussion. The fourth member of the party was a man Ye later identified as a parent of a student at his private school in California, Donda Academy. (Donda shut down for the year after Ye’s antisemitic remarks.) Yiannopoolos said he was unsure of why the man traveled with them.
Yiannopoulos said Fuentes is serving in an advisory capacity to Ye. Giorno is not an official member of the unofficial Ye campaign team but flew to Los Angeles to meet with them this week.
“I wanted to show Trump the kind of talent that he’s missing out on by allowing his terrible handlers to dictate who he can and can’t hang out with,” Yiannopoulos told NBC News.
“I also wanted to send a message to Trump that he has systematically repeatedly neglected, ignored, abused the people who love him the most, the people who put him in office, and that kind of behavior comes back to bite you in the end,” he added.
And, Yiannopoulos said, he arranged the dinner “just to make Trump’s life miserable” because news of the dinner would leak and Trump would mishandle it.
Fuentes echoed the sentiment: “I hate to say it, but the chickens are coming home to roost. You know, this is the frustration with his base and with his true loyalists.”
Trump fumed afterward that Ye had betrayed him by ambushing him. “He tried to f--- me. He’s crazy. He can’t beat me,” Trump said, according to one confidant, who then relayed the conversation to NBC News on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
“Trump was totally blindsided,” the source said of Fuentes’ presence. “It was a setup.”
Some in Trump’s orbit had cautioned him not to have dinner with Ye, under fire for antisemitism, in the first place, according to two sources who had been briefed on an internal damage assessment the campaign performed after the controversy erupted.
But Trump is known for refusing to heed cautious counsel, guardrails and gatekeepers. So he went ahead with the dinner alone, telling confidants that he thought Ye needed his counsel. One confidant told NBC that Trump acknowledged he wanted the rapper to be seen because “it would be fun for the members” of Mar-a-Lago.
Trump issued three successive statements in as many days on his Truth Social media platform admitting Fuentes was there while disavowing knowledge of his identity prior to and during the dinner.
But none of his statements disavowed the hate speech associated with Fuentes, prompting more criticism that the former president is reluctant to distance himself too much from racists because they’re part of his political base of support.
“Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, was asking me for advice concerning some of his difficulties, in particular ‘having to do with his business,’” Trump said in his last statement about the dinner, issued Saturday. “We also discussed, to a lesser extent, politics, where I told him he should definitely not run for President, ‘any voters you may have should vote for TRUMP.’ Anyway, we got along great, he expressed no anti-Semitism, & I appreciated all of the nice things he said about me on ‘Tucker Carlson.’ Why wouldn’t I agree to meet? Also, I didn’t know Nick Fuentes.”
Amid the backlash, however, the campaign began reviewing internal procedures to ensure someone like Fuentes never winds up with Trump again, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.
U.S. Secret Service distanced itself from the incident and said in a statement Monday that, as “a private club,” Mar-a-Lago’s security is in charge of “who may have been allowed access to their facilities.”
On Monday, Ye, Yiannopoulos and Fuentes were scheduled to discuss how the dinner came together in a joint appearance on a conservative webcast, but the rapper stormed out after he was challenged about his statements suggesting Jewish people control banks and the news media.
His entourage followed.
Getting into Mar-a-Lago
The pre-Thanksgiving dinner was the third shock to ripple through Trump’s presidential campaign, which was exactly one week old on the night of the dinner.
Hours before the turkey and stuffing were served, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered Trump to turn over his income tax forms to Congress, capping a yearslong fight that followed Trump’s declaration in 2014 that he would “love” to release them if he ran for president. And four days before the Ye dinner, on Nov. 18, the Justice Department appointed a special counsel to examine the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riots and Trump’s possession of highly sensitive government documents at Mar-a-Lago when he was no longer president.
Hours before Ye’s flight arrived in Florida, Yiannopoulos enticed Giorno to pick up the rapper in Miami and take him to Mar-a-Lago, 70 miles away. Giorno said that Yiannopoulos only told her that Ye would be with two people, including someone named “Nick,” but he didn’t give a last name. Yiannopoulos confirmed that he gave limited information to Giorno.
Both say Giorno was not told in advance of the plan to confront Trump.
But some Trump loyalists and advisers in Trump’s inner circle still fault Giorno for not giving the former president or his team a heads-up about Fuentes, whose identity she said she learned on the drive.
“Given Milo’s multiyear, anti-Trump posts since 2020 and his self-proclaimed desire to get a vengeance on President Donald Trump, Karen Giorno cannot in good faith say that she didn’t know what Milo was planning to do … Karen and Milo set Trump up to make him look bad,” said Laura Loomer, a Trump loyalist who ran for Congress in Florida in 2020 and hired Giorno, who then met Yiannopoulos through Loomer and hired him to work for the candidate.
Both had separate clashes with Loomer, in 2022 and 2020, respectively. Yiannopoulos and Giorno dismissed Loomer’s criticisms as the result of their falling out.
Loomer was one of the first high-profile right-wing activists banned from Twitter in 2018, after calling one of the nation’s first Muslim congresswomen, Democrat Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, “anti Jewish” and attacking Islam for abusing women.
Loomer also criticized Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., for being complicit in the alleged Trump setup because she is an ally of Yiannopoulos and had hired him as a summer intern.
A spokesperson for Greene denied the accusation of her involvement but declined to comment further to NBC News; Greene fired back at Loomer on her Telegram social media channel. Greene also has a Fuentes connection: She spoke at his America First Political Action confab in Florida in February but then said she didn’t know who he was.
Giorno said she had been caught in the blast radius of the dinner with Ye and Fuentes but was an unwitting participant. On the night she drove the crew to Mar-a-Lago, she said, she didn’t realize there was going to be a confrontation and she didn’t have time to call or text anyone with a heads-up because Ye’s flight landed about 5 p.m., in the middle of the South Florida metropolis’ rush hour on a rainy day. It took the party three hours to get to Mar-a-Lago, double what it normally takes.
About halfway to Mar-a-Lago, Giorno said in an interview, she realized that Ye, Fuentes and the other man weren’t properly attired.
“All of you are wearing jeans. Did they not tell you about the dress code?” she said she asked.
Ye said he hadn’t been informed and that “I doubt Nick is going to get in anyway.”
“Nick,” she said she asked, “what’s your last name?”
Fuentes gave his last name.
“I’m going to kill Milo,” Giorno said she thought.
Giorno kept driving and said they would probably have trouble getting into Mar-a-Lago because of private security and Secret Service. Giorno said she also realized she had forgotten her driver’s license, so she had to use a credit card with her name on it to prove her identity to get in.
Because she had Ye in her car and she is a frequent visitor to the property, having attended Trump’s campaign announcement seven days before, Giorno said, the four of them were able to get in.
Trump met the party in the foyer and warmly greeted everyone, but he was puzzled that his old adviser was somehow with Ye, Giorno said. Giorno said she tried to leave Trump with Ye privately.
“Sir, it’s really good to see you again,” she said she told Trump. “My understanding is you’re supposed to have a private meeting with Ye and I’m happy to go to the bar with these two guys while you have dinner.”
But Trump deferred.
“I’ll leave that to Ye. Do you want them to join?” Trump asked, according to Giorno.
“Yes,” Ye replied. “Let’s all eat.”
“Great,” Trump said. “Let’s go out to the patio.”
CORRECTION (Nov. 30, 2022, 5:09 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated who clashed with whom in 2020 and 2022. Yiannopoulos and Giorno clashed with Loomer, not Yiannopoulos and Loomer with Giorno.