President Trump recently hosted Japanese Prime Minister Abe at Mar-A-Lago for an official visit. By most accounts the meetings went well, but that is a separate discussion. During their joint press conference at the end of the visit, President Trump rambled on a tangent for a while about the history of Mar-A-Lago in which he referred to Mar-A-Lago as the “Southern White House,” giving his private elite club official status. Ignoring the fact that much of what Trump said about the history was reportedly inaccurate, his asserting official status for Mar-A-Lago raises interesting legal and financial questions that require answers.
The White House is “The People’s House,” owned by the Government, not by any individual. It is the seat of Presidential power and the executive branch and as such contains the necessary security, infrastructure, etc. The White House is where U.S. Presidents receive foreign heads of state and conduct the nation’s business. People around the world recognize the role of the White House as the symbol of the free world. Mar-A-Lago is an elitist membership resort with no national, international, or political significance. It has been Donald Trump’s vacation and golf destination for many years. As President, in his first year, Trump has taken an excessive number of vacation days, including weekends at Mar-A-Lago and golf outings. Forgetting the optics of so many vacation days, the cost to the American taxpayers is outrageous. Not only is there the frequent travel between Washington, DC, and Florida, but also the cost of housing the security and staff that travel with the President, resulting in ridiculous amounts of taxpayer dollars being paid to Mar-A-Lago and the Trump Organization. It is as if he planned it this way.
The problem goes well beyond questionable expenditure of U.S. funds for personal gain. President Trump refers to his private elite resort as the Southern White House and conducts official business on the premises. Abe is not the first world leader the President entertained at his private club. During various visits, President Trump has spoken in open areas with dignitaries and staff about classified or sensitive matters, clearly overheard by random people and in complete disregard for national security. He has also engaged groups of people in his club, seeking political approval from them for various statements or policies he is contemplating. It is important to note these are not random individuals walking down a public street. These are elites paying to use Trump’s private club and thus also paying for special access to the President.
The President’s use of Mar-A-Lago thus raises intriguing legal and financial issues. He calls it the “Southern White House” because he not only frequently vacations there, but also conducts the affairs of the nation. Members pay premium fees for the privilege of using the President’s private club as a residence, resort, golf club, etc., and for access to the President and his guests. Should those fees be considered campaign contributions or otherwise considered under applicable ethics standards? If Mar-A-Lago is the “Southern White House” then is it right for Trump to charge the U.S. (premium rates at that) for all of the security and staff that must accompany him when he travels there? We need government lawyers and ethicists to address these issues because it is clear President Trump plans to continue his recurring trips to Florida and the financial, security, and other costs will also continue to accrue.