Forget the occasional skeet shooting trip to Camp David or golf outing at Andrews Air Force Base. President Donald Trump has established a new normal for a commander in chief’s leisure time by spending his 14th consecutive weekend at one of his gold-plated properties.
With this weekend’s trip to his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump will have spent eight of his 16 weekends as president away from Washington, and will have visited various Trump Inc. sites 30 different times since the inauguration.
Story Continued Below
The convention-busting pattern has attracted heavy criticism, with Democrats questioning Trump’s productivity during his “working weekends” and demanding answers about skyrocketing taxpayer bills for travel and security. The frequent visits to Trump’s own properties have also raised questions about whether the president is inappropriately boosting his brand.
And Trump doesn’t appear immune to the grief he’s getting. Hours after settling into his Bedminster resort on Thursday night, the president tried to justify yet another weekend getaway.
“Rather than causing a big disruption in N.Y.C., I will be working out of my home in Bedminster, N.J. this weekend. Also saves country money!” the president posted on Twitter Friday morning.
Congress conceded this week there’s little it can do to stop Trump, earmarking $61 million in the omnibus spending bill that the president signed into law on Friday to reimburse local governments in New York, South Florida, New Jersey and Northern Virginia for overtime police work while Trump has spent down-time since the election in their areas. The law also includes $23 million for the Secret Service to begin major security makeovers at Trump Tower, Mar-a-Lago, Bedminster and other popular presidential properties.
Law enforcement sources say they expect the money will go toward custom-built improvements like enhanced alarms, locks, radars and stronger detection systems to track for potential chemical and biological attacks. Both Mar-a-Lago and Trump Tower will likely see new screening facilities so entire vehicles can be inspected for explosives and other dangers without emptying everything inside them.
At Trump’s South Florida seaside retreat, the Secret Service will also be looking to enhance its maritime capabilities. And in New York, agents need a secure facility close to Trump Tower for storing the cars that First Lady Melania Trump and son Barron use to get around the city — essentially 24/7 monitoring to protect the vehicles against tampering and the potential placement of explosives and listening devices.
“It takes a significant amount of money to build out a secure parking facility that can be perceived by some as a parking space on steroids, however the facility is a key and essential physical security element,” said Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent now working at a private security consulting firm.
Trump’s critics are urging him to slow down on the travel away from Washington and have seized on the hypocrisy of a man who last year attacked former President Barack Obama by saying, “If you’re at the White House and you have so much work to do, why do you fly? Why do you leave so much? You think you’d want to work, work, work.”
On Thursday, the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch released documents from the Air Force obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that calculate two of the president’s recent trips to South Florida on Air Force One had cost taxpayers nearly $1.3 million total.
Meanwhile, four Democratic members of Congress — Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse, (R.I.) and Tom Udall (N.M.), along with Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.) — have asked the Government Accountability Office to more broadly examine the security issues and costs associated with Trump’s Mar-a-Lago costs. The GAO agreed in March to conduct a review.
Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, whose South Florida district abuts the president’s private club at Mar-a-Lago, lauded the new omnibus for the funding to help his hometown police force. But he also called on the president to write a personal check if he’s going to insist on so many return visits. “If Trump keeps using Mar-a-Lago or his other resorts as weekend vacation spots then President Trump should pay the costs himself,” Deutch said.
People who have long known Trump, however, celebrate the fact the 70-year-old billionaire is sticking to his snowbird travel routine — winters in Florida, summers up north, shacking up at his favorite properties — despite the late-in-life career change to professional politics.
“Knowing his personality, this is something I think is healthy and good,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump presidential campaign adviser. “These are his normal habits.”
Trump and his senior aides have joked that his preferred destinations had already been symbolically transformed: Mar-a-Lago as the “winter White House” and Bedminster as its “summer” companion.
Trump’s South Florida properties have so far gotten the most use and attention during the opening wintertime months of his presidency. He’s been to his West Palm Beach golf course 13 times since taking office, though it’s unclear if he’s played golf on each occasion because the White House doesn’t always confirm his activities.
Mar-a-Lago members say they expect Trump will return to his private club next weekend for what’s typically seen as the retreat’s end-of-season event, a Mother’s Day brunch. If Trump goes, it’d mark his eighth visit to his club as president, a busy stretch that has included a pair of summits with the leaders of China and Japan and the occasional presidential drop-in at weddings and charity galas held in the property’s gold-plated Donald J. Trump ballroom.
But staying in Washington doesn’t mean Trump is out of options for waving the Trump Inc. flag. On five occasions so far, Trump’s taken the 35-minute motorcade ride to Trump National golf course in Northern Virginia, including last weekend. He’s also been out for three dinners at the steakhouse in the new Trump International Hotel just a few blocks from the White House.
Now it’s Bedminster’s turn. Trump spent a long weekend at the property last November. While there, he addressed the club’s long-time dues-paying members during a private ceremony — audio was later leaked to POLITICO — where he urged them to visit the next day to watch as he interviewed potential Cabinet hires. Upon his arrival Thursday night, local community Facebook groups lit up with messages noting Marine One was flying overhead. “What in the world was that loud, loud noise?? A plane? Wow – super scary,” wrote one participant.
Trump’s repeat visits to his properties have been a boom for his bottom line, according to Brand Keys, a New York-based research firm that’s been surveying the value of Trump’s businesses for more than two decades. In its latest survey, shared this week with POLITICO, Brand Keys measured a 30 percent jump just since the election on the value that comes with adding the president’s name to his country clubs and golf courses.
“The added value every time he shows up at one of these locations is adding to the brand’s power and the brand’s equity,” said Brand Keys President Robert Passikoff. “I think this guy for better or worse is a born salesman and is out there pushing the brand and every element of the brand.”
Trump can expect more attention to his company even when he’s not visiting one of his properties. Later this month, the Senior PGA Championship at Trump National in Virginia is expected to been seen on more than 200 million TV screens worldwide. And his course at Bedminster will be featured in July when it hosts the U.S. Women’s Open golf tournament.
Mixing Trump’s businesses and his government has of course caused plenty of ethical problems. Senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway got reprimanded earlier this year after urging cable TV viewers to buy from Ivanka Trump’s fashion brand. A State Department-managed website was forced to remove a blog post last month promoting Mar-a-Lago after it drew attention on social media and complaints from congressional Democrats. Earlier this week, the Voice of America was criticized for running an Associated Press story about Ivanka Trump’s new book.
There are other examples, too. A new Trump-branded condominium building being built on Uruguay’s southeastern coast still includes on its YouTube page a three-year old marketing video with Trump, who says near the end: “So enjoy your views and enjoy the great luxury lifestyle. There will be nothing like it in South America.” At Mar-a-Lago, the Palm Beach Daily News last month spotted a Trump Organization helicopter using the club’s new helipad — even though it was built for Marine One. POLITICO last month also obtained the latest copy of the South Florida club’s promotional magazine, which features a two-page photo spread with quotes from Eric Trump about his father’s 2016 presidential campaign, as well as a black & white advertisement for Ivanka Trump’s jewelry.
“The guy is squeezing the presidency of every drop of promotional juice he can get out of it,” said Norm Eisen, the former Obama White House ethics lawyer.