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Opinion Trump holds court at Mar-a-Lago, and his rich customers get what they paid for

The Post’s David A. Fahrenthold looks at how President Trump’s approach to national security compares with his campaign rhetoric. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Everybody is having fun with CNN’s amazing report detailing Donald Trump’s trip to Mar-a-Lago with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. As Trump sat with Abe in the resort’s dining room, the call came in to Trump that North Korea had tested a ballistic missile, and the two men proceeded to have a crisis conference right there in full view of Mar-a-Lago’s rich patrons:

As Mar-a-Lago’s wealthy members looked on from their tables, and with a keyboard player crooning in the background, Trump and Abe’s evening meal quickly morphed into a strategy session, the decision-making on full view to fellow diners, who described it in detail to CNN….
Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and chief strategist Steve Bannon left their seats to huddle closer to Trump as documents were produced and phone calls were placed to officials in Washington and Tokyo.
The patio was lit only with candles and moonlight, so aides used the camera lights on their phones to help the stone-faced Trump and Abe read through the documents.

This raises all kinds of security concerns, as Philip Bump details right here.

But Norm Eisen, the chief ethics czar under President Obama who has emerged as a major critic of Trump’s business arrangement and the unprecedented conflicts of interest it has produced, points out another interesting angle on the story: Here is the most dramatic example yet of Trump’s use of the White House to promote his businesses — whether instinctual or deliberate — potentially doing harm to the United States.

Eisen argued to me today that you cannot divorce this latest story from Trump’s seemingly reflexive or deliberately thought out use of his position as president to promote his business interests or those of his family. After all, Eisen notes, the very act of inviting Abe to Mar-a-Lago itself must be evaluated as, potentially, an effort to promote his resort, given the pattern of behavior we’ve seen from this White House, which has included repeated efforts by Trump and his aides to punish Nordstrom for declining to carry Ivanka Trump’s clothing line or to drive customers to Ivanka.

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“We’ve had a lot of presidents who hosted foreign leaders away from the White House,” Eisen said. “But we’ve never in history had one do it in a place where he’s selling memberships for hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop. Trump just could not resist the opportunity to make an infomercial for his property. He’s worked hard all his life to generate free media. Now he’s hit the mother lode, and he’s not going to stop.”

Indeed, as the New York Times has reported, Trump’s aides say he will be hosting many such gatherings with world leaders at Mar-a-Lago in the future, which “will draw increased attention and prominence” to the resort, “with all the potential for additional profit that brings.”

Note that CNN reports that the guests at Mar-a-Lago view this in similar terms:

Swanning through the club’s living room and main dining area alongside Abe, Trump was — as is now typical — swarmed with paying members, who now view dinner at the club as an opportunity for a few seconds of face time with the new President.

Trump still owns Mar-a-Lago, having declined to divest in his holdings, and thus profits off of this arrangement, Eisen notes. Which means that if CNN’s reporting is accurate, one reason guests are paying the fee for Mar-a-Lago — which has doubled since Trump became president, and is now $200,000 — is for this face time, and an untold chunk of the profits presumably goes into Trump’s pocket.

“This is not just a question of inappropriate exploitation of the presidency for personal gain, which is bad enough,” Eisen argues. “It actually could cause other entirely predictable harms.”

As Bump detailes, in the case of the conversation with Abe, the proximity of guests and mobile phones (which function as cameras, microphones, and portals to the internet) could easily have created a security risk, particularly since it appears no serious security precautions were taken.

Indeed, one guest posted a picture to Facebook of what he gushed was the person carrying the nuclear codes, before deleting it. As David Fahrenthold aptly put it: “Trump and Abe turned their dinner table into an open-air situation room,” with the rather important difference that in the real White House Situation Room, “security is tight and people coming in are heavily screened.”

The broader point, though, is that whatever risks did attend this outcome, they cannot be disentangled from Trump’s blurring of the roles of president and continuing pitchman for his own real estate empire (and the interests of his family members).

“He trotted out the Japanese prime minister the way they circulate Mickey Mouse in the Disneyland dining room,” Eisen said. “The risk stems directly from his insistence on marketing his private enterprises.”