President Trump returned to the White House from his private resort in Florida on Sunday. In total, Trump has spent all or part of 42 weekend days at the resort since his inauguration — time during which his schedule is almost always kept completely private.
Shortly after Trump was inaugurated, this was novel. When Trump’s press team called a lid on the day on Feb. 18, 2017 — meaning that Trump would not be doing anything else publicly — he nonetheless later attended a fundraising gala being hosted at the resort. How Trump spent his time at Mar-a-Lago had attracted considerable attention a few days earlier when it was revealed that Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, then visiting Trump, had held an impromptu discussion about national security in the middle of the resort’s dining room.
Since then, though, Trump’s habit of simply dropping into Mar-a-Lago events barely warrants a mention. This weekend, he made another visit to a fundraiser at the club that wasn’t on his calendar. That’s just sort of how it goes.
It’s obviously useful for Mar-a-Lago to have Trump drop in at events on occasion — meaning that it’s indirectly valuable to Trump as well, given that he still owns the place. But it’s not Trump’s attendance at public fundraisers that really ought to raise eyebrows. It’s the rest of the time he spends chatting up whoever happens to be there. The time he spends greeting and schmoozing with the unidentified people who have paid him money to access the “winter White House.”
We got a vivid example of this over the weekend. Mother Jones magazine reported that a woman named Li Yang had been advertising her ability to get access to Trump — via Mar-a-Lago.
Yang, who founded the chain of massage parlors where New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft is alleged to have solicited a prostitute, started GY US Investments with her husband. The company’s now-removed website included a photo of Mar-a-Lago and promised “the opportunity to interact with the president, the Minister of Commerce" — presumably meaning Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who has visited Mar-a-Lago during his tenure — "and other political figures.”
This is precisely why open-government advocates push for information about who’s visiting the president and why. There are certainly meetings that the president takes which should not be made public. But meetings in which someone is making a pitch or seeking to leverage Trump’s power are ones where public accountability makes sense. Especially when, as in Yang’s case, that person has apparent ties to the Chinese government.
Last week, ProPublica offered another example of the influence efforts that slosh around Trump while he’s at Mar-a-Lago. The nonprofit journalism site obtained a letter from a dentist friend of Trump’s recommending the establishment of an oversight committee at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The letter that ProPublica obtained includes a note written by Trump: “Send to David S. at VA” — a reference to former VA secretary David Shulkin.
The letter was written on Mar-a-Lago letterhead.
Mar-a-Lago’s influence at VA was the subject of reporting from ProPublica in 2018. Several Mar-a-Lago members had apparently been acting as a de facto review board for VA, including advocating for Shulkin to get the role in the first place and requesting regular conference calls to check in. That relationship is now the subject of an investigation by the Government Accountability Office.
Trump has spent all or part of 86 days at Mar-a-Lago since his inauguration, 11 percent of the days he’s been in office. Some of those days are his arrivals on a Friday evening — but who, if anyone, he meets with even on those evenings is unknown.
A quick perusal of Instagram’s geolocation page for Mar-a-Lago shows the ready access allowed when Trump visits the club. A photo posted on Sunday by a woman who identifies herself as the head of an advocacy organization shows a blurry-looking Trump and first lady at the club. The caption reads, “I said to our president: MIDDLE EASTERN WOMEN STAND WITH YOU PRESIDENT.” A later photo shows her posing with Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.
There are two ways in which the issue of access at Mar-a-Lago is additionally complicated.
The first is that Trump’s schedule is often free from interactions with possible critics. He engages the media when he’s boarding Marine One or at White House events, but his weekends are heavily spent with clients at his private properties and his public events are often ones centered on his reelection.
The other is that his trips to Mar-a-Lago aren’t free. He’s made 21 trips there as president, costing well over $60 million and likely generating nearly $400,000 in revenue for the resort. The resort that he owns. When one member of the National Security Council visited for two nights in March 2017, the government’s tab ran more than $1,000.
At one point in 2017, watchdog groups sued to obtain a list of visitors to Mar-a-Lago during Trump’s visits. After a legal fight, they obtained a list of the visitors logged at the resort for the first several months of Trump’s presidency.
It was 22 people long. All were members of Abe’s entourage.
Update: Hours after this report was published, a new example from Politico. Trump joined golf legend Jack Nicklaus for a round of golf at his club near Mar-a-Lago when the president was in Florida early last month.