Trump’s Mar-a-Lago stay a welcome break from DC

Jill Colvin
Associated Press

West Palm Beach, Fla. — President Donald Trump draws a wiggly line between work, play and business at the private club he calls his “winter White House.”

Like George H.W. Bush and his family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, or George W. Bush with his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Trump has made Mar-a-Lago his refuge from Washington. It’s where he slips back into the role of glad-handing host that he played for years before waging his winning presidential campaign.

Club members described Trump as being in an especially good mood over the past five days, as he kicked off Palm Beach’s winter social season surrounded by family and (mostly paying) friends and golfed with some of the game’s greats.

His Thanksgiving dinner felt more like a homecoming, with more than 500 club members and guests packed into Mar-a-Lago’s enormous, gilded ballroom for a meal that included traditional turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, as well as local favorites like Florida stone crab.

Trump sat at a long table in the middle of the room, according to several attendees. A photo posted by one showed the table set with a glittering tablecloth and bright blooms.

“Everybody was there,” said Toni Holt Kramer, a Mar-a-Lago member who founded a boosters’ group called Trumpettes U.S.A. and is a loyal Trump supporter.

“It was very thrilling, because when the president and first lady entered, without anybody saying anything, the whole room rose and everyone started applauding. And they didn’t stop, and it was just overwhelming. And you just sort of choked, because it was so beautiful,” she said. “The unity was overwhelming.”

The club’s Saturday dinner service also was packed, with guests spilling into the patio, the dining room and supplemental space. Among those spotted in the crowd: Fox News anchor Bret Baier and his wife, golfing legend Jack Nicklaus, whom Trump had played with earlier in the day at his nearby West Palm Beach course, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Kramer described the president circling the room, saying hellos, shaking everyone’s hands and posing for photos.

“He is the president of the United States,” she said, but “he’s the same person as he was when he was just plain old Mr. Trump.”

Trump’s only public events took place Thursday, when the president held a video conference call with service members stationed around the world and visited a nearby Coast Guard station to hand out lunches.

During Trump’s private time, the line between work, play and business is ill-defined.

Behind closed doors, Trump fired off angry tweets in many directions, singling out CNN, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, protesting football players, and the father of a UCLA basketball player accused of shoplifting in China, whom he blasted as an “Ungrateful fool!”

He also placed calls to world leaders, offering condolences following the deadly attack on an Egyptian mosque and announced in a call with the president of Turkey that the U.S. would be cutting off its supply of arms to Kurdish fighters in Syria.

The president also spoke with several members of Congress to push his tax reform plan, and held phone calls with members of his Cabinet, said Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman.

But there was also time for play. On each of the five days he was in Florida, Trump visited one of his nearby golf properties, playing Friday with Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Brad Faxon at his course in Jupiter and playing Saturday in West Palm Beach with Nicklaus and Nicklaus’ pro-golfer son.

In a break from past administrations, the Trump White House does not typically disclose when the president is golfing — let alone who he is golfing with — leaving reporters scrambling to comb social media for clues.

Trump and his aides are also deeply sensitive about suggestions that the president is vacationing during the long stretches he spends away from Washington — at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club in the summertime and at Mar-a-Lago during the Palm Beach winter social season.

“Will be having meetings and working the phones from the Winter White House in Florida (Mar-a-Lago),” he tweeted at the start of his trip.

When a reporter traveling with the president sent a report to fellow reporters quoting Walters saying she expected a “low-key” Wednesday, the pushback was swift.

“A correction to the earlier pool report,” read an update not long after. “While the White House communications staff expects the press pool to have a ‘low-key day,’ the president will NOT have a low-key day and has a full schedule of meetings and phone calls. “

Trump later spent nearly five hours at his West Palm Beach golf course.

Trump’s election has been both a boon and challenge for the club, whose members have the chance to rub elbows with and influence the president. Club members clamor for dinner reservations on nights they know he’ll be in town, and membership fees have increased. But many of the charities and groups that have long held events at the resort have pulled their business, especially amid anger over Trump’s response to the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The president’s visits take a financial toll on the area, prompting flight restrictions, police overtime and traffic jams as Trump’s motorcade snakes its way back and forth across the bridge that separates exclusive Palm Beach from more down-to-earth West Palm Beach.

Members, by now, are used to the ramped-up security that comes with hobnobbing with the president: Cars are checked for bombs, and signs posted at the entrance advise the prohibition of explosives, weapons and ammunition — along with laser pointers, toy guns and pepper spray.

For Trump, it was all a welcome distraction from the stack of Washington problems and challenges he returned to Sunday night after his five-day retreat.