At some point during the Obama era, conservatives convinced themselves that the Democratic president took an outrageous amount of time off, traveled constantly, and vastly preferred golfing to working. The criticisms were always quite silly -- especially after George W. Bush broke every modern record for time off taken by a sitting president -- but the right nevertheless embraced the nonsense with great enthusiasm.Vox recently talked to
a series of CPAC attendees, many of whom continued to complain bitterly about Obama's travel costs and downtime. Told that Donald Trump is actually spending more on travel and enjoying more downtime, conservatives were incredulous. The facts "can't possibly be right," one said. "That absolutely can't be right."Reality, however, is stubborn. Trump headlined a political fundraiser on Friday night, before heading to Mar-a-Lago, the for-profit club he still owns, for another relaxing weekend. Over the last five weekends, the president has visited his luxury resort four times -- each trip costs American taxpayers about $3 million
-- and as of last night, Trump had spent 31% of his presidency
at Mar-a-Lago. He's now played golf eight times
since taking office six weeks ago.In October 2014, Trump whined
via Twitter, "We pay for Obama's travel so he can fundraise millions so Democrats can run on lies. Then we pay for his golf." A year later, as a presidential candidate, Trump declared that if he were in office, he'd dispense with breaks. "I'd want to stay in the White House and work my ass off," he told voters
.Like so many of his claims, Trump apparently didn't mean a word of it. (Last week, the White House even gave the press misleading information
about one the president's golf outings.)But this latest trip was a little different -- because as the Palm Beach Post noted
, Trump this time brought along some powerful friends.
President Donald Trump mingled with guests outside a charity ball at his Mar-a-Lago Club on Saturday night. As attendees danced inside the ballroom where the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute held its gala, the president was spotted nearby, shaking hands and talking with club members and guests.Earlier, Attorney General Jeff Sessions also took a few moments from high-level meetings to greet guests at the estate.
Oh good, we've reached the point at which the attorney general of the United States is a prop for members at the president's for-profit club.What's more, Sessions wasn't alone. Two other members of Trump's cabinet -- Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross -- were also on hand
in Florida over the weekend.I appreciate the fact that there are a variety of very serious scandals surrounding this White House, but the conflicts surrounding Trump and Mar-a-Lago are tough to defend. I'm reminded anew of this recent New York Times piece
, which noted that Team Trump has created "an arena for potential political influence rarely seen in American history: a kind of Washington steakhouse on steroids, situated in a sunny playground of the rich and powerful, where members and their guests enjoy a level of access that could elude even the best-connected of lobbyists."
... Mr. Trump's weekend White House appears to be unprecedented in American history, as it is the first one with customers paying a company owned by the president, several historians said."Mar-a-Lago represents a commercialization of the presidency that has few if any precedents in American history," said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and Andrew Jackson biographer. "Presidents have always spent time with the affluent," he added. "But a club where people pay you as president to spend time in his company is new. It is kind of amazing."
And it's not just Trump. Those who pay the $200,000 membership fee also, evidently, get access to the U.S. attorney general and other powerful cabinet secretaries, and even get front-row seats to see officials respond in real time
to national security challenges, conducted in full view of civilians.The club's managing director conceded to the Times
that Trump's presidency "enhances" club membership -- which may help explain the increase in entrance fees -- adding, "People are now even more interested in becoming members."If you voted Republican because you were worried about Hillary Clinton and pay-to-play controversies, I have some very bad news for you. Trump is profiting from the presidency in ways no one has been able to credibly defend.As we discussed
a couple of weeks ago, we're looking at an ethical nightmare. A president who refuses to divest from his many business ventures still owns a for-profit enterprise, in which undisclosed people pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for exclusive access -- and the facility itself openly acknowledges the financial benefits of exploiting Trump's presidency.How many lobbyists or agents of foreign governments are signing up to take advantage? We don't know -- because Mar-a-Lago doesn't disclose its membership list.The Washington Post
's Greg Sargent talked recently to Norm Eisen
, the chief ethics czar under President Obama, who pointed to Trump's dramatic use of his for-profit club as a serious problem.
Eisen argued to me … 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 [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] 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."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."
There's no reason to go along with this as if it were somehow normal.