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It's not just the golf: Trump's Mar-a-Lago ethics mess gets worse

Just because this is now common doesn't mean we should get used to it. An ethical abuse shouldn't be less offensive just because Trump does it all the time.
Workers lay out the red carpet at Mar-a-Lago Club on December 30, 2016 in Palm Beach, Florida....

[S]ince his January inauguration, President Trump has spent seven of 13 weekends at his Palm Beach, Florida estate. According to NBC News' estimates by Sunday Trump will have spent 28 percent of his term traveling to or staying at Mar-a-Lago.It's not just a question of travel time, but of ethics and cost efficiency, according to watchdog groups and ethics experts.While presidents have always traveled on the taxpayer's dollar -- the Obamas were partial to Hawaii and Martha's Vineyard while President George W. Bush frequented his Crawford, Texas ranch -- Trump's travel is "unprecedented," one expert says, because he's repeatedly visiting his own privately owned commercial property at Mar-a-Lago.

I tend to see this as a story with three angles. First, there's the hypocrisy: Trump's fascination with Obama's golfing was endless -- the line about Obama golfing more than professionals on the PGA tour was a staple of his stump speech -- which makes it all the more striking that the president can't seem to pry himself from the links.Trump has now been at a golf course on 19 days since becoming president 13 weeks ago, which is 19 more visits than Obama had made at the same point in his presidency. It'd be far easier to overlook Trump's recreational habits if he hadn't just run a campaign promising not to go golfing all the time.Second, there's the pointless secrecy. White House officials, apparently feeling a little embarrassed, have routinely tried to pretend Trump isn't on the course while he's golfing. At one point in February, administration officials made an AP reporter "wait in a room with black plastic over the windows while the president played golf."But even putting all of this aside, the ethics mess is what matters most: Trump owns the courses he keeps breaking campaign promises to visit. Mar-a-Lago isn't just some pleasant presidential retreat or a nice place for a president to unwind; it's a private business that Trump continues to profit from. From the NBC News report:

"It's just another example of his consistent efforts to exploit public office for private gain," ethics expert Steve Schooner told NBC News. "He's using his official office and the fact that people have to travel with him, meet him, and follow him to promote his commercial enterprise, in this case his privately owned club.""I can't think of anything like this that we've seen at anytime in the modern era," the George Washington Law School professor told NBC News. The Mar-a-Lago property is still owned by Trump, who placed his holdings in a trust overseen by his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg before assuming office, prompting Schooner to lament that the president "should have divested from his properties to begin with."Since Trump became president the cost of membership at Mar-a-Lago has doubled, with guests now paying $200,000 just to join."This is a privately owned club that for all intents and purposes was just another golf property in Florida before, that almost now is something that Americans immediately recognize," Schooner continued. "Imagine what you would have to pay to get that kind of brand recognition. That's extraordinary."

Circling back to our coverage from last month, this ethical mess is getting worse, not better. 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.""Mar-a-Lago represents a commercialization of the presidency that has few if any precedents in American history," presidential historian Jon Meacham told the Times. "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."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.The Washington Post's Greg Sargent talked recently to Norm Eisen, the chief ethics czar in the Obama White House, who noted Trump's habit of welcoming foreign leaders to his private club -- something we've now seen twice, with separate visits from the presidents of Japan and China."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."Eisen made these comments two months ago. The "he's not going to stop" prediction, we now know, was prescient.Just because this is now common doesn't mean we should get used to it. An ethical abuse shouldn't be less offensive just because Trump does it all the time.