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Trump can't hide from ethics questions on the golf course

"George W. Bush went to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, a lot, but it's not like you could rent the bedroom next to his."
Donald Trump visits Turnberry Golf Club, after its $10 Million refurbishment on June 8, 2015 in Turnberry, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty)
Donald Trump visits Turnberry Golf Club, after its $10 Million refurbishment on June 8, 2015 in Turnberry, Scotland. 

On Monday, Donald Trump said via Twitter, "I hope everyone is having a great Christmas, then tomorrow it's back to work in order to Make America Great Again." A day later, the president went "back to work" by playing golf. Today, Trump once again hit the links.

There's no shortage of reasons this remains a political story of interest. For example, there's the breathtaking hypocrisy: Trump railed for years against Barack Obama's golfing, only to play vastly more than his predecessor after taking office. There's also the list of broken promises: Trump assured Americans he wouldn't golf much if he was elected, only to spend his first year doing the opposite.

There's also the ongoing oddity of Trump pretending he isn't golfing all the time. It's a bit like the president's habit of watching television -- we know what he's doing, so there's no point in trying to mislead everyone. He's spent about a third of his presidency at a Trump-owned property, and a fourth of his presidency at one of the golf clubs he owns.

But there's also the matter of where he's golfing. The Wall Street Journal  reported yesterday:

President Donald Trump, who is currently spending a 10-day Christmas vacation at the Florida luxury resort he owns, has visited one of his company's properties on nearly one-third of the days he has been in office, according to a Wall Street Journal review of the president's travel.Of the more than 100 days Mr. Trump has visited one of his properties, he spent nearly 40 at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., which he visited for much of his two-week August vacation. And he spent 40 days at Mar-a-Lago, his luxury resort in Palm Beach, Fla., where he arrived Friday.Mr. Trump's is an unusual case of presidential travel, since he spends much of his time away from the White House at places that he owns but where other guests pay to stay.

Exactly. Every modern president has taken breaks away from the White House, but only Trump spends time at private businesses he still owns and profits from.

Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for the transparency advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told the Journal, "George W. Bush went to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, a lot, but it's not like you could rent the bedroom next to his."

Alas, this isn't exactly new. Circling back to our coverage from earlier in the year, I’m reminded anew of this 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 powerful cabinet secretaries and even receive 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.

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent talked 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.”

That was 10 months ago. Unfortunately, Eisen was right.