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Trump's Mar-a-Lago ethics mess gets worse ahead of Xi Jinping visit

The ethical mess surrounding Donald Trump's use of Mar-a-Lago is getting worse, not better.
Workers lay out the red carpet at Mar-a-Lago Club on December 30, 2016 in Palm Beach, Florida....
China's Xi Jinping will arrive in Florida tomorrow for a couple of days of talks with Donald Trump, which will be held at the lovely Mar-a-Lago resort. The visit comes just two months after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended events at the same private locale.The fact that the resort has become a hotspot for meetings with foreign heads of state is a real commercial coup for Mar-a-Lago's owner. Oh wait, its owner is the one arranging the meetings.

No doubt Florida's oceanfront Mar-a-Lago resort is an impressive site for a summit between the presidents of the U.S. and China. And it's a pretty nice business advertisement, too, for the owner of the luxurious, members-only private property.That would be Donald J. Trump.Even before this week's summit, Trump and his aides had begun referring to Mar-a-Lago as the "Winter White House," a marketing coup for a man who has made millions selling his personal brand. Now the president is writing his property deeper into American history books by meeting there with China's Xi Jinping.

This will be the American president's sixth trip to Mar-a-Lago since taking office. Trump's only been president for 12 weeks.Trump could, of course, use a variety of other venues -- including Camp David -- for gatherings like this one with the Chinese president, but Trump has a strong financial incentive to rely on his private club: using Camp David doesn't boost the profits of the president's private-sector enterprise.Eric Trump told the Associated Press that the Mar-a-Lago club is his father's "Crawford, Texas," referring to the Texas property George W. Bush bought ahead of his 2000 election, where the Republican president would occasionally entertain foreign leaders."You go back at it -- all these foreign leaders remember their time in Crawford. They all talk about being there," Eric Trump said. The AP report added, "He said his father similarly forges strong relationships at the Florida property."And the comparison might make sense if George W. Bush's ranch was a for-profit club that charged members $200,000 a person to join.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.”
… 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.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.Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office recently agreed to "review the costs and security of President Donald Trump's frequent trips" to Mar-a-Lago, in response to a request from several Democratic members of Congress.On a related note, several more congressional Dems have introduced legislation that would require Trump to release the visitor logs to the White House and the president's Florida club. It's called the Make Access Records Available to Lead American Government Openness Act, or "MAR-A-LAGO" Act.