For the third consecutive weekend, Donald Trump departed the White House for Florida, spending time once again at Mar-a-Lago, one of the president's many business ventures. Last week, Trump and his team were casually referring to the club as the "Winter White House," but this week, the president rebranded it
the "Southern White House."Apparently, it's not just seasonal anymore.The facilities at Mar-a-Lago have proven to be controversial of late, especially after Trump started conducting sensitive national security talks
in front of club members, wait staff, and other civilians. But complicating matters is the broader ethical dynamic.The New York Times noted
over the weekend 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."
"Amazing" is a generous word under the circumstances. Nixon's California home came to be known as the "Western White House," and Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush spent a considerable amount of time during their presidencies at their respective ranches. But in each of those cases, presidents had private properties where they had private homes. Trump's business operation, on the other hand, now charges $200,000 a person to join a club where members can gain access to the president, members of his team, and a front-row seat to foreign-policy talks in the wake of a North Korean missile launch.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."This remains, in other words, 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? We don't know -- because Mar-a-Lago doesn't disclose its membership list.The Washington Post
's Greg Sargent talked the other day 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. Mar-a-Lago is neither the "Winter White House" nor the "Southern White House"; it's a business Trump is exploiting in unethical ways.