The Palm Beach Post

Book renews fears about Trump/Mar-a-Lago conflicts

Club members having access to the president concerns watchdogs.

- By Christine Stapleton Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

President Donald Trump’s activities at Mar-a-Lago have been widely reported — golf, meetings with world leaders and tweeting — but the recently released bestseller by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Bob Woodward offers a deeper look, with unpreceden­ted and unflatteri­ng details, about how the president governs from his lavish home and private club in Palm Beach.

Now, two government watchdog groups say the accounts in the book, “Fear,” again raise concerns about the ease of access to the president and his aides in a private club that he owns and that is also a for-profit enterprise.

“There should be more transparen­cy,” said John Wunderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group that monitors Trump’s potential conflicts of interest. “The fact is he’s having all these meetings at a private resort where people have paid

six figures to join . ... People with business interests and foreign government­s all have access to Mar-a-Lago and Trump’s hotel in D.C.”

Trump is not the first postWorld War II president to conduct the nation’s business at a private home. President John F. Kennedy vacationed at his family’s compound in Palm Beach. Ronald Reagan had a ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., dubbed the “Western White House.” Richard Nixon worked from his homes in San Clemente, Calif., and Key Biscayne. And George W. Bush spent 483 days at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

What distinguis­hes Trump’s presidenti­al visits to his estate in Palm Beach, government watchdog groups say, is that Mar-a-Lago is not only one of Trump’s residences, it is also one of his businesses.

And during his presidenti­al visits to Mar-a-Lago during the past two winter seasons, Trump has made himself available to club members, who pay more than $200,000 to join, and has made brief appearance­s to greet patrons and donors at charity galas that rent the ballrooms. Even to the point of reportedly seeking opinions and advice from some club members and Palm Beach neighbors.

A recent report by ProPublica revealed that three Mar-a-Lago members have exerted sweeping influence on the administra­tion’s veterans policies. According to the report, the troika includes Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz; Ike Perlmutter, the reclusive chairman of Marvel Entertainm­ent; and lawyer Marc Sherman. Among insiders at the Veterans Administra­tion, they are known as “the Mar-a-Lago crowd.”

The Palm Beach Post also has reported on administra­tion officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, greeting Mar-a-Lago guests while on the premises.

Members having that level of access to the president is among the reasons Citizens for Responsibi­lity and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, sued the Secret Service, seeking visitors’ logs to the White House, Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties.

“If he’s conducting business at Mar-a-Lago, especially conducting it within the presence of people not on staff and not cleared for access to the informatio­n ... we think that is an important window into what the president is thinking and how he is making decisions,” said Anne Weismann, CREW’s lead FOIA attorney. “That goes to the core of what the American public is entitled to know.”

A judge has ruled against CREW, however, finding that records pertaining to the president’s schedule — including visitors’ logs — are private unless the White House decides to make them public. The Obama administra­tion made its logs public after a legal challenge by CREW. President George W. Bush also made available some visitors’ records.

In his best-seller, Woodward dissects two events at Mar-a-Lago that highlight the very concern expressed by the watchdog groups: that important and significan­t government business is being conducted by Trump, and including aides and senior government officials, at a location that doubles as a presidenti­al residence and a for-profit enterprise.

The first of the two instances were the interviews Trump conducted on Presidents Day weekend in 2017 to replace ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to having lied to the FBI. The second was the April 5, 2017, National Security Council meeting Trump convened at Mar-a-Lago before launching a missile strike on Syria — which occurred moments before Trump and senior officials dined with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

According to Woodward, Trump arranged to interview candidates at Mar-a-Lago to replace Flynn on the weekend of February 20, 2017. Army Gen. H.R. McMaster was first and was allotted two hours with the president.

White House political strategist Steve Bannon prepped McMaster, a war veteran and scholar, but the meeting did not go well, Woodward wrote: “McMaster talked too much and the interview was short.”

Woodward then reports that while Trump took time to make a decision over the 2017 Presidents Day weekend at Mar-a-Lago, McMaster and the other candidate for the post, former Ambassador John Bolton, hung around the president’s Palm Beach complex.

A second item, the events surroundin­g a missile strike on Syria and the visit by Chinese leader Xi in April 2017, also is recounted.

Both instances, government watchdogs say, point to their concern that the president is conducting important business within the confines of a club where members and other guests have unpreceden­ted and perhaps unrestrict­ed access to senior government officials.

Notably absent from Woodward’s book are details about the night Trump turned the dining patio at Mar-a-Lago into a situation room when he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe received word of a missile launch by North Korea. There, in front of diners, the two leaders and their staff crowded around cellphones to view details of the launch.

Members tweeted about the incident and posted photos. The White House said Trump was not discussing classified informatio­n, but national security experts widely criticized him for handling the situation in front of diners.

 ?? EARL WILSON / THE NEW YORK TIMES ?? Bob Woodward’s new book, and the reaction to it, has helped contribute to a paranoid air in the White House, according to the president’s son.
EARL WILSON / THE NEW YORK TIMES Bob Woodward’s new book, and the reaction to it, has helped contribute to a paranoid air in the White House, according to the president’s son.

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