PALM BEACH, Fla. – President Donald Trump is back in his comfort zone at the “winter White House”: Mar-a-Lago, where women in furs and men in diamond jewelry and monogrammed slippers mingle with Sylvester Stallone and Fabio at New Year’s Eve celebrations and Don King rubs elbows with Cabinet members, could-be ambassadors and the “MyPillow” guy at dinner.
As he departed Washington for Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday, Trump said he’d be doing “a lot of work” while in Florida, but the club also serves as his refuge from Washington.
All presidents have had their favorite retreats: George H.W. Bush’s family had a compound in Kennebunkport, Maine; George W. Bush loved his ranch in Crawford, Texas; and Barack Obama savored winter getaways to his home state of Hawaii. But none has drawn the fascination — or raised the ethical issues — of Mar-a-Lago, where Trump spends his time mixing work, business and pleasure in the company of dues-paying members.
It’s one of the many ways in which Trump has transformed the presidency and managed to hold onto the life he had before taking office.
“His visits to Mar-a-Lago are part of the original sins of his presidency, and the fact that he’s returning there shows that he has not learned his lesson,” said former White House ethics lawyer Norman Eisen. He described the club as “a place where, for sky-high admissions fees, business executives who have strong interests before the government can literally engage in purchasing access to the president. Those fees also seem to be down payments on ambassadorships.”
Indeed, Trump recently picked Lana Marks, a Palm Beach handbag designer and Mar-a-Lago member, to serve as U.S. ambassador to South Africa. She’s the fourth member to be nominated for such a post, according to the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, where Eisen serves at board chairman.
Trump is typically lightly staffed during his visits south. But those who do make the trip are on alert, wary of club members and invited guests who buttonhole the president in dining rooms and other club spaces where they have near-unimpeded access. Members, including business moguls and socialites, often raise pet projects, make policy suggestions and share oddball ideas — everything from trying to sell the president on the benefits of nuclear-powered cars to pitching their own formulas for Mideast peace.
Trump sometimes directs his staff to follow up on their suggestions.