Saturday, July 21, 2018
Politics

At Trump club, dinner comes with a view of security talks

WASHINGTON —— President Donald Trump and his top aides coordinated their response to North Korea's missile test Saturday night in full view of diners at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida — a remarkable public display of presidential activity that is almost always conducted in highly secure settings.

The scene — of aides huddled over their computers and the president on his cellphone at his club's terrace — was captured by a club member dining not far away and published in pictures on his Facebook account. The images also show Trump conferring with his guest at the resort, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.

Shortly before the club member, Richard DeAgazio, who joined Trump's club recently, took the pictures, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile into the sea off its eastern coast. DeAgazio posted his photographs to Facebook as the two leaders and their staff members reviewed documents and worked on their laptops, using cellphones as flashlights.

"HOLY MOLY !!! It was fascinating to watch the flurry of activity at dinner when the news came that North Korea had launched a missile in the direction of Japan," DeAgazio wrote later on Facebook, describing how the two leaders "conferred and then went into another room for hastily arranged press conference."

"Wow.....the center of the action!!!" DeAgazio wrote in the post. The scene at Mar-a-Lago was first reported by CNN. DeAgazio did not respond to a call seeking comment.

The fact that the national security incident played out in public view drew swift condemnation from Democrats, who said it was irresponsible for Trump not to have moved his discussion to a more private location.

"There's no excuse for letting an international crisis play out in front of a bunch of country club members like dinner theater," Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader in the House, wrote on Twitter.

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Tom Udall of New Mexico, Democrats who have called for Trump's club to release a list of its members, denounced the president Monday for discussing the North Korean missile launch in the open.

"This is America's foreign policy, not this week's episode of Saturday Night Live," the senators said in a statement. "We urge our Republican colleagues to start taking this administration's rash and unprofessional conduct seriously before there are consequences we all regret."

Republican senators also seemed puzzled by the president's actions. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said, "Usually that's not a place where you do that kind of thing." Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., could barely find words. "Can't make it up," he said.

Michael J. Morell, a former acting CIA director under President Barack Obama, said, "Every president with whom I have worked would have gone to a private room to have what was potentially a classified discussion."

Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, — known casually as the Winter White House — for a get-to-know-you weekend with Abe, including time with the prime minister on the golf course and dinners with their spouses.

About 8 p.m. Saturday, the two leaders appeared for a brief photo-op together at the main entrance to the resort. Trump ignored a shouted question from a reporter about the North Korean missile test, which had occurred about an hour earlier.

The president and his guests dined at the resort's restaurant during the next two hours, eventually providing the flurry of national security activity that DeAgazio captured. Around 10:30 p.m., Trump and Abe made short statements to a small group of reporters brought to a separate room in the resort.

Sean Spicer, the president's press secretary, told reporters at the White House that Trump and Abe had not reviewed classified material on the resort's patio.

Spicer said the president was briefed about North Korea in a secure location on the property. It is against the law for officials to be handling classified materials in a nonsecure setting.

Spicer said Trump and his aides were reviewing "news conference logistics" about the North Korean missile test.

But national security veterans of past administrations still expressed surprise that Trump and his staff would not have excused themselves to be able to have candid conversations about the North Korean situation and to review sensitive or classified documents.

Discussions about how to respond to international incidents involving adversaries like North Korea are almost always conducted in places that have high-tech protections against eavesdropping, like the White House Situation Room. When presidents are away from the White House, they often conduct important business in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF, a location that can be made temporarily impervious to eavesdropping.

Such facilities can be installed permanently in places that the president visits frequently, like Mar-a-Lago. And a communications team travels with the president wherever he goes to ensure that he can communicate securely regardless of where he is.

There are examples from the previous administration. In 2011, the White House released a photograph of Obama and members of his national security team sitting in a secure tent while on a trip to Brazil. Obama had begun attacks on Libya and was conferring about the military operation.

Two years later, Obama held a dinner with President Xi Jinping of China at the Sunnylands resort in Rancho Mirage, Calif. But the dinner between the leaders was out of sight of members of the public, in a private dining room.

Trump and White House aides who joined him and Abe for dinner on Saturday, including Stephen Bannon, the president's chief strategist, did not relocate the discussion to a secure location.

Trump appears to enjoy presenting the spectacle of his presidency to those at his privately held club, where members pay $200,000 to join. While the club is not open to the public, Trump's dinner with Abe was in the club's dining room, where members and their guests were likely to be.

Individual club members can invite guests, submitting a list of names of table guests to security officials ahead of time. But none of that would give them clearance to see sensitive or classified material handled by the president or his aides.

In addition to posting the pictures of the North Korea conversation, DeAgazio also published pictures of himself standing with a person he described as Trump's military aide responsible for carrying the nuclear "football" — the briefcase that contains codes for launching nuclear weapons.

After news reports were published about DeAgazio's Facebook account, the account was deleted, along with the photographs.

Representatives of the Mar-a-Lago resort did not respond to requests for comment about DeAgazio's use of social media to post photographs of the president.

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