Sunday, July 15, 2018

Was Trump golfing? White House shrouds time at his clubs in mystery

WEST PALM BEACH — President Donald Trump spent seven hours this weekend at Trump International Golf Club, where a crisp breeze and cloudless skies beckoned golf lovers to the manicured 27-hole course.

Did he play any golf?

"Very little," Trump told reporters traveling with him Sunday on Air Force One back to Washington, recounting what he said had been a busy weekend of meetings to sell the health care bill and strategize about the nuclear threat from North Korea.

The White House refused to provide any details.

On Saturday, Trump "spent the early morning and afternoon on issues concerning the Department of Veterans Affairs and the military," according to an official account distributed by the White House Press Office late that night. He then held "a long and very fruitful call with President Michel Temer of Brazil," and met with Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, on North Korea.

Questions about whether the commander-in-chief also indulged in his favorite game went unanswered by White House officials traveling with the president.

But one of the president's friends offered a clue Saturday on Twitter; Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of Newsmax Media, shared a photograph of Trump wearing a golfing glove, white polo shirt and red "Make America Great Again" cap and giving a thumbs-up as he posed with two golfers at Trump International.

It is normal, even routine, for presidents to indulge in weekend recreation out of sight of the news media. President Barack Obama played golf frequently when the weather and his schedule permitted. But the White House has customarily informed reporters traveling with the president what he is up to during these outings, and even provided some details, such as who joined his golf game.

Not so with Trump. These days, journalists in the White House press pool spend hours in the conference room of a public library across the road from the ornate gates and view-obstructing hedges of Trump International, harboring suspicions that the president is playing golf but never receiving official confirmation.

For a White House that has sometimes been loath to acknowledge basic facts, it is the latest example of officials essentially asking people not to believe their own eyes.

On Sunday, Lindsay E. Walters, a spokeswoman, told reporters traveling with the president that while at his golf club, Trump "may step out to hit balls, but I cannot confirm that at this time."

When the question arose again later in the day, after the president had departed the course, she could not confirm it at that time either. The reticence may stem in part from criticism Trump has drawn for spending so much time golfing since he was sworn in, particularly after he harshly criticized Obama for the same thing.

Trump said while campaigning for president that if he won, he would probably be too busy doing the people's business to golf.

"I'm going to be working for you," Trump said last year at a rally in Virginia. "I'm not going to have time to go play golf."

Trump has explained the seeming contradiction between his games and his predecessor's by arguing that Obama did not use his golf time strategically to meet with world leaders or lawmakers, as Trump did last month when he hosted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan at Mar-a-Lago for a golf weekend that included at least 27 holes at two Trump courses.

But such games appear to have been exceptions during Trump's first weeks in office. Instead, the White House has presented the president's trips to Trump International as business outings.

That was the story two weeks ago during his last Mar-a-Lago weekend, when the administration told reporters only that he was having "meetings and phone calls" during his 7½ hours at the club.

Last month, after White House officials told reporters that he had "played a couple of holes" at his West Palm Beach course, a photograph emerged of the president posing with Rory McIlroy, the professional golfer, along with reports that they had played 18 holes.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, deputy White House press secretary, said then that the discrepancy was because of a last-minute change of plans.

"He intended to play a few holes and decided to play longer," Sanders said, noting that Trump had also "had a full day of meetings, calls and interviews" to choose a new national security adviser.

On Sunday, the White House released another late-day account of the president's day, including a call with the president of Chile. As for whether any golf was played in all those hours at the course, Trump left the matter vague.

"We had meetings over at the club," the president said.

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