Time at Mar-a-Lago is a respite for Trump — and a headache for his staff

One White House official, when asked about Trump's recent impromptu interview with the New York Times, was perplexed, wondering aloud, “What interview? Today?” Another frustrated aide called it “embarrassing.”
President Trump speaks Dec. 29, 2017, as he meets with members of the U.S. Coast Guard, whom he invited to play golf, at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Trump speaks Dec. 29, 2017, as he meets with members of the U.S. Coast Guard, whom he invited to play golf, at Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Published Dec. 30, 2017

PALM BEACH, Fla. — When President Trump sat down with a reporter for a wide-ranging, 30-minute interview at his private golf club here Thursday, not a single aide or adviser was present at the table — and not a single aide or adviser knew about it in advance.

The interview was enabled by Christopher Ruddy — a club member with a level of personal access to the president in Florida that rankles White House staffers. He invited New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt as his personal guest to lunch at Trump International Golf Club, sat near Trump's regular table and brought the reporter over to meet the president, who was still in his golf clothes.

As word trickled back to the White House, advisers worked to reach the president, with Trump's personal aide interrupting at one point to hand him a cellphone with White House communications director Hope Hicks on the line; she checked in on the interview from afar.

But others were out of the loop even after the Times story was posted online Thursday evening. One White House official, when asked about the president's impromptu interview, was perplexed, wondering aloud, "What interview? Today?" Another frustrated aide called it "embarrassing."

Mar-a-Lago — Trump's manicured, gilded oceanfront retreat here — is the president's "Winter White House," the villa to which he escapes for rounds of golf and family time. But, to the chagrin of many aides, Mar-a-Lago also is the place where Trump is often his most unrestrained and unfettered, making it harder for his West Wing staffers to control his daily media diet and personal contacts as they now try to do in Washington.

Inside the White House, aides filter what information gets to Trump and who meets with him, trying to prevent rash or uninformed decisions. They often monitor his call logs, with Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who often listens in on calls, telling people to approach him when they want to speak to the president.

White House officials said they appreciate that time at Mar-a-Lago is a respite for Trump; it is a familiar and comfortable haven for him to recharge while surrounded by his family and friends. The president often gets less riled by the sorts of stray comments on cable news that, back in Washington, might prompt an angry tweet or rejoinder, one aide said. Mar-a-Lago is not necessarily a panacea for angry tweets — Trump has fired off a few agitated messages since arriving in Florida.

Mar-a-Lago also has its drawbacks, the aides said, particularly in the form of club members and guests who, the aides think, try to take advantage of the president and exploit his relative freedom from the staff and regimens of the West Wing.

"At Mar-a-Lago, anyone who can get within eyesight changes the game," said a former White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss a sensitive subject, and referring to club members and guests who sometimes try the influence the president on policy, share an opinion on his administration or simply say hello. "Everyone who is angling for something knows to be there."

All presidents have worked to escape the constraining bubble of Washington. When Barack Obama, near the end of his presidency, occasionally slipped the gates of the White House, he would joke that "the bear is loose." Yet by that metaphor, Mar-a-Lago has become a veritable ursine playground, with Trump starring in the role of chief grizzly — calling outside advisers and confidants while playing both host and inquisitor to his club's wealthy members.

Mar-a-Lago, said Roger Stone, a former Trump campaign adviser and longtime friend of the president's, "allows Trump to be Trump."

"Nobody tells Donald Trump where he can and cannot go," Stone said. "The president is able to get a lot of information that is normally blocked from getting to him. . . . You don't have the minders. There is no doubt that he makes more calls."

Trump's personal quarters are off-limits to most club members — several friends said they have never been inside.

His regular routine is simple and predictable: He wakes, watches television, tweets, makes phone calls, reads the papers and works. He often emerges for golf if the weather allows, then returns to the club, where he sometimes has lunch or meets with White House staffers. He then returns to his living quarters, emerging again for dinner.

He used to stop by tables to chat or wander the patio but has stopped that in recent months, club members and friends say.

Instead, Trump now sets up "a virtual rope line," said Ruddy — the chief executive of Newsmax, a conservative media company — where friends such as he, Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter and local restaurant owner Lee Lipton come to say hello.

Trump, for instance, recently chatted with Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman for 30 minutes after dining with son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump, according to people familiar with the meeting.

Since becoming president, members' access to Trump has been tightened, said Shannon Donnelly, society editor of the Palm Beach Daily News. "It is one of the places where he can relax a little bit, but not anybody can just go up and talk to him at Mar-a-Lago," she said, before adding, "Unless he sees you and motions for you to come over for him."

And, Donnelly noted, on Christmas Eve, Trump actually walked to the buffet and made his own plate, providing guests with yet another opportunity to interact with the president.

Trump often asks guests about foreign affairs or legislative accomplishments and solicits their opinions on certain aides or how the White House is doing. Earlier this year, Trump quizzed club members about the Paris climate accord and North Korea, one person familiar with his questions said. He has questioned Mar-a-Lago guests, alternatively, on the performance of former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, his news coverage, their opinions of Congress and his rally performances, according to several advisers.

"He used to ask guests about 'The Apprentice,' or Obamacare, or the Clintons or whatever the topic was," Ruddy said. "He's a feedback junkie. If you ever said, 'I went to your hotel. I went to this golf course,' he'd say, 'How was the service? How was the food?' He is very approachable."

This holiday trip, especially close to Christmas, Trump had only a small staff with him and used his free time to talk to outside advisers and confidants, and he received stark warnings about how the 2018 political landscape could be challenging for Republicans and how he needs to improve the White House's political operation.

Nearly any club member determined enough can eventually reach the president. After The Washington Post emailed Howie Carr, a Boston Herald columnist and conservative talk radio host, Wednesday afternoon to ask about the president's time at Mar-a-Lago, Carr happened to be dining at the club that evening and approached the president to ask whether he had anything to share.

The president, Carr said in an email, specifically mentioned the Republican tax bill, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate and the opening of Alaska's Arctic wilderness to oil and gas drilling. "Tell them I am relaxing and enjoying myself and I'm in very good spirits because I've just had the most successful first year any president has ever had in American history," Carr said the president told him.

Asked by Carr whether he wanted to say anything directly to The Post, Trump added: "Tell them to start reporting honestly. They're very dishonest people. They have to start being truthful."

Trump's impromptu Thursday interview with the Times elicited a new round of public hand-wringing, including questions about the processes implemented by Kelly, who accepted his West Wing job promising to impose discipline and order on a White House that had been riven by chaos.

But the president himself had no such qualms. Trump was enthusiastic about the interview and was pleased that the Times was at his golf course, people briefed on the interview said. The president, they added, enjoyed the coverage afterward and noted that it dominated TV most of Friday.