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A presidential golf outing with a twist: Trump owns the place

 
President Donald Trump, second from right, and first lady Melania Trump, right, stop to pose for a photo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from left, and his wife, Akie Abe, left, before they have dinner at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach on Saturday. [Susan Walsh | Associated Press]
President Donald Trump, second from right, and first lady Melania Trump, right, stop to pose for a photo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from left, and his wife, Akie Abe, left, before they have dinner at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach on Saturday. [Susan Walsh | Associated Press]
Published Feb. 13, 2017

WEST PALM BEACH — Black plastic covered the doors and windows in an ornate suite at one of President Donald Trump's resorts Saturday, as he bonded with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan over a round of golf on a pristine day.

The covering blocked U.S. and Japanese journalists from capturing a glimpse of the leaders on the lush private course in Jupiter, Florida. But Trump's aides snapped their own picture of the friendly tableau, posting a photo of the men sharing a high-five, with an American flag waving majestically in the distance, to the president's social media accounts for his millions of followers to see.

"Having a great time hosting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the United States!" Trump's post said.

This, after all, was the point of inviting Abe to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach: a chance to have a picture-perfect weekend hosting a foreign leader with whom he has said he wants to develop a close relationship. It allowed Trump to capitalize on some unscripted moments after an initial period in office marred by antagonistic exchanges with some foreign leaders.

The media blackout was nothing unusual in the annals of presidential free time. President Barack Obama routinely played golf out of sight of the press pool that traveled with him, only occasionally allowing a glimpse of him taking a swing or interacting with his partners.

But it was the latest reminder that Trump's presidency is mixing his official role with the business that bears his name. Abe's visit was the first of what Trump's top aides say will be many in which he uses Mar-a-Lago, the 126-room, pink-hued and Spanish-tiled castle on Florida's Gold Coast, as a setting for forging high-stakes relationships with world leaders.

That is likely to mean that the property — along with Trump golf courses nearby in Jupiter and West Palm Beach, where the president squired Abe on Saturday, along with professional golfer Ernie Els — will draw increased attention, with all the potential for additional profit that brings. Mar-a-Lago has doubled its initiation rate for new members, to $200,000.

"We got to know each other very, very well" on the golf course, Trump told reporters Saturday evening as he stood beside Abe and their wives on the way to dinner at Mar-a-Lago. Nearby, a line of clubgoers in formal wear maneuvered Bentleys and Rolls-Royces into the driveway as a full moon rose over the palm trees.

The administration said Trump was hosting Abe and his wife as a "gift" to the Japanese leader and has said that any profits earned from the stays of members of foreign governments at Trump properties during his presidency would be donated to the Treasury to avoid the appearance that he was cashing in on his office.

It may be a frequent arrangement.

"President Trump is a dealmaker, and his coin of the realm is personal relationships and trying to convince people to negotiate a certain way in his favor, so this is what he does," said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has studied presidential travel.

Trump is not the first president to make use of a personal retreat to engage in informal diplomacy.

George W. Bush hosted foreign leaders at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, while Bill Clinton used Camp David, the official presidential retreat near Thurmont, Maryland, as an informal backdrop for high-stakes diplomacy, including efforts to forge peace in the Middle East. But for Trump, his retreat is also a for-profit club that benefits his family business, from which he has declined to completely divest.

"It's just one more example of using public office for private gain," said Richard W. Painter, a White House counsel to Bush who is an expert on government ethics. "He's going to Trump this, Trump that — it's clearly designed to raise the value of the brand and send the message to foreign leaders that you ought to patronize Trump properties if you want to get in good with the president."

On Saturday, Trump appeared to have taken some steps to separate the personal from the political. While Trump and Abe shuttled from resort to resort in the armored presidential limousine known as the Beast, the flags that normally flutter on the front and the presidential seals that usually adorn the doors were absent, an indication that these were not official stops.

There were other reminders that the visit was unfolding almost exclusively on Trump's own turf. At the Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, journalists traveling with him were admonished not to take pictures or video.

"It's a private club," an aide explained.