Thursday 17 September 2020

US Election

House of gain

Mar-a-Lago costs US taxpayers millions when the President visits – and some of it ends up in Trump family pockets

By David Taylor

First there was the North Korea missile crisis, played out on the terrace by cell phone flashlights in the company of Japan’s President Abe.

Then there was the night the US President leaned over to President Xi of China after a dessert that Trump said was “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen” to let him know that 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles had just been fired at Syria.

Mar-a-Lago, the Florida mansion Trump likes to call the Winter White House, has become a symbol of this abnormal presidency.

A place where money can buy a ringside seat for a national security crisis, an audience with a president, and – if you are Trump’s dentist – the opportunity to influence policy with a scribbled note on a napkin.

The opulent private members’ club has also helped enrich the Trump family. President Trump said in December 2016 that he would step back from his businesses “in total”, but the Trump Organization has continued to profit from his elected position. And even though Mar-a-Lago’s revenue has sometimes dipped, presidential photocalls have made it famous around the world.

Every visit by the president not only costs US taxpayers millions of dollars, Secret Service officials pay Trump to stay there.

CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which investigates the influence of money in US politics, has called Mar-a-Lago “a nexus of corruption”. In November 2019, CREW marked Trump’s 100th trip to Mar-a-Lago, noting “the overlaps between his business and the government are just as maddening at 100 visits to Mar-a-Lago as they were on the 13th day of his presidency when he made his first visit on the taxpayer dime. Since then, we have only seen the evidence pile up that Mar-a-Lago exhibits the worst of the Trump presidency, from reckless national security risks to profiteering to influence peddling”.

 

Trump has now visited
Mar-a-Lago 30 times for
127 days during his
presidency…

He has played golf at the
nearby Trump International
West Palm Beach golf course
83 times and four more times
at Trump National up the
coast at Jupiter…

Playing partners have
included world leaders…

Sports stars…

Pro-golfers…

Politicians…

And conservative pundits…

Trump has celebrated Christmas, New Year, Thanksgiving and more than one Super Bowl there.

This year, as the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in the US, Trump left the White House for Mar-a-Lago on 31 January, 30 minutes after his health secretary declared that the coronavirus presented a public health emergency in the United States. Trump played golf with Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, then sat for an interview with him afterwards. Then he attended a party branded Red White & Blue: Celebrating Trump Kick-Off 2020 Victory where the stage was decorated with a cartoon image of him as a tough footballer.

….His visit in March was pretty eventful…

On Saturday 7, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro came to visit for a ‘working dinner’ – and some of his party left with Covid-19. After a long handshake, Trump could be heard on video telling him, via a translator: “Brazil has really turned the corner.” At that point, Brazil had recorded 19 cases – it now has more than 4 million, third worst in the world.

In the ballroom Donald Trump Jr hosted a massive 51st birthday party for his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is chairing the Trump Victory Finance Committee. Guests included the Trump children, Eric, Ivanka and Tiffany. Jared Kushner was also there along with guests including Senator Lindsey Graham, Fox TV star Tucker Carlson and Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

The next day, Trump played golf with members of the Washington Nationals baseball team and Trump Victory held an afternoon fundraiser, which Trump attended (and profited from). At least one guest tested positive afterwards for Covid-19, prompting Politico to describe the club as a “giant gilded petri dish for coronavirus”.

How much does it all cost US taxpayers?

The best estimate is $3.4 million per trip, suggesting $102 million for 30 trips to date.

We know a lot about the cost of four early trips to Mar-a-Lago because the Government Accountability Office reported in detail on them for Congress.

“This estimate consisted of approximately $10.6 million for operating costs of government aircraft and boats and $3 million for temporary duty costs of government personnel supporting the President’s travel, including transportation, lodging, and meals and incidental expenses,” the report said.

That included a tab for the 89th Airlift Wing of $1.3 million, including the costs of operating Air Force One (at $200,000 an hour).

In 2018, USA Today obtained documents under freedom of information laws that showed 16 trips up to that point had cost nearly $20 million in coast guard protections alone.

 

Coast Guard records
show the service assigns
29-foot rubber boats…

and 87-foot patrol boats

An H-65 rescue
helicopter patrols the
airspace near Mar-a-Lago
for about $8,000 per
flight-hour.

Records show Coast Guard staff logged about 4,236 hours on the vessels and helicopter on presidential protective duty from April 2017 to March 2018. The luxury estate and private club sits on a narrow strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway. Both waterways require Coast Guard patrols.

Does the Trump Organization make money from the US Federal Government?

Yes it does. Some Secret Service staff stay nearby in hotels but agents need space to provide protection at Mar-a-Lago.

The GAO identified about $60,000 in expenses paid to Mar-a-Lago for those four early 2017 trips…

$24,000 for rooms and $36,000 for space required by the Secret Service for operational purposes.

It is not confirmed, but also seems likely that the US Federal Government would be billed by the Trump Organization for providing catering services when working dinners are held at Trump properties with visiting foreign dignitaries such as Xi and Abe and Bolsonaro. The most beautiful chocolate cake ever seen, does not come for free.

Expenses depend upon whether the president’s travel is official, political or non-political.

Of course, he must be protected regardless of the nature of the travel, but other costs would not necessarily have to be met if the trip was political.

Department of Justice memoranda have advised that when presidential travel is for official purposes it is to be paid for with government funds, and when it is for political purposes, appropriated funds cannot be used.

However, Trump has a habit of attaching a ‘working dinner’ to a weekend filled with personal or political activity. Like that Bolsonaro visit.

Are there other ways for the Trump Organization to make money at Mar-a-Lago by benefitting from the Presidency?

The Trump Organization also profits from hosting events – there are obvious concerns for ethical watchdogs about this because an organisation might pay to stage an event in order to gain influence, access or favour with Trump. A glimpse of this activity came in 2017, after Trump’s controversial comments equating neo-Nazis and anti-hate protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia. Six non-profit groups including the American Red Cross cancelled events at Mar-a-Lago, which would have financially benefited the Trump Organization.

What about political events?

Yes, Trump is profiting from his own election campaign.

Filings by the Trump Victory Committee show that the campaign fundraising organisation paid $380,000 to rent rooms and facilities for a two-day Mar-a-Lago donor event from 31 March to 1 April this year.

That is part of at least $1.47 million paid by Trump Victory Committee to Trump Hotel Collection for rental, catering and lodging declared in FEC filings from May 2019 to April 2020.

So, donors pay to gather at events staged in Trump properties, the campaign fundraising committee collects contributions and takes a slice off the top and pays it to the Trump Organization for rooms, food and event space.

Since 2016, various Trump campaign fundraising groups have spent at least $18m in Trump properties, the Center for Responsive Politics has calculated.

How about the members of Mar-a-Lago?

They pay $200,000 each to join and then $14,000-a-year.

But there are perks. Like helping make policy.

Trump’s dentist Albert Hazzouri scribbled a note on a cocktail napkin about Federal payments to veterans for dental care – Trump ordered that it be handed on to the Department for Veterans’ Affairs (stamped The President Has Seen).

CREW obtained further records of emails showing the VA was engaging with policy ideas put forward by paying members at Mar-a-Lago. One email exchange showed a VA official saying: “I’d be happy to respond to this but these questions are just ridiculous” and being met with the response: “They are coming from POTUS friend/doctor. Will need to handle sensitively and with facts.”

Finally, two Mar-a-Lago members have become US diplomats.

Robin Bernstein, a founder member of Mar-a-Lago and Trump’s insurance agent, is now US Ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

And South African-born handbag designer Lana Marks, a Mar-a-Lago member since 2010, is now the US Ambassador to South Africa.

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