Press Access

The President’s Mar-A-Lago Retreat and Presidential Access

Throughout history, U.S. Presidents have relied on private retreats to recharge during the trials of governing. George H.W. Bush had a “Summer White House” in Kennebunkport, Maine, FDR  built a “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia, and Harry S. Truman had his own Florida “Little White House” before President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. Mar-a-Lago, once the Marjorie Merriweather Post estate, is a 20-acre exclusive private club with an extensive beach.  Under Trump, Obama-era policies of disclosing  the President’s golf partners and White House visitor logs have been curtailed. Mar-a-Lago is a commercial property, raising questions of who has access to the President and thus an opportunity to influence public policy on a wide range of issues.
For news, analysis, history & legal background read on.

News & Updates

Though lawsuits have been filed to bring transparency to Mar-a-Lago’s visitor list, only partial accounts have been made available by the Secret Service. Town and Country looks at what it takes to belong to the exclusive club whose initiation fee rose to $200,000 this year.

Town and Country
September 19, 2017: Democrats Bring Bill to Prevent Government Officials From Using Trump Properties

The Hotel Act – Heightened Oversight of Travel, Eating and Lodging- was introduced by Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich., Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in response to information that the federal government was seemingly overcharged by an official’s visit to Mar-a-Lago. The records were obtained after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Property of the People. “Executive branch officials like the President and cabinet secretaries should not have a profit motive in the travel decisions made by the federal employees under their supervision,” said Senator Peters.

Washington Post
September 15, 2017: President Trump Administration Says Schedule Not Subject to FOIA
Three groups sued the Trump Administration after the Department of Homeland Security denied their request under the Freedom of Information Act for access to visitor logs for the White House, Trump Tower in New York, and Mar-a-Lago. In July, a New York federal judge ordered the Secret Service to turn over all records for Mar-a-Lago from January 20, 2017, to March 8, 2017. In mid-September, the Justice Department provided 22 names stating in a letter, “The government believes that Presidential schedule information is not subject to FOIA.” Another FOIA request brought by Property of the People had more luck obtaining information from U.S. Coast Guard records on expenses surrounding Trump properties, reports NPR.
BREAKING: After an extension, at the last minute the government only turned over 22 names from Mar-a-Lago. We’ll be fighting this in court.

CNN U.S. Department of Justice Letter U.S. Department of Justice Letter Coast Guard Billing Statements
September 6, 2017: Do Private Golf Clubs Allow Special Presidential Access?

President Trump likes to golf and as President has often traveled to his golf clubs. A USA Today investigation reveals that, “Members of the clubs Trump has visited most often as president — in Florida, New Jersey and Virginia — include at least 50 executives whose companies hold federal contracts and 21 lobbyists and trade group officials.” Though club members have stated that they have not discussed government business while golfing, experts are raising red flags over potential ethical conflicts.

USA Today
July 17, 2017: Federal Judge to Trump: Release Visitor Logs

The public knows Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Mar-a-Lago; now a federal judge has ordered that the Administration must turn over Mar-A-Lago visitor logs in response to a FOIA request by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the National Security Archive and the Knight First Amendment Institute.

NPR Court Order
May 15, 2017: House Democrat Introduces Bill to Compel Reimbursement for Private Property Visits

House Representative Ted Lieu (D-California) introduced The Stop Waste and Misuse by the President (SWAMP) Act, which would require President Trump, and other officials protected by the Secret Service, to refund the government for taxpayer money used for travel to his private properties, such as Mar-a-Lago. As reported by The Hill, the SWAMP Act states, “Every time the president travels to Mar-a-Lago, he necessarily promotes his private business interests via free press at the government’s expense,” and each visit “results in the American taxpayer effectively subsidizing the president’s businesses.”

The Hill
April 28, 2017: Democratic Senator Requests Investigation of Mar-a-Lago Blog Post

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) asked the State Department Inspector General to investigate the State Department’s recent blog post on the “ShareAmerica” webpage that appeared to promote President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. As reported by CBS news, Wyden called the blog page a “clear use of public resources for private gain” and said that even though the post was removed, “at least two United States embassies were still promoting the president’s private business at the drafting of this letter.” Wyden further claimed that because Trump has not divested his business interests, government promotion of his commercial, for-profit resort may violate the foreign emoluments clause in the Constitution.

CBS News
April 24, 2017: State Department Removes “Promotional” Page for Mar-A-Lago

 A controversial State Department post that appeared to advertise Mar-a Lago, has been removed. The April 4 post was found on the ShareAmerica webpage, part of the Bureau of International Information Programs that liaises with embassies and foreign consulates to show images and stories that promote American democracy and civil society. Critics said the page illegally advertised President Trump’s for-profit south Florida resort, in violation of federal law that prohibits the government from promoting business that benefits the president.

April 6, 2017: Trump Hosts Chinese President at Mar-a-Lago

Chinese President Xi Jinping joined President Donald Trump a Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s south Florida property, for a two-day summit. Trump also hosted the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago in February.

Washington Post>
March 28, 2017: Government Accountability Office Will Review Trump’s Travel to Mar-a-Lago

Under pressure from Congressional Democrats, the Government Accountability Office will assess the costs and security measures related to President Trump’s visits to his Mar-a-Lago property. The Washington Post reports the GAO will examine how classified material and secure communications are being handled; Secret Service procedures for Mar-a-Lago visitors; whether DOD and Secret Service fees for the trips are “fair and reasonable;” and “whether the U.S. Treasury has received any payments resulting from profits at hotels that are owned or operated by the president.”

Washington Post
March 25, 2017: Democrats Propose “MAR-a-LAGO Act”

 NBC News and other outlets report that Congressional Democrats introduced legislation to require greater transparency regarding the President’s use of his Mar-a-Lago property. Dubbed the Make Access Records Available to Lead American Government Openness Act, or MAR-a-LAGO Act, the legislation would require publication of visitor logs for anyone who visits the White House or “any other location at which the President or the Vice President regularly conducts official business.” The Hill reports that Senators Tom Udall (N.M.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), Tom Carper (Del.) and Jack Reed (R.I.) sponsored the Senate version, while Representative Mike Quigley (Ill.) introduced the House version

NBC News The Hill Text of Bill

History & Legal Cases

President’s have always had getaway homes, including personal properties such as President Herbert Hoover’s rustic Virginia retreat, from which the press was banned, as well as the more well known Camp David in Maryland, used by every president (except Trump). A retreat like Mar-a-Lago where paying guests can see the President in action may be setting a new precedent.

Washington Post Fox News

Analysis & Opinion

April 26, 2017: Did the State Department Do Some Free Marketing for Mar-a-Lago?

The Atlantic explains the history behind Trump’s ownership of Mar-a-Lago. The article argues that Trump’s refusal to divest his interests in the resort has created an unprecedented situation where a president stands to financially profit from the use of his property, which was compounded by the State Department’s apparent promotion of the property. “With every visit to the resort—which charges an initiation fee of $200,000, plus $14,000 in annual membership dues—Trump ensures that its name and location will appear in nearly every article on the topic, not only raising its profile but also implicitly suggesting that any dues-paying member will have a chance to hobnob with a sitting president. That guests frequently post pictures of Trump from their weekend visits only further reinforces this impression.”

The Atlantic
April 6, 2017: No Issue With Hosting Chinese President at Mar-a-Lago

Fox News reports that some local Florida officials and Washington insiders have no issue with Trump’s decision to host the Chinese president at his private estate.

Fox News
 April 5, 2017: Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Trips: Possible Ethical Entanglements

The Associated Press offers a nuanced look at President Trump’s frequent travel to his Mar-a-Lago resort. “Breaking with presidential precedent, Trump held onto ownership of his businesses when he took office, meaning he makes money when his properties do well. The resort doubled its membership fee to $200,000 after he was elected,” the AP notes. Kathleen Clark, a former ethics lawyer for the District of Columbia and a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told the AP, “The president’s recurrent trips to Mar-a-Lago and other properties he owns, particularly with leaders that make the visits newsworthy, means he is in effect using the presidency to promote his business.”  The president’s son, Eric Trump,  defended his father’s actions, saying that President George W. Bush acted similarly when he hosted foreign leaders at his Texas ranch. However, Bush did not stand to personally benefit financially from hosting foreign leaders and other guests, since his ranch was a private, not commercial, property.

Associated Press