As members of the lavish Mar-a-Lago Club looked on Saturday night, President Donald Trump, Japan’s prime minister, and a slew of aides and advisers addressed a potential international crisis. With officials for both administrations rushing to assemble a news conference to address reports of a North Korean missile launch, club members pulled out their phones, snapping photos and quickly posting them to social media.
It’s a scene for which the Trump administration is drawing criticism for its handling of international security just days after a key adviser came under fire for allegedly talking with Russia about sanctions before Trump took office.
The president, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and their wives were dining at a table on the terrace of Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Trump’s self-described “winter White House.” The atmosphere then seemed to change from collegial meal to, as The Washington Post described it, “an open-air situation room.”
Robert Lloyd, international relations expert and dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Palm Beach Atlantic University, said he was hard-pressed to think of an example to compare to the one seen Saturday. The closest he came was when President George W. Bush received the news of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as he read a book to children at a Florida elementary school.
“It was sort of an unfiltered, early-decision process,” Lloyd said, adding that even then, “discussions didn’t go on then. Of course, he left the room.”
This could be the first time where a president has gone through sensitive details in such a public setting — but timing played a role: “There was probably some pressure for the Japanese prime minister to respond fairly quickly,” he noted.
If anything dealing with military strategy had been discussed, “that would be a concern,” Lloyd said. But his understanding is that they were discussing a statement to condemn the launch, something that is part of long-standing U.S., Japanese and United Nations policy.
Still, if they were “discussing military attacks or something like that, then that would not have been an appropriate setting,” Lloyd said.
That setting might also have been a power play on the part of both nations. “It conveys that (the discussion) was of such great importance that they stopped dinner,” Lloyd said. “That’s a powerful negotiating stance right there.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday that no classified material was discussed publicly, and the president was briefed in a classified room.
Several people who were eating dinner at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday night have spoken about the incident, including Palm Beach Daily News reporter Shannon Donnelly.
“As staff members and heads of state huddled at the table for 24, printed reports were passed around and examined by the light of cellphones or flashlights,” Donnelly said. “Notes were scribbled. A uniformed service member carrying the battered leather schoolbag moved closer to the table.”
Donnelly reported that about 100 Mar-a-Lago Club members and guests witnessed “a possible international nuclear crisis” there under the stars in Palm Beach.
Richard DeAgazio is one of those members. His photos of Trump and Abe consulting with their staff went viral, tweeted out by reporters for The Washington Post, NBC News, CNN and The Hill.
“HOLY MOLY !!!” he wrote in a Facebook post that was public, but was removed, along with DeAgazio’s entire account, after he spoke with The Washington Post on Monday. “It was fascinating to watch the flurry of activity at dinner when the news came that North Korea had launched a missile in the direction of Japan,” he wrote, according to The Washington Post. “The Prime Minister Abe of Japan huddles with his staff and the President is on the phone with Washington DC. the two world leaders then conferred and then went into another room for hastily arranged press conference. Wow…..the center of the action!!!”
DeAgazio told The Washington Post that “there wasn’t any panicked look” on Trump’s face during the discussions: “I thought he handled it very calmly, and very presidentially.” He declined to comment when reached Monday afternoon by the Palm Beach Daily News.
In a separate Washington Post article, reporter Philip Bump noted that several people were using cellphones as flashlights to illuminate documents for Trump and Abe.
“Phones — especially phones with their flashes turned on for improved visibility — are portable television satellite trucks and, if compromised, can be used to get a great deal of information about what’s happening nearby, unless precautions are taken,” Bump wrote.
Criticism was swift from politicians, with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeting, “There’s no excuse for letting an international crisis play out in front of a bunch of country club members like dinner theater.”
The initial membership fee at Mar-a-Lago is $200,000 — double the price from before Trump’s election win in November. Members then pay $14,000 annually.
This past week, reports emerged that Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, discussed U.S. sanctions with a Russian envoy before the president took office. Multiple news agencies reported Monday night that Flynn had resigned.
As Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller — who was present at the Mar-a-Lago dinner, according to the photos taken by Donnelly and DeAgazio — made the rounds of the Sunday morning news shows, he would not answer questions posed by several hosts asking about Flynn’s standing in the White House.
National security was a top campaign issue for Trump, who blasted Democrat Hillary Clinton for her handling of classified information on her private email server.