- By George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
So much for Marjorie Merriweather Post’s notion of Mar-a-Lago as a lazy presidential retreat.
President Donald Trump ordered U.S. missile strikes in Syria from the tropical castle Thursday and wrapped up a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping there Friday — the latest examples of the private Mar-a-Lago Club being the setting for consequential events in Trump’s young presidency.
Trump gave the final OK for firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base on Thursday afternoon from an impromptu situation room in Mar-a-Lago, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said at a Friday briefing that filled in some details behind Trump’s biggest military action since taking office.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrived at Mar-a-Lago at 3:15 p.m. Thursday. At 4 p.m., Spicer said, Trump huddled in a secure room at the estate with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and others to give final approval to the missile strikes after reviewing options since Tuesday.
By 5:10 p.m. Thursday, Trump was hosting Xi at the estate. While the presidents and their wives were having dinner, the missiles were fired from two Navy ships in the Mediterranean at 7:40 p.m. and began hitting their targets about an hour later. Trump informed Xi of the strikes around 8:40 p.m. Thursday, shortly before the Chinese delegation left for the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa for the night.
Members of Palm Beach County’s congressional delegation were generally supportive of the Syria strikes while also urging Trump to consult Congress on Syria in the future.
“Thank God that last night our armed forces sent a clear and needed message to Assad: the United States will no longer tolerate his affronts to humanity. I look forward to working with the administration to lay out a clear policy in Syria and throughout the region,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City.
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, applauded the strikes but said Trump “cannot be led to believe that he has a free pass to act militarily without consulting Congress…Before this administration takes further action, Congress must finally debate an authorization for the use of military force that focuses and limits our strategy in Syria.”
The action in Syria overshadowed the summit with Xi. Trump and the Chinese leader met Friday morning and, after a working lunch, Xi left Palm Beach about 2 p.m.
“We have made tremendous progress in our relationship with China,” Trump told reporters during the lunch with Xi. Trump accepted an invitation from Xi to visit China, possibly this year.
While Trump and Xi were meeting, Melania Trump and Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, visited four classes at Bak Middle School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. As they returned to Mar-a-Lago, a 53-year-old woman was arrested near Southern Boulevard and Lake Avenue in West Palm Beach after she allegedly tried to lie in the road in front of the car carrying Peng Liyuan.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told reporters that Trump, who as a candidate frequently criticized China’s trade policies, had agreed with Xi on a 100-day plan on trade that includes “way stations of accomplishment.”
On another U.S. priority — getting China to help rein in North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons — Tillerson said there was no “package arrangement” between the leaders, but a commitment to a denuclearized Korean peninsula and more cooperation.
Trump has made six visits to Mar-a-Lago in his first 11 weeks in office. He has played golf 10 times during those visits, but he’s also held high-level meetings, including a Feb. 10-11 summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. During Abe’s visit, Trump faced an early presidential test when North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile.
Abe and Trump discussed their response to North Korea during a dinner on Mar-a-Lago’s patio while members of the private club snapped pictures and posted them on social media. But Spicer said no classified material was discussed in public and Trump was briefed in a secure room.
Trump also interviewed candidates for national security adviser and named McMaster to the job during a Mar-a-Lago visit on Feb. 20.
It was also from Mar-a-Lago that Trump has fired off some of his most controversial presidential tweets. On Feb. 4, Trump tweeted condemnation from Mar-a-Lago for a “so-called judge” who halted his travel ban. On Feb. 17, he accused major news outlets of pushing “fake news” and being “the enemy of the American people” shortly after arriving at Mar-a-Lago for a weekend stay.
Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that former President Barack Obama tapped his phones before the 2016 election came in an early-morning tweet from Mar-a-Lago on March 5.
Mar-a-Lago was built in 1927 by cereal heiress Post, who willed the 18-acre estate to the federal government in 1973 in hopes it would be a “winter White House” for presidents and visiting dignitaries. The government deemed maintenance of the property too pricey and gave it back to the Post Foundation in 1980. Trump bought it in 1985.
Trump addressed Mar-a-Lago’s upkeep costs by turning it into a private club in the 1990s. Membership is capped at 500 under an agreement with the town. The club doubled its initiation fee to $200,000 after Trump was elected.