- By George Bennett Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
President Donald Trump is gaining fast on John F. Kennedy for most time spent here by a commander-in-chief.
Approaching Saturday’s one-year anniversary of his taking the oath of office, Trump has spent about 10 percent of his presidency in Palm Beach County.
Through last weekend, the president had made 11 visits totalling about 37 days in Palm Beach County. Most of that time has been spent at his Mar-a-Lago estate and the nearby Trump International Golf Club on Summit Boulevard in unincorporated West Palm Beach.
Plans for Trump to arrive Friday night for a 12th visit to Mar-a-Lago were scrubbed because Congress had not reached a spending agreement to keep the federal government operating past midnight. Trump’s plans for the remainder of the weekend were not clear Friday afternoon.
Kennedy, whose family owned an oceanfront compound on North County Road until 1995, spent all or a portion of at least 97 days in Palm Beach while he was president, according to records from the Kennedy Presidential Library. Using the same measure, Trump has spent all or part of 49 days in Palm Beach as president in about a third of the time.
The all-time leader in Florida presidential getaways is Harry Truman, who between 1946 and 1952 spent all or part of 192 days in Key West at a U.S. Naval facility that became known as the “Little White House.”
Trump has played golf an estimated 32 times during his Palm Beach visits, with a plethora of PGA Tour members joining him on the links. Trump’s golf partners have included Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Ernie Els, Daniel Berger, Jim Herman, Justin Thomas, Brad Faxon, Bryson DeChambeau, Fred Funk, Taylor Funk and Dana Quigley.
But Trump’s Palm Beach trips haven’t been entirely recreational. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and David Perdue, R-Ga., joined the president on the golf course. Trump also hosted summit meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping and ordered missile strikes on Syria from Mar-a-Lago. He’s had meetings at Trump International Golf Club with Florida Gov. Rick Scott and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Trump’s visits to Mar-a-Lago have drawn accusations he’s slacking or wasting taxpayer money — similar to criticisms lodged against other presidents when they spent time away from the White House. The Washington Post in March estimated that each Palm Beach trip costs around $2 million, based primarily on the costs of operating Air Force One and other support aircraft.
The federal government also reimbursed the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies a total of $3.4 million to cover expenses incurred during Trump’s first seven visits to Mar-a-Lago between February and April last year.
Trump’s critics also accuse the president of using his office to boost his family brand because he visits a private club and golf course that he owns.
“We’re not taking issue with how much time he spends away from the White House. We’re taking issue with how much time he spends at his business properties that he’s making profit off of…He might be going for the express purpose of making a publicity appearance to enhance revenues,” said Jordan Libowitz of the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
CREW has filed a lawsuit seeking access to records of who has visited Trump at Mar-a-Lago because, Libowitz said, “we feel the American public deserves to know who’s paying to have access with him.”
Trump friend and Mar-a-Lago member Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax Media, says the South Florida trips are consistent with presidential tradition and valuable for Trump.
“Reagan loved his ranch in California. (George W.) Bush loved his ranch in Texas. Presidents like getting outside of Washington, getting outside the swamp,” Ruddy said.
“Trump has loved Mar-a-Lago. He has a lot of friends, it’s close to his favorite golf course. It’s a home run for him. I think it’s a win-win. If he’s feeling better, I think it’s good for the country…He really lights up when he’s at Mar-a-Lago. He’s really energized by the support,” Ruddy said.
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, a frequent Trump critic whose district includes Mar-a-Lago, accused Trump of spending too much time in South Florida listening to wealthy club members rather than “connecting with the rest of this country.”
But Frankel’s criticism also encapsulates what many Trump supporters like about the president.
“What’s really stood out to me is his absolute unwillingness to change his way of life to be president of the United States,” Frankel said. “This is what he did when he was a businessman. He came to Mar-a-Lago every weekend in the winter and he played golf. He doesn’t want to change his way of life with these responsibilities.”
Situation room al fresco: As Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Abe dined on the terrace at Mar-a-Lago after a day of golfing on Feb. 11, club patrons snapped pictures of the two leaders and their aides huddling to discuss the response to a missile test by North Korea. Amid concerns about sensitive international information being shared with clubgoers, the White House said classified information was not discussed, only a joint statement by Trump and Abe released later that night.
The 2020 campaign begins: While spending the President’s Day weekend at Mar-a-Lago, Trump took a side trip up the coast to Melbourne on Feb. 18 to headline the first rally of his 2020 re-election campaign. At the rally, Boynton Beach resident Gene Huber drew national attention when Trump invited him onstage after recognizing him from a TV interview earlier in the day in which he praised the president.
Missiles of Mar-a-Lago: Within an hour of arriving at Palm Beach International Airport for a summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump was in an impromptu situation room at Mar-a-Lago meeting with advisers to order missile strikes on Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack by the Bashar al-Assad regime. The missiles began hitting their targets and Trump and Xi were wrapping up dinner that evening.
Rocking the Florida governor’s race: While taxiing on the runway at PBIA Dec. 22, Trump tweeted his admiration for not-yet-declared U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Palm Coast, in the 2018 Florida governor’s race, calling him a “brilliant young leader…who would make a GREAT Governor of Florida.” DeSantis officially launched his candidacy this month.
Lake Okeechobee pledge: Trump in October pledged to speed up repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, a top priority for his friend and ally, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, and major issue for the Glades region of Palm Beach County. The Trump Administration has not yet announced a specific timetable or dollar figure for accelerating the repairs. Scott and Trump met Dec. 31 at Trump International Golf Club to discuss the dike, off-shore drilling and other Florida issues.
The 561 Cabinet: Palm Beach County has been well-represented in Trump’s Cabinet. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is a Palm Beach resident whose home is about a mile north of Mar-a-Lago. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson lives in Palm Beach Gardens. And Palm Beach resident Robert Lighthizer holds the Cabinet-level post of U.S. trade representative. Another former close adviser, onetime Trump 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort, is staying at his residence in Palm Beach Gardens as he awaits trial on money-laundering and other charges.
Post-Charlottesville exodus: More than 20 charities canceled planned fundraisers at Mar-a-Lago after Trump said “there’s blame on both sides” for the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. and that there were “very fine people” among those protesting the removal of a Confederate statue. The club says it has booked other events in their place. “All I can tell you is we are really doing fine. It will be a good season,” said Mar-a-Lago general manager Bernd Lembcke in October.
Protests and praise: An estimated 3,000 people turned out for an anti-Trump march from West Palm Beach to Palm Beach during the president’s first February visit, and several hundred marched against Trump in April. Trump supporters regularly gather along Southern Boulevard to cheer the president’s motorcades, outnumbering opponents on most of his recent visits. On at least three occasions Trump has invited some of the roadside supporters to join him at Mar-a-Lago.