Las Vegas Sun

May 26, 2018

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OPINION:

Our gold-leaf presidency

Let’s talk for a minute about Mar-a-Lago.

President Donald Trump was there last week, hosting a get-together with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. Important stuff to be discussed — North Korea, trade. The two men held a brief news conference Tuesday, at which the president revealed:

“Many of the world’s great leaders request to come to Mar-a-Lago and Palm Beach. They like it; I like it. We’re comfortable. We have great relationships. As you remember we were here and President Xi of China was here. And when we do it — it was originally built as the Southern White House. It was called the Southern White House. It was given to the United States and then Jimmy Carter decided it was too expensive for the United States. So they, fortunately for me, gave it back and I bought it. Who would have thought? It was a circuitous route. But now it is, indeed, the Southern White House. And again, many, many people want to be here. Many of the leaders want to be here. They request specifically.”

I believe I speak for many Americans when I respond: Huh?

People, which part of this makes you most unnerved? The fact that the president doesn’t make any sense when he talks or the fact that he devoted a large part of a press conference with the head of one of our most important allies to promoting his resort?

Mar-a-Lago, in case you’re really interested, was owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, a woman who had to go through life being referred to as the “cereal heiress.” When she died in 1973, she donated it to the federal government for the presidents’ use. However, nobody seemed to think the taxpayers should be stuck with a $1 million annual maintenance bill. It was more or less abandoned until President Carter gave the place back to Post’s heirs, who sold it to Trump.

Which is of course a great deal for the nation, being off the hook for that maintenance tab. All we’ve had to pay so far is $45 million to $55 million to fly Trump back and forth and post guards around the beach.

Some observers might have been surprised that the president would want to talk so long and lavishly about his $200,000-per-member chateau at a theoretically important meeting about foreign policy. These are people who’ve forgotten that last year, he addressed the South Korean parliament about the threat from Pyongyang and managed to work in a plug for his golf club in New Jersey.

Everybody knows Trump mixes personal business with his job running the country. Maybe it wouldn’t be so unnerving if he wasn’t so messy. We’ve had previous presidents with corrupt political associates, presidents sloshing around in sex scandals and presidents who appeared to have no clue how to turn on the lights in the White House, let alone run a government. But we’ve never had one who managed to hit all three markers, while simultaneously using the nation’s highest office to further his private asset accumulation.

The whole property-promoting thing is new. Our recent Democratic presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, barely had houses of their own when they were elected, let alone a faux castle with gold ceilings and hordes of chandeliers that give the overall impression of a cathedral on psychedelic drugs.

George W. Bush did invite people like Vladimir Putin and assorted prime ministers to his ranch in Texas, but that was just a private home. And when Bush did let reporters into Crawford, he tended to show off its attractions by clearing brush in 100-degree temperatures.

But now we’ve got a chief executive with a whole new mindset about making public service pay, and his behavior is leaking down through the government. His aides may not all be planning to become billionaires in office, but a lot of them are living as if they already were.

Pop Quiz: When Trump said that when it came to picking a Cabinet, “not all of my choices were good,” do you think he was referring to:

A) The guy who spent $10,200 to lease a customized SUV with bullet-resistant seat covers.

B) The guy who bought the $43,000 super-secure phone booth for his office.

C) The guy who says he needs to fly first class because it’s too dangerous to be in coach.

Surprise! All three of these people are EPA head Scott Pruitt, and so far he does not appear to be one of the people the president thinks was a bad choice.

But about Mar-a-Lago: The State Department got in trouble last year for posting a blog extolling the resort’s glories. A couple of U.S. embassies tried the same thing — and it has to mean something that one of them was in Albania.

Despite the president’s suggestion that heads of state are lining up begging to be invited, Abe is the only one who’s actually spent a night at Mar-a-Lago. The prime minister really did seem happy, playing golf and smiling politely while Trump ranged about trade deficits. Why not? Abe may have his own political scandals at home, but none of them involve a payoff to a porn star or Sean Hannity.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.