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Why Is The Press So Fixated on Mar a Lago?

By  |  March 20, 2017, 06:16pm  |  @stevengberman

Today during White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s briefing, Bloomberg’s Shannon Pettypiece threw in the inevitable Mar a Lago question. This angle here was Meals on Wheels versus Mar a Lago, as if it was a binary choice.

PETTYPIECE: Given the talk last week about the budget the priorities for the American tax dollars, the need to cut programs like Meals on Wheels and the art, is the president going to consider curbing some of his trips to Mar a Lago, which the GAO estimates could cost $3 million dollar for a trip for the president to Palm Beach…

Spicer called the question a “vast overreach” and noted that all presidents travel, then offered a rebuke on the debunked Meals on Wheels analogy (see here for details). Pettypiece followed up with the real reason for the question.

PETTYPIECE: No president has traveled so often, and so early, to their own private residence.

Earlier in the same briefing, Yahoo’s Hunter Walker brought up Trump’s golf game, comparing the number of golf rounds played against former President Obama.

Of course, the implication here is that Trump is wasting taxpayer dollars living the high life. Another implication is that Trump spends too much time outside of Washington, D.C., and therefore outside the media’s bubble.

I mean, seriously, do you remember this screen shot? CNN used a long lens aimed at the Oval Office–framed (intentionally?) like a sniper scope–to capture Steve Bannon making some emphatic point. Daily Wire questioned CNN’s reporting of a “blow up” by asking if Bannon was simply telling Trump “how awesome the lastest ‘X-Men’ film is.”

The media can’t really get those kinds of shots at Mar a Lago, which, believe it or not, is more private for Trump than the White House, where the press is always listening. The media keeps claiming Mar a Lago is a security sieve, but the Secret Service probably has a better handle on the place than they seem to have at the White House (unfortunately).

Washington-based press has every reason in the world to criticize Trump for going to Mar a Lago every weekend (mainly because they can’t). But those reasons aren’t really legitimate.

Given all the things I believe and have written about Trump that aren’t so positive, I don’t think he became president for the recreational benefits. For a couple of reasons, it’s disingenuous for Pettypiece and Walker to bring these things up.

First, the cost estimate Pettypiece used came from a POLITICO story from February 3, which in turn relied on a GAO estimate from 2016 based on an Obama itinerary from 2013 that included a trip to Palm Beach International. That’s a stretch in itself. For that trip, GAO estimated a cost of $2.8 million, for Air Force One, helicopters, support aircraft, and protective detail per diem costs, along with additional security.

Could Trump’s frequent trips to Mar a Lago get that cost down a bit? I’m pretty sure it can. Just like Trump Tower became a Secret Service protected location with its own security plan (at least until Friday), Mar a Lago is more or less a permanent location where the president stays. As Spicer indicated, it’s no different than Bush going to Crawford, Texas.

In Texas, Bush 43 gave the Secret Service quarters and most likely fed them. The elder Bush did the same thing in Kennebunkport. Reagan did it in his “western White House” at Rancho del Cielo. Obama, having no “home,” always had agents stay on the government’s tab–in nice places like Hawaii.

We don’t know if the government is actually paying the nightly rack rate at Trump’s Florida resort. If they are, that would be scandalous, actually. We do know that Palm Beach County is paying through the nose, to the tune of about $60,000 per day that Trump is at Mar a Lago.

The Sun-Sentinel offered a litany of complaints, from the local airport’s closure (Secret Service on that: “Sorry. It is what it is.”), to local business interruptions. Many of those business costs can be more than offset by the novelty and uniqueness of having a sitting president around all the time.

My personal opinion on that is Trump or his resort should personally reimburse the county and local businesses for direct costs of his visits, maybe by funding some kind of trust and appointing trustees to examine individual claims. In the scheme of things, we’re talking about maybe $5.4 million a year, or $21.6 million over 4 years. Chump change to a billionaire.

And that’s the second reason the whole issue is ridiculous. Even if Trump spends 52 weekends a year traveling either to New York City or Mar a Lago, at $2.8 million per trip, the total is $145.6 million per year (but likely, much less). Obama’s personal trips in just 2015 cost $11.6 million for travel alone (not including security and ancillary costs), according to a McClatchy report.

Obama’s personal travel costs totaled over $70.5 million halfway through his second term, and likely topped $110 million for his eight years. When asked to justify this, then-White House spokesman Eric Schultz used almost identical language to Spicer’s. “The president recognizes that he is president of the United States 24 hours a day, seven days a week, wherever he happens to be.”

In a federal budget environment where billions are thrown around as if they’re on the Wendy’s dollar menu, the difference between $145 million and $110 million is, as we used to say in government acquisition, “to the right of the decimal point.” The $3 billion pork barrel Community Development Block Grant program, of which a tiny sprinkle ends up funding a small piece of Meals on Wheels, could pay for 20 years of Mar a Lago weekends.

To put it in perspective, eliminating funding for the National Endowment for the Arts could almost perfectly pay for 52 weekends in Mar a Lago (with a few million left over), every year, year after year. It’s a pretty good trade off for not having to deal with “Piss Christ.”

The press will no doubt continue to bash Trump for going to Mar a Lago, and Trump Tower, because they did it to Bush, and they did it to Reagan. It’s a convenient distraction from things that matter more.

But the real reason they bash Mar a Lago is simple. They really do envy the billionaire lifestyle of the rich and famous (and now, powerful) President Trump.