President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Resort in Palm Beach, Florida, has been the host to foreign dignitaries, political speeches, social events, and more, raising concerns the President is exploiting public office to boost business.
In 1985, President Trump purchased Mar-a-Lago and turned it into a private club and golf course managed by the Trump Organization ten years later. The resort seems to be President Trump’s choice destination out of all of the properties he owns. In his first year in office, he spent a total of 52 days there, more time than any other Trump-branded property.
Between being elected and taking office, President Trump passed ownership of the Trump Organization to his oldest sons, but did not set-up a blind trust or divest from the company.
While neither is legally required, it is something ethics experts said they wanted to see happen. In December 2017 and January 2018, Sunlight Foundation signed onto three letters with bipartisan groups and ethics experts calling on Trump to divest from his businesses and place all proceeds into a blind trust managed by an independent trustee or equivalent.
In the wake of Trump’s election, Mar-a-Lago doubled its membership fee to $200,000 and increased annual dues from $1,000 to $15,000. The club manager, Bernd Lembcke, told the New York Times in January 2017 that Trump’s presidency “enhances” membership at the resort, and interest in the club has increased as a result.
In September 2017, USA Today reported dozens of lobbyists and government contractors pay membership fees to President Trump’s resorts and golf clubs to gain access to the administration.
High-priced events at Trump’s properties have become a normalized avenue for this access.
At the resort’s 2017 New Year’s Eve party, President Trump gave a speech to guests which included praise for his administration’s recent tax reform legislation.
“The country, by the way, is doing great. We just got our taxes cut,” Trump said. “We got jobs pouring into the country. Europe isn’t too happy with us because a lot of people are moving back into the United States. A lot of money is coming in.”
The event offered exclusive access to the Trump family and key players in his administration for resort members and guests willing to pay to get in. Some of those guests included Fox News Anchor Lou Dobbs, Trump’s family, Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin, billionaire Steve Wynn, and former baseball star Keith Hernandez.
A few weeks later, the Mar-a-Lago Resort offered guests access to Trump once again. This time it was to attend the one year anniversary of his presidential inauguration. Tickets went for $100,000 per couple and included dinner and a photo with the President. Couples spending $250,000 per ticket were granted roundtable access to President Trump during the celebration.
Taxpayers also footed the bill for President Trump’s frequent use of his properties for government business.
As of October 2017, the U.S. Secret Service paid the Mar-a-Lago Resort more than $63,000 in security related costs that included golf cart rentals. CNN recently reported the U.S. Department of Defense spent nearly $140,000 at Trump-branded properties in the first eight months of his presidency, including Mar-a-Lago. Estimates for each trip the President has taken from Washington DC to Mar-a-Lago range from $1 million to $3 million in expenses funded by the government.
President Trump’s relationship with Mar-a-Lago suggests that he is using the presidency to boost his company’s own brand. Examples include:
- A helipad constructed on the resort’s roof, that is supposed to be used solely for presidential business, is home to Trump’s corporate helicopter branded with his name.
- President Trump appointed the co-founder of the resort, Robin Bernstein, to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, a decision that has been criticized due to Bernstein’s inability to speak Spanish.
- The U.S. State Department published a blog post (which was later removed) on websites of U.S. embassies around the world that profiled Mar-a-Lago’s historical background.
- On February 11, 2018, the Trump Campaign sent out a fundraising email to supporters, offering a contest prize of dinner with him at Mar-a-Lago.
- The pro-Israel non-profit, The Truth About Israel, moved its invitation-only gala event in February 2018 to Mar-a-Lago in appreciation of Trump’s support for Israel.
“The reason for rules barring conflicts of interest is simple: we don’t want the judgment and decisions of public officials distorted by the hope of material reward or fear of material loss,” Robert W. Gordon, professor of law at Stanford University, told Shadowproof.
The Republican Party has embraced Trump’s use of Mar-a-Lago to boost his brand and businesses. According to data compiled by the Palm Beach Post, Republicans have spent at least $1 million at the resort since Trump announced his presidential campaign.
In March 2018, the Republican National Committee paid $224,857 to host a fundraiser for President Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign at Mar-a-Lago. Another fundraiser originally scheduled for January 20 at $100,000 per couple was cancelled due to the government shutdown.
Forbes estimated Mar-a-Lago’s worth has increased by $10 million since Trump was elected—16 times more than what Trump originally paid for it in 1981 (additionally, the projected property value is estimated to be $160 million).
“When the President of United States and his family members, as well as public servants, have business interests that may be impacted by their decision-making power, we can no longer be sure what motivates those decisions,” said Hui Chen, a former compliance consultant to the U.S. Department of Justice, in an interview with me.
Chen resigned last year in protest to the widespread conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration.