Many presidents have had Western or Southern or other similarly named White Houses – properties they owned before taking office that they used during their administrations as retreats and even places to entertain foreign dignitaries.
Richard Nixon decamped to San Clemente, George H.W. Bush to the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, and his son to a ranch in Crawford, Texas. JFK holed up in Hyannis, Mass., and LBJ, like W., had a ranch in Texas. The Reagan Ranch is preserved as a museum and conference center often used by conservative groups.
But because Donald Trump is now in the White House, his “Southern White House,” the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., “is a nearly perfect symbol of the Trump administration’s ethical failings,” according to a piece Monday from the Washington Post.
Trump may call Mar-a-Lago the Southern White House – he has done so on a number of occasions, including last month when the prime minister of Japan was visiting.
“But there is no ‘Southern White House,’” wrote Walter Schaub, a former government ethics official who is trying to make a name for himself as a Trump slayer on alleged ethical grounds. “The Confederate States of America claimed an executive mansion, first in Alabama and then in Richmond, but the Union’s victory in the Civil War ended that assertion,” Schaub wrote.
These were not claimed to be off-site White Houses; they were asserted to be the executive residences of the leader of a new nation. There is no comparison with Trump’s properties.
“Other president had nicknames for their homes away from Washington, but those were private residences,” Schaub wrote. Yes, George W. Bush had his ranch and sometimes had dignitaries there, but “the ranch was a personal residence” and “Bush was not implying a link to government, and he definitely was not selling membership privileges with respect to the unassuming four-bedroom, single-story home on his ranch.”
Trump’s Southern White House, by contrast, “is a commercial enterprise featuring guest suites, ballrooms, dining, a beach, pools, a spa, tennis courts, a ‘chip and putt’ course, a fitness center and access to his affiliated golf courses.”
And the phrase is “a transparent marketing pitch, connoting the availability of access to power for a price,” which Trump doubled – to $200,000 for the entry fee – upon taking office, Schaub wrote.
“He may belong to the people now, but the club belongs to him,” Schaub wrote. “Prospective purchasers can rest assured their cash will still reach him.”
As proof of the conflict of interest, Schaub claimed that when a lobbyist announced at a meeting in the real White House that he was a member of one of Trump’s clubs, Trump responded, “Very good. Very good.”
Schaub also saw problems when Hope Hicks, the president’s former communications adviser, “masterfully pitched” Mar-a-Lago’s link to government as the fulfillment of destiny, writing in an email to a reporter that, “the president looks forward to using the property as the Southern White House, as it was intended to be.”
According to Schaub, the “intended to be” portion of the remark was “a sinister distortion of history.”
Marjorie Merriweather Post, a socialite and heiress to the Post cereal/General Foods fortune, donated the property to the federal government upon her death for the purpose, according to the New York Times, which reportedly heard this from one of her friends, of creating a place where foreign dignitaries could visit that would rival those used for diplomacy in Europe.
The maintenance costs proved too much, so the government returned the property to the foundation, after which it was sold to Trump. “Rather than establishing a second house of the people in Florida, he built a profitable leisure center for the privileged,” Schaub wrote.
Schaub wrote that Trump “has applied himself vigorously to monetizing the presidency.” He cites mugs with Trump’s likeness and the presidential seal, as well as tee markets bearing the seal on Trump’s golf courses.
“Each of his trips to his properties is an advertisement, inasmuch as the media must follow him and that he never misses an opportunity for promotion,” Schaub wrote.