Mar-a-Lago: The price of Trump's 'Winter White House'

By Joel Gunter
BBC News, Washington DC

US President Donald Trump steps off Air Force One upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on March 19, 2017Image source, AFP
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Hello Florida: Mr Trump has flown to Mar-a-Lago most weekends of his presidency

When President Trump flies in to Palm Beach County, Jorge Gonzalez stays firmly on the ground.

That's a problem for the 35-year-old because his small business, Skywords Advertising, only really works in the air, and when the president pays a visit he brings a 10-mile no-fly zone with him.

"Every weekend he's here we have to shut down," said Mr Gonzalez, who employs three other pilots. "And right now that's every weekend."

Since taking office 10 weeks ago, Mr Trump has spent seven weekends at Mar-a-Lago, a sun-kissed coastal expanse in Palm Beach that he bought in 1985 and turned into a private members club. His visits have riled taxpayers and raised concerns over an uneasy mix of business and politics.

On Thursday he will once again jet down to the so-called "Winter White House", this time to host the Chinese president Xi Jinping. Roads will close, Secret Service agents will swarm, Navy gunboats will patrol, and Mr Gonzalez will kick his heels.

"About 97% of my business occurs on the weekends, and I make 80% of my revenue between January and May," he said. "We were told to expect him to come once a month. We never imagined it would be every weekend."

Mr Gonzalez estimated that he'd lost about $65,000 and several clients since Mr Trump took office. "At this rate we might survive through the summer," he said, "but I don't see the company lasting much beyond that."

There are no official expenses yet for Trump's weekend trips - the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just announced it will begin a review - but travel and security are estimated to cost the taxpayer somewhere in the region of $3.3m per trip, based on a GAO assessment of a similar trip by Barack Obama.

Mr Trump has at his disposal the traditional presidential retreat of Camp David, in Maryland, where for decades presidents have hosted foreign leaders. Camp David is a short helicopter trip from the White House and, as an existing Naval base, security comes cheap.

But the retreat was apparently not to Mr Trump's taste. "Camp David is very rustic, it's nice, you'd like it," he told a reporter. "You know how long you'd like it? For about 30 minutes."

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Inside Mar-a-Lago

So the new president has repaired to Florida most weekends, racking up an estimated bill of about $23 million over 10 weeks. Added to that, the decision to keep his wife Melania and son Barron living in Manhattan is costing the state an estimated $58 million per year, according to the New York Police Department.

As a private citizen, Mr Trump delighted in tweeting pot shots at Mr Obama over his presidential travel costs, but according to an analysis by the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch, Mr Obama spent $97 million on travel in his entire eight years in office - a figure Mr Trump could, at his current rate, comfortably outspend within his first year.

And Mr Gonzalez isn't the the only one feeling the pinch in Palm Beach. When the president flies in for the weekend it costs the county sheriff's office and city police about $85,000 a day in overtime pay. And other small businesses, from skydiving outfits to local restaurants, say they are losing thousands of dollars.

"This is having a big impact on our budget," said Paulette Burdick, the Palm Beach County mayor. "We fully understand the need to protect the president but it's unfair to ask local taxpayers to pay. And there are a lot of people down here who feel that way."

The county is looking at savings in its current budget, Mayor Burdick said, with possible cutbacks to parks, building maintenance and homeless services to fund the overtime pay.

Mayor Burdick has written twice to the Trump administration asking to be reimbursed for the costs. "To date, we haven't heard a word back," she said. "I have a long list of things I'd like to say to President Trump," she added, "regarding this, I'd just like to ask him to reimburse us our money."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer has defended the trips, saying the president uses them for vital work. He said on Monday that Mr Trump would not compensate Palm Beach County, arguing that the president had already made a "sizable donation" to the federal government by foregoing his $400,000 salary.

Then there is the ethical muddle. Mar-a-Lago is a minefield on the scrambled map of Mr Trump's conflicts of interest - a private club of nearly 500 members where the president hosts foreign dignitaries and mingles with executives, billionaire traders, and real estate developers, all of whom have paid $200,000 up front to the Trump Organization to get in the door.

The sign-on fee doubled from $100,000 shortly after Mr Trump took office, when proximity to the president of the United States was added to the list of amenities, alongside the tennis courts and spa.

"It's pay-to-play, people are paying for access to the president," said Richard Painter, former chief White House ethics lawyer under George W Bush.

"And now he's going down there nearly every weekend, at great expense to the taxpayer, making money by selling off memberships, and members clearly have an opportunity to mingle with White House staff and maybe the president himself."

Exactly who those members are, we can't know. Unlike the White House, Mar-a-Lago has no official visitors' register.

In a state that voted for Trump in November, Palm Beach County went for Hillary Clinton, and the disruption now swirling around Mar-a-Lago most weekends might not help win over locals.

Mr Gonzalez and others tried to work with the Secret Service to keep their doors open but the response was short and unhelpful, he said. "A lot of local businesses are suffering, a lot of guys' livelihoods are at stake. It took me 10 years to build this business from scratch. I can't up sticks and do that again."

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that daily overtime pay for county and city police officers was $120,000. The correct amount is $85,000.

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What American and Chinese people want