GETAWAY

State Department Pimping Out Mar-A-Lago As ‘Winter White House’

The State Department’s promotion of Mar-a-Lago adds to the controversy over the place Donald Trump has spent a quarter of his presidency.

A media arm of the State Department is using federal resources to promote President Donald Trump’s private Florida golf club, fueling scrutiny of the nexus between the president’s official duties and his personal financial interests.

Share America, the State Department’s social media-friendly news website, paid homage to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach on its site this month, hailing the president’s use of “the winter White House,” as Share America dubbed it, to host world leaders.

The post came on April 4 and promoted Trump’s Mar-a-Lago meeting with Chinese premier Xi Jinping two days later. That meeting, and Trump’s frequent weekend trips to the club, have drawn scrutiny over increases in the cost of joining that some say represent demand for access to the president.

Share America’s post focused on Mar-a-Lago’s history and its recognition in the National Register of Historic Places. Already a South Florida landmark and, thanks to its frequent mentions in the news of late, more recognizable than ever, the Trump family-owned club is now enjoying promotion directly from an arm of the federal government.

With Trump spending about a quarter of his time as president either at Mar-a-Lago or in transit to and from the club, access to the “winter White House” is more valuable than ever. It now costs $200,000 to be a Mar-a-Lago member after a recent doubling of membership fees that has fed perceptions of financial conflicts.

The White House and State’s Bureau of International Information Programs, which administers Share America, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Profit from the club and other assets in Trump’s sprawling business empire have been deposited in a trust overseen by Trump’s sons, Eric and Donald Jr. The White House has pointed to the trust to allay concerns over financial conflicts, though its terms allow the president to receive regular updates on its assets’ performance, updates that Eric Trump has said he will provide quarterly.

Government ethics observers worry that Mar-a-Lago membership has become a way to literally buy access to the president at a venue that he has used to house high-level diplomatic exchanges—as well as his frequent weekend golf outings.

The State Department’s promotion of the club this month bolsters that criticism, according to Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group frequently critical of Trump’s handling of ethics issues.

“This is very troubling and further shows the extent to which the Trump businesses are intertwined with the Trump administration,” Libowitz said in an email. “Things like this add to the constant ethical questions raised by the Trump administration’s behavior when it comes to the president’s portfolio.”

Launched in 2014, Share America is a project of the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs designed to advance U.S.-aligned information through social media-friendly posts on its website. It “take[s] the issues that the United States cares about, and present[s] them in ways that people will find interesting and in turn share through their networks,” BIIS chief Macon Phillips told the Washington Post after its launch.

Its article on Mar-a-Lago this month was picked up by the U.S. Embassy in the United Kingdom, which reposted Share America’s review of the resort’s history.

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Mar-a-Lago was built in 1927 by Post Cereals heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post and designated a National Historic Site four decades later. Post gifted the property to the federal government upon her death, but Uncle Sam gave it back to the Post Foundation in 1981 “because it was costing too much money to maintain,” Share America noted. Four years later, Trump bought it.

“Post’s dream of a winter White House came true with Trump’s election in 2016,” Share America beams. “Trump regularly works out of the house he maintains at Mar-a-Lago and uses the club to host foreign dignitaries.”

Among those foreign leaders have been Xi and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Trump has also taken solo visits to the club on weekends. The Secret Service often rents golf carts to follow the president on his frequent outings on the course.

A Secure Compartmented Information Facility has been constructed at Mar-a-Lago to enable officials’ handling of highly classified information while Trump is on site. He has reportedly received briefings there on matters including recent diplomatic tensions involving North Korea.

The amount of government business being conducted at Mar-a-Lago makes membership in the club an extremely valuable commodity, according to Steven Schooner, a professor at George Washington University’s law school and a former federal procurement official.

“This is a privately owned club that for all intents and purposes was just another golf property in Florida before, that almost now is something that Americans immediately recognize,” Schooner told NBC News this month. “Imagine what you would have to pay to get that kind of brand recognition. That’s extraordinary.”

Share America appeared to acknowledge that same trend. Mar-a-Lago, its post said, “has become well known as the president frequently travels there to work or host foreign leaders.”