Trump set for Mar-a-Lago to mix it up with club members as Senate trial looms
Posted December 20, 2019 1:02 p.m. EST
CNN — Freshly impeached and eager for vindication, President Donald Trump decamps Friday for warmer climes: a two-week-long stint at Mar-a-Lago, the Florida haven, which this Christmas will act as the crucible for his defense.
Trump's sojourns to his oceanfront resort -- filled with hours of unstructured time on his palm-lined patio, random chats in the buffet line on prime rib night and interactions with wealthy friends that often serve to reinforce his most volatile instincts -- can sometimes be anxiety-inducing for members of his staff and congressional GOP leaders.
His upcoming trip is aggravating those concerns as White House aides begin drawing careful plans for the coming Senate trial. There remain a number of decisions on Trump's legal strategy that are likely to be made within the Italianate walls of Mar-a-Lago: finalizing the legal team that will present evidence, determining who will make opening and closing arguments, and arranging who will go on television afterward to amplify the message.
Several officials have quietly expressed concern about the duration of the President's visit, reasoning that the longer he spends in the Florida sun, the more opportunity outsiders will have to influence him or for news coverage to infuriate him, as has happened over and over during his stays at the private club.
There is precedent for their worries. Mar-a-Lago is where the President has fumed about special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, mocked Attorney General Jeff Sessions and suggested to friends that he was considering dismissing the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
It's on the manicured lawns and under the yellow-striped awnings that he has polled friends and acquaintances about White House aides who have been frustrating him, such as his former chief of staff John Kelly. And it's where Trump has fired off some of his most controversial tweets, like his baseless claim that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.
Guests and members have unusual access to presidential decision-making at Mar-a-Lago, including watching the President dine with foreign leaders on the patio or take phone calls with aides back in Washington. Last year, the club's security protocols came under scrutiny after a woman from China tried to gain entry carrying a thumb drive and multiple cell phones. Another Chinese national was arrested trespassing at Mar-a-Lago this week trying to take photos.
It's all a decidedly different environment from the White House, which even for an order-averse President feels isolating and restricting. While Trump has come to appreciate the executive mansion's history and says he now enjoys living there, its secure nature and the factionalism of its employees make for an altogether different experience than his own club.
As Trump returns to Mar-a-Lago for the first time since being impeached, the risk -- or hope, for some -- is that the two-week stay will plunge Trump back toward his most reflexive behavior, bridling at his lawyers' and Senate Republicans' efforts to rein him in, people close to Trump said.
"That's the place where he gets the reinforcement. Whatever he wants to do or thinks is right, they say that's great. Nobody challenges him," said Laurence Leamer, the author of "Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump's Presidential Palace."
When Trump jets to Florida on Friday, the most pressing issue will be his upcoming Senate trial. Trump has stated his preference for calling witnesses and extending the proceedings, believing the Republican-led Senate will not only acquit him but vindicate him from accusations of wrongdoing.
That is not what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has envisioned. He would prefer a shorter trial with no witnesses, something most other Republicans senators have also supported, recognizing the quagmire the Senate could be drawn into given Democrats' demands for their own witnesses. Trump said this week that he's ready to go along with whatever McConnell decides.
But aides fear the loose collection of friends at Mar-a-Lago -- some of whom are lawyers of some ilk -- could steer Trump back toward his original instincts.
The getaway comes at a time when two of the President's most senior aides are still locked in an ugly feud. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and White House counsel Pat Cipollone have been at odds for weeks, and sources say it has only gotten worse as impeachment has taken its course. Officials familiar with the dynamic often liken it to a power struggle, though it's Cipollone who has amassed power while several others say Mulvaney's sway on the President has diminished.
Cipollone is currently expected to be the lead attorney presenting Trump's defense in the Senate trial, according to multiple sources. But some people have already appealed to the President to consider someone else, arguing that the trial before a jury of senators will call for a political argument -- not a legal one for which Cipollone is better suited.
Trump has privately expressed broader concerns about how effectively his message is being expressed on television -- at times criticizing Stephanie Grisham, his press secretary, according to one person, and polling friends and advisers about whether Cipollone is up to the task of a televised trial, two people familiar with the conversations said.
Trump will be well-staffed during the latter half of his trip with Cipollone, top adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Grisham and other top officials all expected to be on property.
Some of Trump's advisers have already begun discussing ways to use the roughly two weeks between the start of his vacation and the likely start of his Senate trial to advance their narrative. Those advisers don't want the President to squander the time because the congressional recess could create a messaging void for Trump to fill with his side of the story.
Aides and advisers have discussed the prospect of adding events or trips to his schedule, as well as keeping up a heavy presence of surrogates on television airwaves. Although it was under different circumstances, White House officials last year lamented the fact that Trump spent his holidays largely out of view, ceding an opportunity to shape the conversation around the government shutdown that prevented him from traveling to Florida for the holidays.
Still, one adviser noted Trump relishes his time spent holding court at Mar-a-Lago and may not easily be persuaded to give that up.
The freewheeling access at Mar-a-Lago complicates matters, providing Trump an opportunity to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes: polling his crew of millionaire and billionaire buddies for their views on decisions he faces.
Trump himself makes regular appearances at events being held in the grand ballroom that he constructed on the property. When he leaves the club, he's usually headed for one of the golf courses he owns in the area, where players enjoy similar access in clubhouse restaurants.
"He usually goes around and says hello to people and he's extremely friendly," explained Thomas Peterffy, a Mar-a-Lago club member and billionaire businessman who said beyond the coterie of Secret Service agents, Trump hasn't changed how he spends his time at Mar-a-Lago or at his golf club since becoming President.
Peterffy said there is almost no buffer barring anyone inside Mar-a-Lago's gates from walking up to Trump for a chat, even while he is sitting at his favorite table at the club, enjoying dinner.
"The first time I saw him after he was elected ... he was just remarkable," Peterffy said." He just walked around like he was anybody else."
Unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, whose holiday vacations in Hawaii were designed for unplugging and recharging, Trump makes little attempt to disconnect from political debate during his time in Florida. The private quarters where he and his family stay are outfitted with large televisions for monitoring cable news. And some of Trump's staunchest backers, including Fox News personalities, are known to visit the resort.
Even without unplugging, Mar-a-Lago is an escape for Trump and often provides an important psychological boost for the President, giving him time to enjoy his favorite pastime -- golf -- at the Trump International Golf Club in neighboring West Palm Beach. And he also thrives on the positive reinforcement and praise he receives from the club's members.
"Mar-a-Lago is incredibly important psychologically to him," Leamer said. "He's created an atmosphere there where he's endlessly celebrated. So he needs that."
"He needs it even more after that six-page letter," Leamer said, referring to the diatribe Trump sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the eve of his impeachment.