Trump’s Florida estate stirs protests, spurs ethics debate

AP PHOTO
President Donald Trump, second from right, sits down to dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from left, at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Friday. Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, is at left. Trump is hosting Abe and his wife for the weekend.

AP PHOTO President Donald Trump, second from right, sits down to dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second from left, at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Friday. Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, is at left. Trump is hosting Abe and his wife for the weekend.

PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Donald Trump’s South Florida estate is no longer just the place where he goes to escape.

He has described the sprawling Mar-a-Lago property as the Winter White House and has spent two weekends there so far this month. But it’s also become a magnet for anti-Trump protesters and the subject of an ethics debate over his invitation to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to join him this weekend — with Trump pledging to pay for the accommodations.

Demonstrators plan to assemble Sunday near the estate to protest Trump’s decision on the Dakota Access oil pipeline. The North Dakota project, opposed by a Native American tribe fearful of water contamination from potential oil leaks, had stalled in Democrat Barack Obama’s administration. Trump’s executive order cleared the way for the developer to start building the final stretch of pipeline.

During Trump’s other weekend in Florida, several thousand people marched near the property to protest his temporary ban on travel to the United states by refugees as well as citizens of seven mostly Muslim countries. A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court’s decision that temporarily blocks the ban’s enforcement.

“What an honor, what a great honor it is. And let’s go to Florida,” Trump told Abe on Friday at a White House news conference shortly before they boarded Air Force One for the trip.

The two world leaders and their wives headed straight to Mar-a-Lago, where they enjoyed a late dinner at the crowded patio restaurant. Joining them under a white-and-yellow striped canopy were Robert Kraft, the owner of the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots, and several interpreters. Paying members and their guests took in the scene and mingled with Trump and Abe into the night.

On Saturday, Trump and Abe went to Trump’s golf course in nearby Jupiter and were expected to hold more talks over meals at Trump’s various Florida properties.

World leaders typically exchange gifts, and Trump and Abe did so when Abe rushed to New York City in November to become the first foreign leader to meet with Trump after the election. Abe gave Trump a pricey, gold-colored Honma golf driver; Trump reciprocated with a golf shirt and other golf accessories.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Abe’s free-of-charge stay at Mar-a-Lago is Trump’s gift to Abe this time around. But the gesture wasn’t sitting well with government watchdog groups.

Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said Trump and Abe don’t need to meet at Trump’s commercial property, where the membership fee recently was doubled to $200,000.

“Hosting a foreign leader at the president’s business resort creates impossible sets of conflicts,” Weissman said. “If the president hadn’t offered to pay, the U.S. government would be paying Donald Trump’s business for the purpose of hosting the Japanese leader.” Typically, the U.S. government would pick up the costs associated with such a visit.

Weissman said Camp David, the U.S. government-owned retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, which presidents use for personal getaways as well as to conduct the people’s business, would do fine.

“Why should you go to a resort in Florida?” Weissman asked. “Fine, you want to go to a resort in Florida? Don’t go to one Trump’s family owns.”