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 chose the estate site as a venue for protesting Trump's decision approving construction of 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.
Trump's election is also putting charitable organizations, such as the American Red Cross, in an awkward position for choosing Mar-a-Lago for events booked months in advance. The Red Cross held its annual fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago, as it has done for many years, on Feb. 4, about a week after Trump enacted the travel ban. Trump and his wife, Melania, attended.
"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 paid visits to two of Trump's golf courses in nearby Jupiter and West Palm Beach, before a more formal delegation dinner at Mar-a-Lago.
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 that 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 that 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."
But Trump has shown that he isn't too concerned about possible conflicts of interest involving him and his family. This past week, Trump used his official government Twitter account to criticize Nordstrom after the retailer said it had dropped a line of clothing and accessories sold by his daughter Ivanka.
Trump offered a possible explanation for inviting Abe to Mar-a-Lago, saying a "great friendship" had developed from their New York meeting.
The president is expected to continue bringing world leaders to the estate, helping to fulfill the vision of the property's former owner, Marjorie Merriweather Post. The late cereal heiress willed Mar-a-Lago to the U.S. government after her death in 1973, intending for it to become a retreat for U.S. presidents and visiting dignitaries.
Trump bought Mar-a-Lago in the 1980s and retains a financial interest in the club.
Presidents through the years often escaped the majesty and protocol of the White House by choosing less formal settings for bilateral talks.
"It's difficult, in effect, to get away inside the White House with the press corps in the same building," said Bruce Buchanan, politics professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "In fact, it's very desirable for presidents to have multiple venues within which to build and create relationships with other world leaders."
President George W. Bush took advantage of his dusty ranch in Crawford, Texas, and regularly invited foreign counterparts there for talks.
Obama opted for Sunnylands, an estate in the California desert formerly owned by Walter and Leonore Annenberg. The late philanthropists built Sunnylands and long hoped the property they used as a winter home would become the "Camp David of the West."
Superville reported from Washington.
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