Camp David has been a presidential retreat since the Franklin Roosevelt administration
President Donald Trump called the camp "rustic"
Thurmont, Maryland, is a quiet, idyllic town of just more than 6,000 people. Kids on scooters and bikes zip down hills on peaceful, tree-lined streets with no shortage of white picket fences.
The literal “Main Street” has a small assortment of shops and services: a secondhand store, a barber shop, a bar and grill, a church and a community park. The town’s slogan is “Gateway to the Mountains” – it’s home to a both a national park and a state park.
But Thurmont is also the gateway to a highly restricted naval support facility tucked behind guarded gates inside Catoctin Mountain Park, also known as Camp David.
Originally called “Shangri-La,” the facility has been used as a presidential retreat and place to host foreign dignitaries since President Franklin Roosevelt and is known for relaxation, fresh air and a comfortable atmosphere. The tranquil 180-acre camp houses log cabins, an outdoor swimming pool, a one-hole golf course, a shooting range, a bowling alley and trails.
But beyond the seclusion and the activities, the camp, which is just more than a 20-minute helicopter ride aboard Marine One from Washington, also serves as a working White House. It is fully equipped with the security and resources necessary to run the country, and was activated for Vice President Dick Cheney on September 11.
“It was a place that people like the vice president and others were relocated during a very dangerous time because it is a very protected military installation. It serves a purpose for continuity of government and continuity of operations,” said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. “There are solemn responsibilities and uses for a place like Camp David that has the full ability to operate as an office for the president.”
A FAQ on the National Park Service’s website says the retreat is in the park but its location is not displayed on park maps for “security and privacy” reasons. However, about a mile up the winding, wooded road through the park, there’s an entrance to “CAMP #3,” and signs reading “RESTRICTED AREA: DO NOT ENTER,” with several other signs restricting parking and cameras. The area is enclosed with high barbed-wire fences and watch houses.
Presidential visits to the camp were once an active part of Thurmont life.
Mayor John Kinnaird, a Thurmont resident since 1960, recalls a childhood attending church with President Lyndon Johnson and watching presidential motorcades roll through the downtown. But recently, aside from the G8 Summit that brought world leaders – along with their staffs and traveling press corps – together in 2012, presidents have come and gone from the camp under the radar.
“There’s a great element of secrecy, but like I say, it doesn’t really affect the residents. The President comes and goes and we don’t really know about it,” Kinnaird said, adding that presidential visits have “no impact on our community whatsoever.”
The camp has a long and storied history with United States presidents, some of whom utilized the retreat more than others. President Barack Obama, in addition to the 2012 G8 summit, hosted a 2015 meeting with a group of Gulf State leaders. He otherwise came to the camp infrequently, just a few dozen times during his presidency.
President George W. Bush and his family spent 12 Christmases at Camp David during his and his father’s presidencies. Bush made 150 visits to Camp David while in office, 19 times with foreign leaders, according to CBS News’ Mark Knoller.
“Camp David was like a sanctuary for the Bushes and for a lot of other presidents. George W. and Laura Bush I think had an exceptional relationship with Camp David because they had spent so much time there,” McBride said. “It gave President Bush an opportunity to relax, to have the outdoors at his feet, to get on his bike, to ride around, to just have that freedom of movement that you really don’t have when you’re living in the White House.”
President Bill Clinton wasn’t “crazy about it,” McBride said, “but then came to really love it, brought his staff there.”
President Jimmy Carter almost got rid of Camp David, but a hallmark of his presidency, and perhaps the most notable event in the camp’s history, was the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978.
But President Donald Trump, who has already spent three weekends of his presidency at Mar-a-Lago, his “Winter White House” in Palm Beach, Florida, hasn’t been to Camp David yet, and it’s unclear whether he’ll take full advantage of the facility.
“My father is much more of a homebody,” daughter Ivanka Trump wrote in her 2009 memoir. “Even when he travels, he likes a controlled environment, which was why he always preferred to visit one of his own properties, like his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach or one of his golf courses in New York or New Jersey.”
The President called Camp David “very rustic” in an interview with The Times of London and German Newspaper Bild conducted just days before he took office.
“Yea, Camp David is very rustic, it’s nice, you’d like it. You know how long you’d like it? For about 30 minutes,” Trump said
Kinnaird dismissed Trump’s jibe as an “off-the-cuff remark.”
“He may not be the kind of person that likes a rustic atmosphere and that’s what you’ll find at Camp David. It’s certainly ultra-modern, but it’s a rustic atmosphere,” he said. “At some point you’ll find President Trump at Camp David for whatever reason, whether it’s a family getaway, whether it’s a sensitive meeting that they want to have close to Washington and a nice place to visit, I think he’ll be up here.”
Whether Trump becomes a frequent visitor to the facility or not, the camp and its staff will continue to serve at the ready as a fully operational secondary White House.
Resident Paul Rothrock noted that Frederick County, where Thurmont is located, 47.3% voted for Trump in the 2016 election, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 44.9%.
“This is, despite being in Maryland, a very Trump-supporting area. And I think people would welcome him to come here,” Rothrock said at his wife’s sporting goods shop, J. Rothrock Outfitters. “Everybody is welcome in Thurmont, anybody who wants to come and experience the outdoors – Trump and the family is welcome here.”
CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.