President Donald Trump is in the midst of a 17-day stay away from Washington at Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, New Jersey. Trump seems desperate to make clear that he is working on this vacation, not just taking time away from the job. But, is he? I reached out to CNN White House super-producer Kevin Liptak for some answers. Our email exchange, edited lightly for flow, is below. The most amazing thing to me? Trump wants to be buried at Bedminster!
Cillizza: OK, Kevin. The headline of The Point newsletter on Monday was “Donald Trump’s overcompensation vacation.” I made the point – ahem – in it that Trump tweeted twice in two days that he was actually working on this vacation, not just resting. Today, he’s got the opioid event and then, according to Twitter, he’ll be in NYC for meetings next week.
So, my question for you is how much of this is “working” and how much of it is “vacation”?
Liptak: The easy answer there is that it’s impossible to know. Unlike past administrations, Trump’s aides don’t tell the press when, for instance, he’s playing a round of golf or eating out with friends. They do tell the press when he’s on phone calls with national security officials or meeting with members of his Cabinet.
So while we know when he’s “working,” we don’t really know when he’s on “vacation.” Members of his club have posted videos of him in golf wear driving a golf cart around his club, so the clues are there, but in the end we don’t really know how he fills his days when he’s at his private club.
Cillizza: So, let’s dig a little deeper.
When President Barack Obama, say, went to Martha’s Vineyard for his own summer vacation, what did the press know and when did they know it about his daily activities?
Now, onto Trump. Has the White House explained, at all, why they won’t give any details out about what he’s doing and when?
Liptak: Because Obama wasn’t staying at a large resort, he had to leave his house whenever he wanted to play a round of golf or go out to eat.
That means he took along a small group of journalists with him, so it was pretty clear what he was up to. When, for example, his motorcade arrived at a golf course, White House aides would tell the press who he was playing with.
Similarly, if the motorcade pulled into a beach, the White House would send out a line of reportable information that confirmed Obama was spending the day at the beach.
Even when he didn’t leave his compound, the White House sometimes would distribute information about his activities – something like “The President is going on a hike with his daughter.” So even if you didn’t see him, you had at least a small amount of information about how he was spending the day.
Trump hasn’t left the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster since he arrived here on Friday afternoon, so the press who traveled with him hasn’t been mobilized to travel in a motorcade to any particular location. The White House has declined to say whether he’s playing golf, though the pictures on social media make clear he’s at least spending time on the golf course.
The only areas where Trump’s aides do detail his activities are related to his duties as President. Over the weekend, they announced that he’d been briefed on the Osprey crash in Australia by his chief of staff, and they said on Monday that he’d spoken with (Secretary of State) Rex Tillerson.
But they really haven’t given an answer as to why they can’t, like White Houses before them, provide information about Trump’s recreational activities.
Cillizza: OK, that’s totally fascinating. I guess I didn’t know Trump National was a) so big and b) so all-inclusive. Trump sleeps, eats and golfs there and never leaves the property for any reason?
Second, and this is really the crux of the whole thing: Are we really able to make any sort of determination as to whether Trump is working more, less or about the same as Obama or George W. Bush on vacation? He clearly wants us – and anyone else paying attention – to think he is doing more. But, is he? Or can we just have no way of knowing?
Liptak: It’s pretty all-inclusive. Not only does Trump sleep, eat, and golf there, he wants to be buried on the property. Even at Mar-a-Lago, Trump would leave on a regular basis to play golf. But since Bedminster already has a golf club right there, there’s no reason for him to leave.
I do think that Trump is approaching his vacation differently than Obama (and other presidents). Every White House is sensitive to accusations the President is tuning out the responsibilities of the job, and it’s true that the job is never far away.
But Obama’s aides were pretty candid that he was on vacation. They acknowledged he was trying to decompress and recharge his batteries. In fact, they said such a break was a good thing for the presidential state of mind (Republicans and Democrats alike make that argument). They released the list of books he was reading (so did Bush’s aides). There were times when they announced that he had been briefed on the crisis-of-the-day, but there were rarely, if ever, formal meetings with Cabinet officials.
In addition to the opioid briefing on Tuesday, Trump’s aides say he’ll host other officials here this week, including Vice President Pence. As his Twitter feed shows, he’s not making any attempt to unplug or take a break from what he’s normally doing at the White House.
Are the meetings a way to rebut the notion that Trump is actually on vacation, despite his claims otherwise? Maybe….but that doesn’t rebut the fact that they’re happening.
Ultimately, all presidents work on their vacations. So in that way, all presidential vacations are working vacations. Trump is certainly making a show of the work he is doing.
But in the absence of any information about how he’s spending the remainder of his days at Bedminister, it’s impossible to say whether he’s working any more or less than past presidents.