Trump is known for collecting advice from guests and friends at his Florida club
He will be on vacation through New Year's
Chief of staff more interested in knowing who Trump speaks to than stopping the conversations
Minutes before President Donald Trump departed the White House on Friday for his languid Florida hideaway, he appeared to exasperate aides who had hoped he might avoid holding court with the press.
“Helicopter is running out of gas,” his chief of staff, John Kelly, announced, not-so-gently nudging the assembled reporters and cameramen from the Oval Office as Trump continued to happily answer their questions.
White House aides, wishing for the President to depart Washington without venting about the Russia probe or his other political woes, were largely successful in avoiding pratfalls that might obscure the Republicans’ tax victory this week.
Vacationing in Florida for the first extended period in months, however, Trump isn’t likely to find himself under as strict restraints. At Mar-a-Lago, an oceanfront paean to Trump himself, the President is prone to holding court at will, consulting advisers both real and self-imagined, and basking in the knowledge that he’s the only man in charge.
Topics on the table include the future of key Cabinet officials like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Middle East policy and the makeup of his political team.
Overall, it’s a welcome break from a White House that has at times chafed on the freewheeling President.
A new system of rigor enacted by Kelly has limited the number of calls Trump receives from the kitchen cabinet of informal advisers that he relied upon in the early days of his presidency. Trump has allowed Kelly’s system to proceed, believing it effective, but has complained at times as well.
In Florida, there’s little expectation that Kelly or any other adviser can fully limit the President’s conversations with the friends and paying Mar-a-Lago members he’s developed relationships with over decades. Kelly, who is expected to travel with Trump for some portion of his vacation, has told associates he’s more interested in knowing who the President is speaking with than preventing the conversations from happening.
When Trump visited his club earlier this month, he arrived as a surprise guest at a holiday party being held in the expansive ballroom, shaking hands and patting the backs of guests who hadn’t seen him since he last visited the club in the spring, according to a person who was there. Later he greeted members sitting by the pool and dining on the patio.
Meet the kitchen cabinet
If past is precedent, Trump will take his work to the array of friends and associates who arrive nightly to Mar-a-Lago’s Dorian stone gates.
He prowled the floor of Mar-a-Lago at Thanksgiving dinner a year ago asking guests who he should select as secretary of state: Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani (neither man was named to any administration post).
More recently, he phoned friends asking for advice about whether to commute the sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, who’d been serving a 27-year prison sentence for bank fraud.
Included in Trump’s Florida set: Robert Kraft, the New England Patriots owner, who the President spoke with Thursday evening before flying to Palm Beach; Ike Perlmutter, the Marvel Comics chief, who has advised Trump on veterans issues; Ron Lauder, the cosmetics heir who lobbied for his son-in-law to become Federal Reserve chairman; and Chris Ruddy, the Newsmax CEO, who acts as a TV surrogate.
Trump’s extended family has also descended on Mar-a-Lago as Christmas nears. First lady Melania Trump has been at the property for nearly a week already. Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump have arrived with their families. And Tiffany Trump, a student at Georgetown Law school, flew with the President aboard Air Force One to Florida on Friday.
Not in Palm Beach this Christmas: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose past feuds with Trump seem to have evaporated, at least for now, after the tax win.
“I’m going to a bowl game in Jacksonville,” McConnell told reporters on Friday. “That’s about as close as I’ll get to Mar-a-Lago.”
Planning for busy year ahead
“We’ll be working in Florida – I’ll be working very hard during that Christmas because we have many things we’re talking about, including North Korea, including a lot of things happening in the Middle East, as you know,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday.
That may not be strictly true – the President is spotted on the golf course nearly every weekend that he spends in South Florida – but Trump has at moments converted his 90-year-old compound into the center of power for the US government, complete with strategy sessions on the patio and top-secret briefings carried out in converted anterooms.
In Florida for his first Christmas as President, Trump is expected to begin work on his State of the Union address, due to be delivered at the end of January. And he’s said he’ll continue weighing his next legislative priority, either welfare reform or a new infrastructure package.
People close to him say Trump is also likely to reflect on the makeup of his team as he approaches the one-year mark of his presidency. Buoyant in his tax achievement, Trump isn’t likely to demand a dramatic overhaul of his inner circle. But cognizant of impending departures of key West Wing and Cabinet staff, the President will contemplate his options.
That includes what to do with Tillerson, the beleaguered secretary of state, who has insisted that he’ll remain in place even as some White House aides are working to choreograph his exit. This week’s high-profile actions by US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, praised exuberantly by Trump in a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, only exacerbated the impression that she and not Tillerson is the administration’s foreign policy star.
Trump is also facing pressure to revamp his political operation after election defeats in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama. A spat in the Oval Office between current and former members of his political operation highlighted the different factions pulling at the President as midterm congressional elections near.
Mar-a-Lago guest rules
Members still flock to Trump’s club when he is in town, despite strict security measures and new rules against taking photos in the dining room when the President is around. Reservations are required two weeks in advance, and new limits have been placed on the number of guests that members are permitted to bring.
The ticket prices for New Year’s Eve are also going up. Tickets are going for up to $600 for members and $750 for guests, an increase from 2016’s prices of $525 for members and $575 for guests, Politico reported.
In the year that Trump has been President, not everyone has viewed his private oceanfront club with new luster. More than a dozen charity groups abandoned plans to host fund-raisers at Mar-a-Lago after Trump made equivocal remarks about racial violence in Virginia.
And Palm Beach County continues to strain at the costs required to keep Trump’s facility secure while he’s here. The Department of Homeland Security announced this week that it was awarding a $3.3 million grant to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office for costs associated with presidential protection.
But for a President who’s nearly completed a chaotic year of governing, the familiar Mar-a-Lago cloisters and the wealthy snowbirds who populate them provide a reminder of when life seemed easier.
“It’s my second home,” Trump told a group of schoolchildren in March. “I’m here all the time.”
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.