He described it almost like monastic seclusion: a month-long self-exile in the White House with only armed guards as company.
“I was waving to them,” President Donald Trump recalled of greeting the machine gun-toting agents patrolling the grounds. “They don’t, like, wave.”
Now, after spending the December holidays and all of January without an escape, Trump has returned again to Mar-a-Lago, the Palm Beach club he very conspicuously avoided during the longest government shutdown in US history.
The President is expected to spend the weekend there with the first lady, who chose not to follow her husband’s example and traveled to the estate while the White House and congressional Democrats haggled over a border wall.
The pair does not have any official events scheduled in Florida, but Trump’s days in Palm Beach are governed by routine: morning outings to his nearby golf club, burgers with friends in the clubhouse, evenings on the patio, and the occasional stop-by whatever charity event or wedding is underway in the baroque ballroom he named for himself.
On his 215th day at a Trump property since becoming President, he tweeted an image from the Trump National Golf Course in Jupiter, standing beside famed golfers Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
“Great morning at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, Florida with @JackNicklaus and @TigerWoods!” he tweeted, accompanied with the picture that displays his first visit to a Trump club golf course since Thanksgiving weekend – his 167th visit to a Trump property golf course since becoming President.
It’s how the President spent many winter weekends in his first two years as President, departing gray and frigid Washington on a Friday afternoon and returning to the White House by dinnertime on Sunday. He’s spent nearly 80 days of his presidency there – hosting world leaders, convening meetings with advisers, chatting to friends, and catching up with family members. The administration has referred to the facility as the “Winter White House.”
Like all presidents, Trump travels with a large retinue of staff that keep him connected at all times, including at Mar-a-Lago. A secure communications room – known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, of SCIF – has been assembled on the grounds. And usually a collection of senior aides travel with him to the club.
This weekend, Trump will have his State of the Union address to finalize. He’s delivering that on Tuesday. And he still has decisions to make on declaring a national emergency to secure border wall funding.
But the visit is unlikely to be only work. On Sunday, he’s expected to drop by the Super Bowl party convened at the Trump International Golf Club, next to the airport in West Palm Beach. In past years the event has been entertained by a marching band, which the President and first lady like to survey before walking into the club. Last year’s band, from Florida Atlantic University, played a rendition of “Shut Up and Dance.”
It will be a festive return for a President who used his solitude in the White House as a negotiating ploy during the government shutdown.
“I am all alone (poor me) in the White House,” he tweeted on Christmas Eve.
Weeks later, he told Fox News, “I haven’t actually left the White House in months,” though he had ventured out for a surprise trip to Iraq and a speech in Louisiana.
“Basically, I’ve been here for many months in the White House,” he said about three weeks into the shutdown, the long stretches of time apparently feeling longer than they actually were.
The period made for a record-breaking stretch – both for furloughed federal workers, who endured the longest lapse in funding in history, and for Trump, who went the longest stretch of his presidency without playing golf.
As the shutdown neared its end, the President’s cabin fever was evident, according to aides. He started several meetings in late January muttering “Welcome to paradise” to the assembled advisers.
It will be a different story this weekend in Florida, according to Laurence Leamer, author of a new book about Trump’s Florida estate, “Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace.”
“It’s going to be an extraordinary event this weekend when he’s there. When he’s there everyone comes to the club,” Leamer said. “People fight to get there, fight to get dinner reservations. He sits on the veranda outside for three-hour dinners and everyone’s around him. He just loves that.”
“He says he has no friends in the White House,” he added. “He doesn’t, so he goes down there and he has these people that are constantly sucking up to him. And he loves it. He loves Palm Beach. It’s his spiritual home.”
Indeed, Trump has found some of his most ardent supporters inside the walls of his club – and sometimes just outside, where a crowd of MAGA-hat wearing supporters sometimes stands to greet his motorcade as it passes back and forth to the golf club. On some occasions, the President has dispatched an aide back to the roadside gathering to collect some of the supporters and bring them back inside the club for a photo.
In the club
Many of Mar-a-Lago’s members – who now pay $200,000 in initial membership fees plus $14,000 per year thereafter – have also become ardent supporters of the President. And he’s supported them: at least four have been nominated to ambassadors posts, and reports have indicated others wield outsize influence in Trump’s handling of veterans affairs.
That’s drawn the scrutiny of congressional Democrats and ethics groups, who say the President’s dealings at the club aren’t transparent and could amount to pay-for-play. The facility’s security has also been questioned; a Government Accountability Office report titled “Presidential Security: Vetting of Individuals and Secure Areas at Mar-a-Lago” has been restricted from public view because it contains sensitive information.
Those questions were spurred by an episode early in Trump’s presidency when he conferred with his Japanese counterpart about a missile launch in North Korea in full view of the club’s dinner guests. As wedge salads were served and piano music wafted through the air, members snapped photos on their phones of Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe huddled over papers as they formulated a response.
Since then, aides have been more careful about Trump’s activity while in public view at the club. Members have been instructed that photos are not allowed, and a velvet rope now separates the President’s table from the rest of the diners.
Still, the club is far from the stately confines of the White House. On Easter last year, the boxing impresario Don King – dressed as Uncle Sam – joined the President’s table and later walked him out, proclaiming loudly to other guests how successful Trump’s presidency had been.
It’s all a more welcome environment for Trump than snowy Washington, which Trump has come to regard as hostile. This week alone, Democrats have dug in on their refusal to support a border wall and career intelligence officers seemed to contradict him in their assessments of global threats.
The warm Palm Beach breeze beckons.
“This is his spiritual home. He loves being there,” Leamer said. “He’s created this world around him. People tell him he’s great, wherever he walks, he’s got people coming up to him saying ‘You’re great, Donald.’ He needs to get back.”
CNN’s Sophie Tatum and Liz Stark contributed to this report.