Of all the for-the-books incidents that have marked Donald Trump’s young presidency at Mar-a-Lago — the national security crisis handled over dinner al fresco, the explosive Saturday morning wiretapping accusation leveled on Twitter, the roadside well-wishers invited in to say hey to the leader of the free world — none has come closer to fulfilling the Palm Beach estate’s long-envisioned destiny as a presidential retreat than this week’s two-day summit with President Xi Jinping of China.
So momentous is the visit that the Palm Beach County sheriff is treating it as a “natural disaster:”
“You never had a weekend like this,” said Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who, ahead of Trump’s and Xi’s arrivals Thursday, assigned deputies to 12-hour shifts and canceled any vacations, as he would during a hurricane.
Cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post’s grand ambition for her palatial Mar-a-Lago property was that it would serve as an oceanfront refuge for overburdened heads of state. In the 12 weeks since his inauguration, Trump has turned his luxe country club into much more: his home away from home, his primary residence outside of the stuffy White House — trumping even his famously lavish triplex at Trump Tower in New York.
“People talk, like, ‘Hey, you know, Mike, you gotta share the president,’” said Michael Barnett, who chairs the local Republican Party. “This is Palm Beach County! He lives here!”
For his sixth visit as president, Trump invited Xi — not for a round of golf and leisurely meal, as Trump shared with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in February after Abe’s trip to the White House, but for an actual diplomatic meeting, fraught with tensions over trade and North Korea. (Really, there will be no golf, at least not with Xi: He looks down on the game and has effectively banned it for Chinese Communist Party members.)
In all, the private meetings between Trump and Xi will last less than 24 hours. But for Palm Beach County, the simultaneous presence of two heads of state — particularly these two heads of state — is unprecedented. It’d be a bigger deal only if the visiting president were Vladimir Putin.
With Xi came not only a red-carpet greeting from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at Palm Beach International Airport, but also preparations to accommodate Xi’s vast entourage, which includes an unspecified number of Chinese state security personnel, and hundreds of “greeters” — conveniently placed cheerleaders to counter the inevitable protests against the Communist president.
“If there’s 200 protesters, there will be 200 greeters,” Sheriff Bradshaw predicted Wednesday. “They try to kind of match each other.” (“The president of China,” Bradshaw added, “does historically attract some people that want to express their opinion.”)
Arriving by the busload Thursday, the greeters wore red and refused to talk to reporters, according to the Palm Beach Post. Vietnamese-American protesters gathered, too, megaphones in hand. Since Wednesday, followers of the Falun Gong spiritual practice demonstrated against Chinese repression catty-corner from the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa in Manalapan, where Xi is staying. (It’s the former Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach, on the corner of — yes — Ocean Avenue and Ocean Boulevard.)
Abe, the Japanese premier, stayed at Mar-a-Lago, where Trump personally picked up the tab. Xi was also invited to stay but the size of the Chinese delegation made it impossible for them to do so, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday.
Leading up to the trip, Spicer got questions from reporters about Mar-a-Lago on almost a daily basis — particularly about the costs of Trump’s frequent travel.
“He’s worked seven days a week,” Spicer said. “This is where he goes to see his family. He brings people down there. This is part of being president.”
The bulk of the cost of protecting the president falls on the Secret Service. It costs the sheriff’s office about $60,000 a day in overtime pay to assist when Trump is in town — a cost that will at least double during Xi’s visit, Bradshaw said, because there will be two separate security details and motorcades. Construction of a Mar-a-Lago helipad was completed last month, but don’t expect regular Marine One sightings: The sheriff said the helipad is for emergency use.
The overtime estimate doesn’t include other costs incurred to protect Xi, such as closing off the beach behind the Eau resort and surrounding the hotel with cement barriers topped with 10-foot-high fencing. The barriers were draped with Chinese and American flags and banners reading, “Welcome!”
Two local Democrats in Congress, Reps. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton and Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach, have asked Trump to secure reimbursement from the federal government for his South Florida travel. Lawmakers set aside $7 million last year to cover Trump’s protection in New York, New Jersey and Palm Beach during the transition, but none of that money has been disbursed yet.
“We can’t expect the taxpayers of Palm Beach County to be on the hook for the massive increased costs because the president likes to come to Mar-a-Lago to play golf and show it off to foreign leaders,” Deutch told the Miami Herald.
He noted that Trump has personally benefited from his Mar-a-Lago trips, which provide international news coverage — in effect, free marketing — for his property. The club doubled membership dues to $200,000 after Trump won the election.
Meanwhile, Palm Beach shopkeepers grumble about lost business during Trump weekends when customers avoid getting snarled in traffic on the island. The Palm Beach County Park Airport, known as the Lantana Airport, “is functionally closed” due to temporary flight restrictions imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration when Trump is in town, said Laura Beebe, the deputy director of airport business affairs for the county.
In each of Trump’s first five visits, private planes — 14 of them the weekend of Feb. 17 alone — violated the restrictions. To intercept an unresponsive aircraft one night, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, scrambled a pair of Air Force F-15 fighter jets — creating an unexpected sonic boom over Weston.
Whether Trump will keep on visiting once Mar-a-Lago’s annual winter high season ends remains an open question. The club did not respond to requests for comment on when it plans to close to guests for the summer, as is typical.
Thursday evening, Trump had been invited to — but did not say if he’d attend — a private Mar-a-Lago screening on a documentary about the Veterans Administration taking place at the same time as Trump and Xi’s dinner.
Afterward, Xi’s motorcade traveled to the Eau, seven miles south. Along Ocean Boulevard, it passed stately condominiums — including one named “The President of Palm Beach.”
McClatchy White House correspondent Anita Kumar contributed to this report.