Condemnation by Republicans Drove Reversal on Meeting Site

  • In Politics
  • 2019-10-21 12:34:55Z
  • By The New York Times

He knew he was inviting criticism by choosing his own luxury golf club in Miami for the site of a gathering of world leaders at the Group of 7 summit in June, President Donald Trump told his aides opposed to the choice, and he was prepared for the inevitable attack from Democrats.

But what Trump was not prepared for was the reaction of fellow Republicans who said his choice of the club, the Trump National Doral, had crossed a line, and they couldn't defend it.

So Trump did something that might not have been a surprise for a president facing impeachment but that was unusual for him: He reversed himself Saturday night, abruptly ending the uproar touched off two days earlier by the announcement of his decision by Mick Mulvaney, his acting chief of staff.

"He had no choice," Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and longtime friend of the president's said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "It shouldn't have been done in the first place. And it's a good move to get out of it and get that out of the papers and off the news."

The president first heard the criticism of his choice of the Doral watching TV, where even some Fox News personalities were disapproving. By Saturday afternoon, his concerns had deepened when he put in a call to Camp David, where Mulvaney was hosting moderate congressional Republicans for a discussion of issues facing them, including impeachment, and was told the consensus was he should reverse himself. Those moderates are among the votes Trump would need to stick with him during an impeachment.

"I didn't see it being a big negative, but it certainly wasn't a positive," said Rep. Peter T. King of New York, one of those at Camp David. He said the group told Trump's aides that sticking with the decision "would be a distraction."

With many members already unhappy with the consequences of the president's move to withdraw troops from Syria, and Democrats pressing their impeachment inquiry, Republicans on Capitol Hill were not eager to have to defend the appropriateness of the president's decision to host the Group of 7 meeting at one of his own properties.

"I think there was a lot of concern," said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the Republicans' leadership team. "I'm not sure people questioned the legality of it, but it clearly was an unforced political error."

Cole said he did not speak to the president directly about it, but expressed relief that Trump had changed his mind, and was certain that other Republicans felt the same way. "We just didn't need this," he said.

By late Saturday afternoon, Trump had made his decision, but he waited to announce his reversal until that night in two tweets that were separated by a break the president took to watch the opening of Jeanine Pirro's Fox News program.

"I thought I was doing something very good for our country by using Trump National Doral, in Miami, for hosting the G-7 leaders," Trump wrote on Twitter, before again promoting the resort's amenities. "But, as usual, the Hostile Media & their Democrat Partners went CRAZY!"

Trump added: "Therefore, based on both Media & Democrat Crazed and Irrational Hostility, we will no longer consider Trump National Doral, Miami, as the Host Site for the G-7 in 2020."

Trump suggested as a possibility Camp David, the rustic, official presidential retreat that Mulvaney had denigrated as an option when he announced the choice of Doral. But Mulvaney said the president was candid in his disappointment.

The president's reaction "out in the tweet was real," Mulvaney said on "Fox News Sunday." "The president isn't one for holding back his feelings and his emotions about something. He was honestly surprised at the level of pushback."

Trump's unhappiness may also extend to Mulvaney, who at his Thursday news conference - whose intended subject was the summit hotel choice - essentially acknowledged that the president had a quid pro quo in mind in discussions with Ukrainian officials.

But advisers to Trump were stunned. The president has frequently expressed unhappiness with Mulvaney to others, and he recently reached out to Nick Ayers, a former aide to Vice President Mike Pence, to see if he had interest in returning, according to two people close to the president. Ayers is unlikely to return to Washington, but the conversation speaks to Trump's mindset at a time when he is being urged by some advisers to make a change, and several people close to the president said Mulvaney did not help himself in the past week.

Mulvaney conceded on Fox News that this was all avoidable. "It's not lost on me that if we made the decision on Thursday" not to proceed with the Doral, "we wouldn't have had the news conference on Thursday regarding everything else, but that's fine," Mulvaney said. At another point, he acknowledged his press briefing was not "perfect."

Many aides have said Trump, a real estate developer for whom the presidency at times seems like his second job instead of his primary one, had an understandable motivation for choosing Doral: He wanted to show off his property to a global audience.

"At the end of the day," Mulvaney said Sunday, "he still considers himself to be in the hospitality business and he saw an opportunity to take the biggest leaders from around the world, and he wanted to put the absolute best show, the best visit that he possibly could."

In a statement, an official at the Trump Organization, the president's private company, reiterated Trump's disappointment and his contention that American taxpayers had lost a good deal.

"Trump Doral would have made an incredible location and venue," the spokesman said. "This is a perfect example of no good deed goes unpunished. It will likely end up costing the U.S. government 10 times the amount elsewhere, as we would have either done it at cost or contributed it to the United States for free if legally allowed."

But legal experts said the statement itself showed how fundamentally Trump and his family misunderstood the ethical issues raised by his choice.

At a minimum, the president's role in steering business to his own resort clashed with his promise, made 10 days before he was sworn in, that he would recuse himself from anything to do with his properties.

"My two sons, who are right here, Don and Eric, are going to be running the company," Trump said at the time, referring to Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump. "They are going to be running it in a very professional manner. They're not going to discuss it with me."

And the selection, as the president had anticipated, touched off a wave of censure from Democrats and ethics experts.

But it was also criticized by conservative legal scholars, who were already uncomfortable with a number of recent actions by the White House, including pressuring Ukrainian officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

"It is really just about him ordering the country to pay him money," said Paul Rosenzweig, a Department of Homeland Security official in the George W. Bush administration who is now a senior fellow at the conservative R Street Institute. "It is just indefensible."

Pushing the Doral site also threatened to hurt the United States' standing globally, legal experts said, in light of its decades worth of efforts to combat corruption by other foreign governments, according to Jessica Tillipman, a lawyer who specializes in a U.S. law known as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

"This is no different than any other corrupt leader of an oil-rich African country who is taking money from the government and taxpayers," Tillipman said.

In the past, presidents and their top advisers have played a lead role in selecting Group of 7 sites, former State Department officials said, citing Ronald Reagan's role in picking Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1983 and George H.W. Bush's choice of Houston in 1990.

But the White House has typically just picked the host city - not the hotels. That has traditionally been left to the State Department, said Peter A. Selfridge, the department's chief of protocol during the Obama administration.

In all, the event draws as many as 7,000 people, including security personnel, news media, diplomats, heads of state and other support staff, meaning an overall price tag for an event whose costs can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, once security is included.

The host government typically covers the cost of 20 hotel rooms per country - but that is the start of what each nation needs, according to a second former State Department official.

Scholars who have studied the history of G7 gatherings - dating back to their start in the 1970s - said they could cite no other time when a president effectively attempted to force global political leaders to pay his or her family money at a resort owned by the head of state.

"This was unprecedented," said John Kirton, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and the director of the G7 Research Group, which studies these annual gatherings. "This was astounding and embarrassing to the United States."

Selfridge said perhaps the most confounding piece of Trump's now-aborted choice of the resort outside Miami was the idea of welcoming global leaders to a destination that is hot, muggy - and not particularly popular in June.

"It would be like picking northern Minnesota in the middle of the winter," he said. "You would not want to be there then."

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2019 The New York Times Company


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