A typical Trump vacation, with a momentous result


Kevin Wolf / Associated Press

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump exit Air Force One, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., following a trip to his Mar-a-Lago estate.

Mon, Jan 6, 2020 (2 a.m.)

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Beneath wind-swept palm trees and gilded chandeliers, President Donald Trump dined with Rush Limbaugh and congratulated Keith Hernandez, the New York Mets announcer and former first baseman, on his wedding. He consulted with his national security and campaign advisers while basking in 80-degree weather, and, as always, he tweeted.

He also authorized a military strike that has roiled the Middle East and is likely to endure as one of the most consequential acts of his presidency.

For three years, Trump’s winter visits to Mar-a-Lago, his private club, have allowed him time to combine his personal and presidential business, often in the midst of the club’s wealthy members and his adoring friends.

But the jarring juxtapositions this year seemed to highlight some central elements in the way Trump has governed: the little interest he has in planning beyond the day in front of him, his need for positive feedback and an unwillingness to modulate his behavior, whatever the circumstance.

From the outside, the president’s two-week winter vacation in Palm Beach, Florida, seemed similar to his previous long stays, except for the fact that he had recently been impeached.

The days were generally marked by casual-wear trips to his nearby golf club, where he would talk with members and meet with White House advisers. The evenings were marked by elaborate dinners at Mar-a-Lago that included his family members, his campaign advisers and his national security aides.

But Trump’s vacation was more than the usual refuge from negative news coverage and official Washington. He was agitated by uncertainty about what comes next in the impeachment process, and expressed gnawing concerns about how much the billionaire Michael Bloomberg is spending on his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in the election that Trump hopes to win.

Throughout Christmas week, the president watched the news coverage on impeachment and tweeted his frustrations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for slowing down the process by refusing to send to the Senate the articles charging him with high crimes and misdemeanors. He spoke with advisers about what the Senate trial might look like.

And there were other grievances, as well.

On Sunday, Dec. 29, hours after a stabbing at the home of a rabbi in Monsey, N.Y., Trump, from his golf club in West Palm Beach, called one of his oldest acquaintances and major Jewish supporters, the cosmetics billionaire Ronald S. Lauder, to yell that Lauder should be doing more to “support” him, according to three people briefed on the call.

Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress who recently started a new $25 million effort to fight anti-Semitism that employs a pollster working for Bloomberg, listened as Trump ticked off a litany of administration actions. Trump said that he had done more for Jews than any other president and that he could still lose the Jewish vote. The president never mentioned campaign contributions, but advisers and others briefed on the call said he left the clear impression that was referring to financial support.

In a statement, Lauder would say only that he has had “many candid, positive and forward-looking conversations with” Trump, who “deserves a great deal of support from the Jewish community for his fantastic record on Israel and his proven support of the Jewish people here at home.”

Then it was time to get back to White House work, and Trump huddled with advisers offering him a range of options on how to respond to the death of an American civilian contractor killed on Dec. 27 in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base. The menu of choices included the most extreme one — killing Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful commander.

On New Year’s Eve, Trump hosted his annual party at Mar-a-Lago, arriving in a tuxedo with the first lady, Melania Trump, and playing MC to a crowd that included his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

On Jan. 2, the president began his day at his golf club. But mindful of not appearing weak in the face the rocket attack and concerned that an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that U.S. officials said was orchestrated by Iran could have ended in devastation, Trump had already settled on a course of action.

In the middle of a meeting with campaign advisers, he left the table to give the final authorization to kill Soleimani. The president then returned, and, compartmentalizing what had just happened, resumed talking about the campaign.

It was an act of enormous consequence, but the White House made no public statement for hours, though the president cryptically tweeted about what had taken place. Whatever the administration’s objectives were, and whatever intelligence they had used to justify the strike, it was not being shared in any conventional fashion.

Trump closely monitored reactions to his military action, taking note of who praised him publicly among Republicans and who did not, like Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host. He was encouraged by others on the Trump-friendly network.

But finally, on Friday afternoon, as he was about leave on a short helicopter ride to Miami for a campaign event with evangelical supporters, he abruptly agreed to make a statement on the strike.

His decision to speak came partly at the prodding of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who had jumped in to try to direct the public response.

So aides draped one of the private dining rooms at Mar-a-Lago with a presidential blue cloth as a backdrop to the presidential podium. Roughly five minutes after he started talking, Trump was done.

Next up was Miami, and there, at the King Jesus International Ministry, he excoriated the “fake news,” declared from the dais that two progressive congresswomen “hate” Jewish people, taunted the Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for his faith, and said God was “on our side.”

The president’s final day of vacation, Saturday, was spent at the golf club, and was punctuated by a handful of tweets.

That night, Trump strolled through Mar-a-Lago, a phalanx of aides in tow, as Hernandez got married in an adjacent room, according to attendees. The president did not attend the wedding, but did offer congratulations.

Some people reached out to shake his hand or just to touch his arm as he passed their tables. For the second night, Trump heard approval from club members and their guests who thought he had acted decisively.

Less than 24 hours later, he began his return to Washington, where the temperature was much colder and the grind of his fourth year in office and his campaign for another term were just beginning.

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