Trump's Florida clubs remain a must stop for Republican stars and hopefuls alike

Trump’s Florida clubs remain a must stop for Republican stars and hopefuls alike

Around 7:15 p.m. on April 9, at a $500-a-person barbecue, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., appeared in front of the clubhouse at Trump National Doral in Miami and defended himself in the wake of news that the Justice Department was investigating whether he violated sex trafficking laws. (Gaetz denies any and all allegations.)

About 75 miles north, and at around the same time, former White House press secretary and current GOP candidate for governor of Arkansas Sarah Huckabee Sanders stood before a fountain decorated with giant swans at Mar-a-Lago, addressing a private gathering of donors. It was her second recent fundraising trip to Donald Trump’s resort-cum-home (and yes, the former president spoke to her supporters/his customers at both events).

Rather than outliers, though, these events are indicative of one of 2021’s hottest travel trends for Republican politicians: a visit to a Trump property. But the GOP’s fealty to the former president doesn’t just inflate his ego, of course. It also pads his bottom line.

The day before Sanders’ fundraiser, the Conservative Partnership Institute held a dinner at Mar-a-Lago that reportedly featured several former top officials of the Trump White House; the day after Sanders’ fundraiser, the Republican National Committee booked Mar-a-Lago’s ballroom for a 400-person banquet.

After Trump’s election loss — followed by the months of bogus claims of voter fraud that incited an insurrection — it wasn’t clear what influence, if any, he would retain over the political party he commandeered five years ago. But with Republican politicians following migratory birds south to Florida, it’s clear that the 45th president remains the GOP’s kingmaker.

In the late afternoon of Jan. 6, it seemed likely that the GOP was going to escape Trump’s grip. But three weeks after the riots at the Capitol left five people dead and a nation in shock, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., broke the seal on re-embracing Trump with a well-publicized conciliatory pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago.

Since then, GOP officials have been popping up at Trump’s Florida properties like they’re Trump’s D.C. hotel, circa 2019. At least two Republican governors, four senators and 11 House members have visited Mar-a-Lago since McCarthy’s social call, according to a tally I’m keeping for my 1100 Pennsylvania newsletter. Meanwhile, candidates seeking office, from Sanders to a QAnon-adjacent contender trying to primary a Republican member of Congress in Florida (no, not Gaetz!), have trekked to Mar-a-Lago in search of the Horcrux that is Trump’s endorsement.

The largesse includes Trump’s nearby golf courses, too. Trump Palm Beach has hosted campaign fundraisers for Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, and Max Miller, a former White House staffer running for a House seat in Ohio. (The latter event also drew four possible candidates for one of Ohio’s Senate seats; Trump had them compete for his love, according to Politico’s Alex Isenstadt).

Meanwhile, before Gaetz’s defiant defense at Doral, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and at least three House Republicans took to the stage as part of the Save America Summit. Notably, the summit was hosted by Women for America First, the group that organized the Jan. 6 rally.

All of this kissing the ring costs lawmakers more than their dignity. The Washington Post reported that the Republican National Committee paid the Trump Organization more than $100,000 for the privilege of dining at Mar-a-Lago this month (yes, that’d be the meal where Trump called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell a “dumb son of a b—-“).

And reports filed last week show that Trump’s U.S. ambassador to Slovenia, Lynda Blanchard, spent almost $14,000 in campaign funds in Mar-a-Lago in March while pursuing Trump’s endorsement in the GOP primary for a Senate seat in Alabama (she was unsuccessful, and he endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks, instead).

In addition to direct payments from campaigns and committees, the GOP is helping Trump profit by serving up eye candy for Trump’s other customers. Just days after Trump golfed at his Palm Beach course with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Lindsey “Count Me Out” Graham, R-S.C., Rob Crilly of the Washington Examiner reported that Trump Palm Beach was planning to more than double its initiation fee.

Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that now that Trump’s out of office, there’s no legal conflict of interest in the GOP’s support of his businesses, but the arrangement remains problematic. Last week, the left-leaning government watchdog issued a report criticizing GOP lawmakers for “simultaneously enabling his dangerous corruption and lining his pockets.

“None of these people would be making these trips down to see him if he hadn’t been president and gathered the kind of power and political popularity that came with the presidency,” Bookbinder told me.

In addition to continuing to help Trump profit from his time as president, Bookbinder views the patronage as endorsing Trump’s anti-democratic attempt to overturn an election.

As for how Trump’s arrangement differs from the traditional post-presidency book deal or speaking engagements, Bookbinder said GOP officials’ patronage provides “a more direct and obvious benefit.”

And to head off the predictable rebuttal to any tweet about Trump’s profiteering, what about the Clinton Foundation?

The Clintons’ nonprofit organization differs significantly from Trump’s clubs — which isn’t to say it’s immune from criticism.

“It’s a nonprofit foundation which is actually doing positive work out there. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be an avenue for influence, and that is something where scrutiny can be appropriate,” Bookbinder said. “When it’s Mar-a-Lago, the only other thing happening is the steak or the golf course.”

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