When the U.S. president hosts a foreign leader at his home, it can be seen as a sign of hospitality, an indicator of warm relations, and a chance to put American culture on display.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously hosted the king and queen of England at his Hyde Park estate, where he served hot dogs for dinner. President Ronald Reagan hosted Britain's Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at his California ranch. President George H.W. Bush hosted a string of international leaders at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, and his son President George W. Bush did the same at his family home in Crawford, Texas.
With so many precedents, why would anyone point fingers at President Donald Trump for hosting foreign dignitaries at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach, Florida, estate?
The answer is money. Mar-a-Lago functions as a vacation home for the Trumps, but it also serves as a resort for paying members — which has not been true of any of the aforementioned properties that played host to presidential guests. It is not clear how much access paying guests have to the visiting diplomats, but during a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Mar-a-Lago earlier this year, Abe and Trump carried on some of their discussions over dinner in a restaurant on the property, in full view of other guests.
Having presidential guests stay at Mar-a-Lago — a commercial property owned by the president — raises questions about whether other guests at the property have extraordinary access to the president and his guests by virtue of their club membership — a membership whose price doubled after Trump was elected to the presidency. Critics refer to the situation as "pay to play" — where money buys access to power.
On the other hand, Mar-a-Lago — with its proximity to the beach, a spa, tennis courts and golf courses — seems an ideal place to host foreign dignitaries, as it can be a more relaxed atmosphere than Washington, D.C. The setting also implies a close, personal relationship between the president and his visitor.
Abe visit 'well received' in Japan
"The Mar-a-Lago meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping offers a great opportunity for the two leaders to get to know each other in a more relaxed atmosphere," said Zhiqun Zhu, professor of political science and international relations, and director of The China Institute at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.
He said Abe's visit to the Florida estate "was well received in Japan because many Japanese liked the fact that Abe was the first Asian leader to be invited by the Trump administration to the U.S., and Trump and Abe spent several intimate hours playing golf together, highlighting the close alliance between the U.S. and Japan and the strong personal ties between Trump and Abe."
The Xi meeting, however, lacks one important component of that visit: Xi does not play golf. His government frowns on the sport.
Ely Ratner, a senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Boston Globe that the Xi visit to Mar-a-Lago provides a "controlled media environment," a situation prized by the Trump administration and difficult to arrange in Washington. But it also implies a favorable relationship that, in Ratner's mind, has yet to be achieved.
"They should have had the opening meeting in Washington and said 'we can do the Mar-a-Lago meeting, but you have to earn it,'" he said.
Property once government-owned
Mar-a-Lago — built in the 1920s by heiress and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post — was actually planned as a presidential retreat. Post bequeathed the estate to the federal government upon her death in 1973. But then-President Richard Nixon preferred using his own Florida vacation home in Key Biscayne, and successive presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were not interested in the estate, either.
Carter preferred the official presidential retreat, Camp David, not far from the nation's capital and owned by the U.S. military, where he arranged the historic Camp David Accords between the leaders of Israel and Egypt.
In 1980, the government returned Mar-a-Lago to the Post family.
Trump bought the resort five years later, after threatening to buy the land between the home and the beach, spoiling the view and driving down the sales price. When Trump began struggling financially, he converted part of the property into a private club. The initiation fee for Mar-a-Lago membership is $200,000. Yearly dues are $14,000. Overnight guests pay up to $2,000 per night.
Critics say it's not only the "pay-to-play" problem that worries them. It's also the cost of the Trump visits and the impact on the community, where roads must be closed when the president is in town, and local law enforcement works overtime to help with security.
Democratic lawmakers are pushing legislation that would mandate that Mar-a-Lago keep a public log of its visitors.
As for the high-security Camp David, hidden in the Maryland mountains, Trump has called the property "very rustic." He recently told a German reporter, "It's nice, you'd like it. You know how long you'd like it? For about 30 minutes."