This past weekend, the President hosted another major foreign leader. But not at the White House. And that bothers me. While it is fair to criticize the expense the President is racking up for protection at his many Mar-a-Lago trips (already), there are more important reasons here for hosting leaders at the People’s House.
History has its Eyes on You. The White House has been the host for major leaders throughout history. As early as 1860, presidents have hosted foreign leaders at the White House beginning with a visit from the Imperial leader of Japan. When these foreign leaders arrive, many of them nations with less democratic traditions than America, being invited into a building that is owned by the people sets a tone. It is not the property of the American President, but rather a temporary rental for that individual. That is significant for both the host and the invitee. America is of the people, by the people and for the people.
President George Herbert Walker Bush once took Boris Yeltsin down to the fence line around the grounds to help him understand the idea that he was a guest in this estate, courtesy of the American people outside the gates. is a government of the people. Yeltsin did not understand the idea that the people should have access to their leaders in a democracy.
Just across the street is the Blair House, which is often used to house foreign VIP’s who are visiting the White House. From yards away, a foreign leader is treated to history, luxury and access to the president while in the center of our capital.
Washington DC was built for this. The two principal architects of the capital city, L’Enfant and McMillan, intended for the city to be grand and intimidating at the same time. Whether being flown by helicopter or brought by motorcade, coming into Washington, DC is a grand entrance and in no subtle way sets a tone for any foreign dignitary that this is the center of power for the nation, one that models democracy for the world. L’Enfant biographer, Scott Berg, said: “The entire city was built around the idea that every citizen was equally important. The Mall was designed as open to all comers… It’s a very sort of egalitarian idea.” Quite simply, there is an American splendor in bringing foreigners into our capital, as opposed to landing at Miami International Airport and motorcading to West Palm Beach.
The State Dinner. Any foreign leader can be whined and dined with a State Dinner. While certainly an equitable gourmet meal can be had at any premier golf course resort, again the history of being hosted in a 217-year old building replete with the trappings of history is incomparable. Not every foreign leader is given such a dinner, but the notable occasions are grand. Which makes a greater impact, a State Dinner in the White House or a grand meal in one of countless high class golf resorts around the nation?
Security and Access. A State Dinner allows for a president to carefully select attendees of both diplomatic and political nature. While this may be true of any hosted dinner off the White House grounds, the Mar-a-Lago dinners have been open to members of the club. After Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the president’s private club, widely circulated pictures showed club members taking pictures of the president and guests plus even security personnel carrying the nuclear missile code “football”.
Additionally hosting off the White House grounds alters the security apparatus around the president. With both visits of the Japanese and Chinese leaders to Mar-a-Lago an international incident broke out. Both times the president did not have access to the Situation Room at the White House. With PM Abe, it was an embarrassing security breach as cell phones were used to provide light on an open air patio to read the documents brought before them. Compare the White House Situation Room to whatever conference room at Mar-a-Lago was used to watch the Syrian air strikes this past week. It begs the question, which is surely being asked, how secure is Mar-a-Lago compared to the Situation Room?
Me vs. Us. President Bush broke precedent by hosting foreign leaders at his Texas ranch. I found this disappointing as well compared to the grandeur of White House. You can make an argument that Bush’s Crawford Ranch provides a similar backdrop as Camp David, that provides an opportunity to meet outside of the heavy spotlight of the nation’s capitol. But that is what Camp David is, a governmental retreat and not private property. While objectionable, at least Bush’s ranch was a home and isolated — much easier to protect. But President Trump did not host either of these Asian leaders at Trump Towers (and that certainly wouldn’t be isolated). As has been widely reported, there are concerns about using a property where the President will make money as a place to host governmental business. Simply put, it leaves the impression that business conducted on a president’s business property is more about him than it is about the American people.
We are likely to see more dignitaries be hosted at the president’s property in the future. I hope the media shuns the use of the phrase “Winter White House” because it is not a property that you nor I can visit. It is not a “people’s” house. It is a shame, because avoiding the White House is avoiding the history and legacy that has built this nation.