White House Memo: Trump Uses His Tee Times for a Mix of Diplomacy and Recreation

WASHINGTON — Of the 31 days he has been in office, President Trump has spent six of them on a golf course. That amounts to one-fifth of his tenure, including three of his five weekends, as commander in chief.

His golf partners have included the Japanese prime minister and champion players from South Africa and Northern Ireland. One Saturday in Florida, he managed to play in the morning at Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter, and in the afternoon at Trump International in West Palm Beach.

Few of these details came from the White House, which has thrown a veil of secrecy over the president’s golf game, as well as many of his other pursuits while he is at his Palm Beach, Fla., estate, Mar-a-Lago.

The Trump administration does not disclose his golf partners, except for the day he played with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and the South African pro, Ernie Els, about which Mr. Trump tweeted himself. It declines even to confirm Mr. Trump is actually swinging at a tee when his motorcade disappears behind the towering palm trees and crested gates of his clubs.

Golf is not the only activity that the administration keeps under wraps in Florida, where Mr. Trump is still making a fitful transition from the proprietor of a private club to president. Last weekend, the White House did not disclose that he attended a charity benefit for cancer research at Mar-a-Lago, during which a tuneful former Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney, sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” to Mr. Trump and his guests.

It also did not publicize that the president led a tour of Air Force One for friends and family members of the staff at Mar-a-Lago, while the plane was parked at Palm Beach International Airport.

White House officials say these were all private events. The press office did publicize the president’s work schedule in Florida, which included a staff meeting on repealing the Affordable Care Act, interviews with four candidates for national security adviser, and phone calls with the president of Panama and the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago.

But the White House is clearly sensitive about Mr. Trump’s Eisenhower-like golf habit — so much so that it has gotten the press office into the rough. On Sunday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House deputy press secretary, told reporters in Florida that the president played a “couple of holes” on Saturday and Sunday.

Then Rory McIlroy, the world’s No. 3-ranked player, told a golf website, No Laying Up, that he had played a full 18 holes with Mr. Trump. “He probably shot around 80,” Mr. McIlroy said. “He’s a decent player for a guy in his 70s!” A photograph of Mr. McIlroy, posing with Mr. Trump and Paul O’Neill, the former Yankees right-fielder, appeared on social media.

On Monday, Ms. Sanders clarified that the president “intended to play a few holes and decided to play longer.”

The White House goes to considerable lengths to keep Mr. Trump’s golf game away from scrutiny. When he plays in West Palm Beach, the press corps that follows him is diverted to a parking lot at a public library across the street. When he played in Jupiter, reporters were sequestered in a clubhouse meeting room that would have offered a picturesque view of the green, except that the windows and doors were taped with black plastic.

The rub, of course, is that Mr. Trump repeatedly criticized his predecessor, Barack Obama, for playing too much golf.

On Oct. 13, 2014, he wrote on Twitter, “Can you believe that, with all the problems and difficulties facing the U.S., President Obama spent the day playing golf. Worse than Carter.” Ten days later, Mr. Trump posted, “President Obama has a major meeting on the N.Y.C. Ebola outbreak, with people flying in from all over the country, but decided to play golf!”

In July, Mr. Trump, then the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, offered his philosophy on presidents playing golf to David Feherty of the Golf Channel. “Obama plays a lot of golf — a lot,” he said.

“I don’t think you should play very much,” he continued. “But if you’re going to play, you should use it to your advantage, and the country’s advantage.” As president, Mr. Trump said, he would play with members of Congress, to push through his legislative agenda, or with foreign leaders, to advance the nation’s diplomatic and trade priorities.

By that rationale, Mr. Trump’s game with Mr. Abe was fully justified. Though it is hard to see where Mr. Els and Mr. McIlroy fit in, aside from the fact they are not American. According to No Laying Up, Mr. Trump’s quartet with Mr. McIlroy included Nick Mullen, an executive with International Sports Management, and Richard Levine, a longtime friend and golf partner of Mr. Trump’s who has donated to his foundation.

Mr. Obama played 333 rounds of golf as president, according to Mark Knoller, a White House correspondent for CBS News. Though he famously played with the Republican speaker of the House, John A. Boehner, in an ill-fated effort to cultivate him for budget negotiations, the large majority of Mr. Obama’s rounds were with the same trio of White House aides.

The White House’s refusal to disclose Mr. Trump’s games has not deterred Mr. Knoller from his bookkeeping.

“I look for club members tweeting photos or other confirmation of his swinging a club,” Mr. Knoller said. But he added, “I’ve changed my designation from ‘rounds of golf’ to ‘golf outings’ since it’s clear on some occasions he has played only a few holes, not a full round.”

Mr. Trump is not the first president to disguise his golf passion because of a complicated history with his predecessor. John F. Kennedy kept the news media away from his golf outings during the 1960 campaign for fear of being compared to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“Kennedy was extremely sensitive about some voters’ distaste for Dwight Eisenhower’s widely known golf addiction,” said Don Van Natta Jr. in his book about presidents and golf, “First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters From Taft to Bush.” “As Kennedy quietly asked his friends: ‘Would it be appropriate for someone aspiring to be the champion of the people to indulge in a rich man’s game?’”

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