President Trump begins 17-day ‘working vacation'

WASHINGTON – It's that time of year again: The president is going on vacation, and his opponents are going to criticize it.

President Trump, already under fire for spending so many weekends at his resorts in Florida, Virginia and New Jersey, is scheduled to leave Friday for what aides are calling a 17-day "working vacation" based at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.

His critics are ready to pounce.

"Whenever a president goes on vacation, the opposition always raises a fuss about it," said Kenneth Walsh, author of the book From Mount Vernon to Crawford: A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats. 

"It's sort of an easy target," he said.

But complaining about presidential vacations is a tradition as American as apple pie.

It takes place every summer a president leaves Washington, yet Trump's vacation at Bedminster, one of his commercial properties, may draw even more scrutiny – since the president in his first six months in office has visited a Trump-owned property nearly every weekend

Many ethics experts have questioned Trump's travels to resort properties like Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., or the Trump golf club in Virginia, saying they amount to advertisements for the Trump brand.

Trump's Jersey jaunt is "not a vacation," tweeted Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics.

"This is a marketing blitz. Lobbyists & foreign govts should watch to see if HSN live broadcasts any cheap deals on influence."

Trump's August trip may also draw fire because he himself has been a critic of presidential vacations – at least those taken by his predecessor Barack Obama.

In August of 2014, then-private citizen Trump tweeted: "While Obama vacations, golfs,  attends parties & jazz concerts, ISIS is chopping heads off of journalists.”

Trump himself has previously disdained even the idea of taking vacations as president. 

Speaking with CBS' 60 Minutes just days after his election, Trump said, "there's just so much to be done ... So I don't think we'll be very big on vacations, no."

White House officials said this is a "working vacation," and that Trump will not have time for reading lists and other pursuits.

In addition to holding meetings at Bedminster, the president is also planning to make day trips to other states to promote his administration's policies. As a president who is happy to announce major policy proposals and offer newsmaking commentary on Twitter, it's safe to assume the tweeting will continue even when he's away.

There is another reason for the timing of this particular getaway. Workers at the White House will spend the next two weeks or more replacing the heating and cooling system in the West Wing, forcing the president and his aides out of their work spaces, including the Oval Office.

"I don’t think any of you would like to be in the West Wing on an August D.C. summer day when it’s over 100 degrees with no air conditioning," said White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters.

She added that "the president’s going to continue to work." 

Still, presidential vacations are as old as the office itself – and so is the criticism.

Back in 1798, when the national capital was in Philadelphia, President John Adams left for his home in Massachusetts and spent some seven months there, in part to care for ailing first lady Abigail Adams. Critics still accused him of dawdling as the nation faced a possible war with France.

In spending time at his golf club in central New Jersey, Trump is following a semi-tradition set by Adams and other presidents: Vacationing on personal property. Just as President George Washington retreated to his estate at Mount Vernon, many presidents have found no place like home to get away from it all.

George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Lyndon Johnson all looked to ranches in Texas and California to re-charge. George H.W. Bush had his home at Walker Point in Kennebunkport, Maine, while President Jimmy Carter went back to his home in Plains, Ga. President John Kennedy repaired to the family compound in Haynnisport,  Mass.

President Richard Nixon had a pair of vacation homes, one in Key Biscayne, Fla., and another in San Clemente, Calif. (Nixon's government-financed improvements to that property became a subject of an impeachment investigation against him.) 

Presidents who did not keep these kinds of homes had special go-to places for time off.

Obama tended to take summer vacation at Martha's Vineyard, Mass., and end-of-the-year holidays in his home state of Hawaii. Bill Clinton also liked Martha's Vineyard. Harry Truman often headed down to Key West, Fla., where he conducted administration business while wearing loud tropical shirts.

Which leads to another truism: Presidents really don't have vacations.

There's always something do when you're commander-in-chief. Presidents take staff with them. Thanks to modern communications, presidents are never very far away for meetings, and they can make announcements on a moment's notice – especially in the case of the tweeter-in-chief.

Some presidential vacations have been anything but relaxing. President Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack during his 1955 vacation in Denver. Clinton's 1998 sojourn to Martha's Vineyard took place right after his grand jury testimony in the Monica Lewinsky investigation.

While presidents almost always take criticism over time off, the evidence over time suggests that the public is largely indifferent and citizens don't mind presidents taking vacations.

There is one major risk: Vacationing presidents can be seen as indifferent to crises.

That's what happened to George W. Bush, when he was seen as reacting too slowly to Hurricane Katrina as it tore through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

"It's more of a symbolic risk than a substance risk at this point," said historian Tevi Troy, author of Shall We Wake the President?: Two Centuries of Disaster Management from the Oval Office.

Troy, who worked in the George W. Bush administration, criticized what he called the hypocrisy surrounding commentary on presidential vacations – the out-party criticizes the in-president over them, roles that reverse when the White House changes political parties.

"It's the most obvious and blatant hypocrisy," Troy said. "Presidents of both parties deserve to have a vacation."

As perhaps a warning against avoiding a break from a very stressful job, Troy cited the example of a president who did not take any long vacations: James K. Polk.

"It's important to remember he died shortly after his presidency ended," Troy said.

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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