Trump does New Year's Eve his way

By Daniel Lippman

PALM BEACH, Fla. — With the U.S. Embassy in Iraq under attack, President Donald Trump has thus far eschewed the typical laid-back New Year’s Eve optics.

He didn’t golf, instead holding a meeting about the Middle East at his own golf club rather than hitting the links. His Twitter feed has offered thoughts about the volatile situation throughout the day, sandwiched between the normal grumbling about Democrats. He spoke with the prime minister of Iraq about protecting the U.S. diplomats and other embassy staffers huddled in a safe room in Baghdad.

But if past New Year’s Eves at the president's Mar-a-Lago property are any guide, the president could make an appearance Tuesday night at the luxury resort’s annual black-tie New Year’s Eve gala, a $1,000-a-head event that starts with cocktails by the main pool before moving to a decadent dinner in the estate’s massive ballroom. In the past, the shindig has attracted celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Woody Allen, Rod Stewart, Serena Williams, Martha Stewart and Robert Kraft.

It’s a moment of potentially fraught optics for a president who cares deeply about his image. Trump is trying to display leadership in a moment that echoes the deadly 2012 raid on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, an event with which Trump incessantly lambasted his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of State at the time.

Thus far, Trump hasn’t done anything to cause his critics to pounce, even as they questioned whether the president’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran has caused Tehran to increasingly lash out through proxy militia forces. The attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Baghdad came in response to U.S. airstrikes that targeted an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia the Trump administration blames for a rocket attack that killed an American defense contractor.

The president started his day at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, where Trump often plays golf when he stays at his luxury Mar-a-Lago resort. Instead of playing 18 holes of golf, though, Trump left the club after roughly 45 minutes, potentially mindful of the image of golfing as the diplomatic compound in Baghdad was surrounded. The State Department has said that while the protesters forced their way into the embassy compound, there had been no “breach” of the facility itself.

On Twitter, Trump said he had met at the golf club to discuss the Middle East, the U.S. military and trade. The White House didn’t respond to requests about whom Trump had met with or why they met at the golf club rather than Mar-a-Lago.

Trump’s allies were quick to praise the president for his reaction to the crisis.

“Just had a very good meeting with President @realDonaldTrump and his team regarding the situation in Iraq,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who golfed with Trump on Monday. “President Trump is determined to protect American personnel and expects our Iraqi partners to step up to the plate. No more Benghazis.”

Before Trump became president, he often criticized President Barack Obama for golfing during crises — he chided him for doing so after floods in Louisiana in 2016, during an Ebola outbreak in 2014 and a rash of tornadoes in 2013. Still, as president, Trump has visited golf clubs over 230 times, according toTrumpGolfCount.com.

Trump’s golf club meeting came after he had already condemned Iran for “orchestrating” the attack on the embassy in Baghdad. He urged the Iraqi government to protect the embassy from further intrusion and attack. He also said Iran “will be held fully responsible” for the attack from Shiite militia forces.

Trump also revealed after his meeting that he will sign the first phase of a limited trade deal with China at the White House on Jan. 15, adding that he will travel at a later date to Beijing to start talks on the next phase of a broader agreement.

As Tuesday rolls on, though, attention will turn to the Mar-a-Lago party. The resort has nearly doubled its ticket prices for guests of Mar-a-Lago members. In 2016, just weeks after Trump was elected, guests could get in for $575.

One person who attended the party two years ago said it was like “open season” for people to talk to Trump. The next year, the person said, Trump’s family was more roped off — Trump himself missed the festivities because of the government shutdown.

When Trump has attended past New Year’s Eve galas, he usually gives a toast to the crowd and sometimes leads the countdown to the new year as the crowd watches the ball drop in Times Square.

Trump’s allies have long chafed at any insinuation that it’s inappropriate for Trump to attend — and profit from — a star-studded New Year’s Eve party at his own property.

“If it’s about selling access, then condemn every party gala dinner that’s held in which the president or Schumer or Pelosi go to,” a former White House official said, referring to two of Trump’s favorite targets — Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.