In President Trump's first month in office, Mar-A-Lago 3, Camp David 0

By Michael S. Rosenwald

In this June 26, 2008, file photo, members of an honor guard stand at attention at Camp David. Photo / AP
In this June 26, 2008, file photo, members of an honor guard stand at attention at Camp David. Photo / AP

Dwayne Snurr, a janitor and lifelong resident of this rural, working-class town 60 miles from the White House, was eating chicken wings in a cafe off Main Street last week when he began chewing over a locally important subject: President Donald Trump's taste in vacations.

"I guess he's got that place down in Florida," Snurr said, referring to Mar-a-Lago, Trump's Palm Beach resort.

"When you have a place like that, I have to assume you prefer the beach and nice weather."

Trump's Florida compound and his other gold-laden properties have been top of mind lately in Thurmont, where just a few miles up a winding mountain road presidents have vacationed and cajoled world leaders at Camp David - deep in the woods, in cozy cabins, a total anathema to Trump.

"Camp David is very rustic, it's nice, you'd like it," Trump said in an interview with a European journalist just before taking office.

"You know how long you'd like it? For about 30 minutes."

White House officials have not said whether Trump plans to use Camp David or, if not, whether he would close the Navy-run facility, which has about an $8 million annual budget. Although local officials hope he will visit, they have been given no signals he will, raising concern about the financial and symbolic costs of the president's getaway tastes.

Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate  in Palm Beach Florida. Photo / Getty Images
Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach Florida. Photo / Getty Images

Just a month into Trump's presidency, the Secret Service is struggling to protect Mar-a-Lago and his other properties, which don't have built-in security like Camp David. For Thurmont residents, Camp David has been a source of pride, putting the town on the world map, attracting foreign journalists and diplomatic staff with expense accounts.

And historians worry that Trump's preference for more high-profile retreats will mark a decline in Camp David as a symbol of simple American values and deliberative diplomacy. This month, Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago, where the two leaders were photographed responding to a North Korean missile test in an ornate dining area at the club.

Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley said, "When you have a president who owns exclusive resorts, it's hard to believe Camp David will be used."

The risk is that, over time, "Camp David will no longer be this great getaway for presidents or a diplomatic hub for important matters," Brinkley said. "It's in a holding pattern right now."

Camp David was originally a New Deal project, a getaway for federal workers and their families. President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned it into a presidential retreat in 1942, choosing the spot for its seclusion and security, although the president's doctor said the mountain air would also help his sinuses.

Mountain Gate restaurant in Thurmont, Md., which has long been popular with the news media and support personnel during presidential visits to nearby Camp David. Photo / The Washington Post
Mountain Gate restaurant in Thurmont, Md., which has long been popular with the news media and support personnel during presidential visits to nearby Camp David. Photo / The Washington Post

Roosevelt named the camp Shangri-La after a mythical paradise in the novel "Lost Horizon." He hosted Winston Churchill there in 1943. The British leader spent some quality time watching Roosevelt tend to his stamp collection and later described the retreat as "in principle a log cabin, with all modern improvements," according to "The President Is at Camp David," W. Dale Nelson's history of the retreat.

Camp David got its lasting name from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who renamed it after his father and grandson. Eisenhower had great affinity for the retreat. He convalesced there after a heart attack. For a few days in 1959, he hosted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for talks. Khrushchev asked to see the bowling alley. They also watched movies.

Like Eisenhower, some presidents came to love Camp David, both as a respite from Washington and a place to entertain allies and sway adversaries. President Ronald Reagan went there more than 150 times, riding his horse and playing host to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. President Harry S. Truman hated it, telling his friends that it was boring.

For President Jimmy Carter, Camp David's seclusion and privacy was a major factor in the peace deal he struck there in 1978 between Egypt and Israel. Without the news media around, there were few leaks and no television cameras to posture in front of. Also, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat wasn't an outdoorsy guy.

"He did not like being left out there in the woods," said William Quandt, a member of Carter's National Security Council and a key figure in what became known as the Camp David Accords. "The claustrophobic feeling there really helped the negotiations. They had to get a deal."

President George H.W. Bush hosted Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for a round of summit talks, played tennis and zipped around in golf carts. President Bill Clinton hosted a failed summit between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in 2000. President George W. Bush decamped there 149 times, according to statistics kept by CBS News reporter Mark Knoller. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Bush was photographed there with his national security team wearing a fleece naval jacket while looking over maps of Afghanistan.

As history goes, President Barack Obama's use of Camp David could mark a turning point. Although he hosted a Group of Eight summit there, Obama visited the retreat just 39 times. If future presidents skew like Obama or Trump - younger and urbane, or older and rich - Camp David could be used less and less.

"It's so rustic and remote that people used to staying at the Four Seasons really don't find comfort there," Brinkley said. "Obama had Hawaii and Chicago. He liked golf resorts. Trump has Mar-a-Lago. It simply becomes just a property of the U.S. government."

The Catoctin Mountain Park (where Camp David is located) can be seen, at left, from downtown Thurmont. Photo / The Washington Post
The Catoctin Mountain Park (where Camp David is located) can be seen, at left, from downtown Thurmont. Photo / The Washington Post

Quandt, the Carter administration official, said the country doesn't need a place such as Camp David to strike major diplomatic deals. Obama reached major accords with Iraq and Cuba without sequestering those country's leaders in the woods.

"There's nothing really magical there about the place, per se," he said. "It's about, do you have the wherewithal? It's not necessarily about where it happens."

But Quandt said it would be concerning if Trump's ostentatious properties become the backdrop for major diplomatic deals or a global symbol of American leisure. "Camp David is more modest and more in line with what ordinary Americans identify with," he said. "A lot of us can imagine going to a place like Camp David, a vacation in the mountains. A lot us cannot imagine going to Mar-a-Lago."

But maybe those "ordinary Americans" can.

Thurmont is Trump Country - conservative, staunchly Republican, American-made. Trump banners still hang on the sides of barns. Local restaurants sell Trump memorabilia. On the way to Camp David, there is a house with a Confederate battle flag flying out front.

So far, Trump can do no wrong in the eyes of voters here - including taking a pass on vacationing near them, giving up the chance to glimpse life in a town, even from a helicopter, where residents voted for him to make America great again.

"It doesn't mean anything if he doesn't come," said Michael Hobbs, co-owner of Hobbs Hardware on East Main Street, a store that's been around since 1942. "It's an outdoor lifestyle there. People relate to different things. That's okay."

Hobbs also stipulated that if he had a couple billion dollars, "I wouldn't be up in the woods, either."

In some ways, not taking offense mirrors some of the cognitive dissonance that unfolded during Trump's campaign, when he appealed to voters in towns like Thurmont with a populist, workingman message, even if it was delivered by a candidate given to decorating his residences in gold.

"I don't think there's some kind of disconnect if he doesn't come here," Thurmont Mayor John Kinnaird said. "I don't take that as some kind of brushoff."

Asking about Trump's election rival Hillary Clinton, in almost any fashion, draws a somewhat critical response or laughter from many around town before a quick patriotic course correction in rhetoric.

"I think people would resent it if she came up," said longtime Frederick County (Maryland) Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, who trounced a Democrat who challenged him three years ago. "But to be honest, we treat anyone who goes there with respect. It doesn't matter."

Even as Trump made the third trip of his presidency to Mar-a-Lago over the holiday weekend, residents and town officials refuse to concede that Trump will pass them by.

Soon enough, they say, he will want to take a quick helicopter ride to escape the White House and walk in the woods with Melania.

He will have a financial reason to show up - the mounting security bills at his other getaways.

They even compare him (quietly) to President John F. Kennedy, noting that the young president and his wife, Jacqueline, initially preferred Camelot's other locales before coming to savor the nearby tranquility of the cabins in the woods.

"He's going to figure out it's a great getaway," Jenkins said. "It's a mountaintop retreat - walking paths, in a wooded area, totally peaceful. It's unbelievable. If I was in the White House, that would be my White House."

- Washington Post

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