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Trump names customers at private clubs to plum jobs

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/3/2017 Fredreka Schouten and Brad Heath and Steve Reilly
Mar-a-Lago is President Trump's private club in Palm Beach, Fla. © Carolyn Kaster, AP Mar-a-Lago is President Trump's private club in Palm Beach, Fla.

WASHINGTON — When President Trump this week tapped Florida insurance executive Robin Bernstein to serve as the nation’s next ambassador to the Dominican Republic, he wasn’t just giving a business associate and longtime supporter a plum Caribbean assignment.

Bernstein also is a founding member of his private Florida club, Mar-a-Lago.

A USA TODAY review finds that Trump has installed at least five people who have been members of his clubs to senior roles in his administration, ranging from Bernstein and Callista Gingrich, the nation’s new ambassador to the Vatican, to Adolfo Marzol, a member of the Trump National Golf Club in suburban Washington, who serves as a senior adviser at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Presidents often name campaign donors and close allies to administration posts, particularly prized diplomatic postings in cosmopolitan European capitals, such as Paris and London, and the tourist playgrounds of the West Indies.

But never in modern history has a president awarded government posts to people who pay money to his own companies.

Most of the appointees are longtime members of Trump's clubs, and there's no indication that they joined to secure an administration job.

“You can appoint your personal valet (to an ambassadorship) if you like,” said Jan Baran, a former State Department official who is a top GOP ethics lawyer at Wiley Rein. He said it’s up to the Senate confirmation process to determine whether nominees for top diplomatic posts are qualified.

Adolfo Marzol, appointed in May to be a senior adviser to Housing Secretary Ben Carson, is a member of Trump's golf club in northern Virginia. Marzol declined an interview request, but a spokesman for the department, Jerry Brown, said Marzol joined the club before Trump bought it 2009, and that it had no bearing on his job.

"The department is not concerned about health clubs or golfing clubs people have belonged to for 20 years," he said. "We consider that to be their private business." 

Members of Trump clubs can pay initiation fees that top $100,000, plus thousands more each year in annual dues to his companies, held in a trust for his benefit.

The clubs are among his must lucrative businesses. His U.S. golf clubs alone brought in about $600 million in 2015 and 2016, according to his financial disclosure reports. It is unknown how much of that is profit because, unlike other recent presidents, Trump has not released his tax returns.

White House officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

“It certainly appears that it does not hurt to be a dues-paying member of the president’s golf clubs to end up with a position in this administration,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group that has been critical of Trump’s decision to retain ownership of his branding and real-estate empire.

“We don’t normally have presidents who are continuing to own their business enterprises, and that’s bound to pose potential conflicts.”

More: Trump gets millions from golf members. CEOs and lobbyists get access to president

More: Most Trump real estate now sold to secretive buyers

Richard Painter, who served as an ethics lawyer in the President George W. Bush's White House, said no specific government rule bars someone who is a member of a Trump club from a post in his administration.

But the better course is for government employees to avoid any business dealings with their bosses, said Painter, who sits on the board of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is suing Trump over his continued business ownership while serving in the White House.

 “I would not, in the White House, have liked a situation where a subordinate was buying a car from a superior," Painter said.

The membership rolls of Trump's clubs are not public. USA TODAY identified members using news accounts and by reviewing a public website golfers use to track their handicaps. An investigation by USA TODAY found that dozens of lobbyists and federal contractors are paying members of the clubs Trump has visited the most often, a status that could put them in close contact with the president in exchange for payments that enrich him personally.

Barry Nigro, who became second in command of the Justice Department’s powerful antitrust arm in August, is a member of Trump’s club outside Washington. The scores he posted online show that Nigro, a longtime antitrust lawyer, played at the club on at least seven days when the president, a frequent visitor, also was there.

Nigro said his membership played no role in his appointment. He said he had seen Trump at the club “once or twice,” but said he had never spoken to him and doubted the president knew who he was.

The USA TODAY tally also does not include Trump's daughter Ivanka or her husband Jared Kushner, both of whom are members of his club in West Palm Beach, Fla., and work as unpaid advisers at the White House.

Nor does it include other members who have said publicly that they were promised ambassadorships by Trump.

Gingrich, Trump's newly installed envoy to the Vatican, and her husband, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, have been members of Trump's Northern Virginia golf club. 

Andrew Giuliani, son of former New York City mayor and Trump backer Rudy Giuliani, was named in March to a White House post as public liaison assistant.

The younger Giuliani also is a member of the Trump National Golf Club in New York's Westchester County and has played at Trump’s golf club in the Washington area this year, according to public golf records.

Some of Trump's nominees for ambassadorships reflect the privileged world in which he moves as the owner of private golf clubs and Mar-a-Lago, the Mediterranean-style resort in Palm Beach he has dubbed the Winter White House.

Bernstein, Trump's choice for the Dominican Republic and a proud charter member of Mar-a-Lago, has been a vocal Trump booster and brags about the star power his presidency has brought to the waterfront resort.

“It’s almost a return to Camelot,” Bernstein told The Tampa Bay Times after the election in a reference to John F. Kennedy and the time he spent at his family’s Palm Beach estate during his presidency.

Bernstein, described in a White House news release as speaking "basic Spanish," also has a longstanding business relationship with Trump, serving him as a client of the insurance company she runs with her husband, Richard Bernstein.

A YouTube video posted in 2009 of the firm’s annual party at Mar-a-Lago shows Trump praising the company as having "done a terrific job for the Trump Organization.”

“So, we’re very happy with Richard and with Robin,” Trump says, giving her a hug. “Special people,” he adds.

Bernstein did not respond to an interview request and an official at her firm referred questions to the State Department. State referred questions about her nomination back to the White House.

Other members of Mar-a-Lago, including South Florida businessman Patrick Park, have said they were promised ambassadorships in his administration.

Earlier this year, Park told The Palm Beach Post that he had received a handwritten note from Trump promising him the top diplomatic post in Austria — the setting of "The Sound of Music," a favorite musical.

“I know every single word and song by heart,” he told the Post. “I’ve always wanted to live in the Von Trapp house.” Park had not been nominated as of early Thursday afternoon.

Brian Burns, a lawyer and businessman described by The New York Times this year as a Mar-a-Lago member, was reported to have been in line for the ambassadorship to Ireland but withdrew for health reasons.

Neither Park nor Burns responded to interview requests.

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