There is always a photograph, and so naturally there is a photograph. This one was taken during the summer of 2008, on a golf course owned by President Donald Trump in New York’s Westchester County. Despite whatever accidental prescience the image might since seem to have acquired, the photo itself was and remains just what it is: artless proof that some wealthy and powerful men—in this case Rudolph Giuliani, Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill Clinton—had at some point posed together on a golf course with their respective Big Bertha drivers out.
It’s the sort of photo that the principal figures have had taken thousands of times over the course of their public lives and equally public retirements. For people of this stature, taking pictures like this with other members of their micro-caste of puffy swells—variously seared pink or golden brown, buzzcut and triangular or pillowy and spheroid, foreign or domestic—is something like their job. There’s no aesthetic merit to these photos, which invariably involve three or four or more pairs of golf shoes and varying shades of incipient sunburn—and sometimes, as this one does, multiple pairs of centimillionaire knees. Aesthetic merit of course plays no role in the staging of such photos; rather, they serve to document a convergence of egos and interests. In functional terms, they mark a random historical moment in roughly the same way and for roughly the same reasons that hostage-takers photograph their captives holding up the front page of a given day’s newspaper. Everyone in the shot can point to it as proof of themselves being in the proper company and the correct milieu. Images like this do not exist to be looked at so much as they exist to be seen, or noticed.
And that’s what we have here. Giuliani, far left, looks as ever as if he has somehow been spilled into his clothes; he is turned such that he is grimacing towards a camera that no one else is facing. Trump is halfway into or out of a grin, and sagging to leeward like a butter sculpture left out in the sun. A head shorter and directly to Trump’s left, Bloomberg is trim, mirthless, and more deeply tan than any public official has a right to be. Bill Clinton had not at this point embarked on his vegan glow-up, and so looks jocular and fluffy in shorts and a pastel golf shirt with implausibly girthsome sleeves. Most versions of this photo that have circulated over the days since Bloomberg announced his interest in joining the field of contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination crop former Yankees Manager Joe Torre and professional Yankees fan Billy Crystal out of the photo entirely, even though the picture was taken at Torre’s own charity golf event.
That is rude, but it fits. Characters like Torre and Crystal are incidental to photos like this, or anyway useful mostly as local color, or a spritz of local flavor atop the expensive lobes of foie gras at the center of the image. The photos are proof that various powerful people once stood next to each other, more or less as peers, and they are to be hung up like a diploma—something for guests to see on the wall of a long corridor in some cold and fancified house, or notice in an office in which, as a matter of course, no actual work gets done. A bunch of rich old men, together, their respective pendulous drivers arrayed before them such that their identical heads are nearly touching, but not quite. Well, doesn’t that beat all?
In a better world, such photos might still exist. The people in them would not have become nearly as rich or unaccountable or powerful as they are in this one, but there’s no reason to think that they would not have found each other in some refrigerated clubhouse or hotel dining room or breakout session or cigar bar. In that world, these men would not be any better than they are in this one, because they are what they are by nature—mutants of appetite and ego, and outliers from the rest of humanity in terms of both the depth and the breadth of their need. But in that other world, in which they are merely rich and terrible, they would threaten only the good times of the other people sharing those spaces with them.
In this one, though, these vainglorious eternals somehow shamble on atop the culture even in their curdling dotage. From that commanding position they do what they do—pursue their endless blowsy feuds, scheme and carp, watch television and go on television and, where the opportunity presents itself, blithely commit various high crimes and misdemeanors. Far above the struggle and insecurity of everyday life, these brittle titans squabble and gossip and go through acrimonious and highly public divorces; for all the ways in which the toxic runoff of inequality can currently be felt in the culture, the fact that the cheesy churn of rich and petty men drifting into and pissily out of each other’s good graces now so distorts our politics is among the most enervating. It is one thing to see so much of our popular culture narrowing and flattening to suit various billionaires’ crude and idle whims, but it’s something else to realize that the political life of the richest and most powerful country on earth is in large part determined by the spats and obsessions of a super-class of aged and lazy lords, all of whom consider themselves peers of each other and virtually no one else.
It’s not a constitutionally enumerated power of the office, but presidents invariably shape the culture in ways that reflect their own values or anti-values, politics, and vibe. Clinton’s America applauded itself from the apex of boomer self-assurance; Bush’s was gilded and blustering and fragile, both strident and utterly bereft of ideas; Obama’s was cosmopolitan and smart from afar and naively inclined to assume facts not in evidence about the trajectories of various important things. It makes sense that Donald Trump’s America would be just the country for these old men—that the machinations and endless feuds of the tabloid undead would crowd and then devour everything else.
If Trump has values beyond the protection and promotion of his hideous and hungry self, they are these tabloid-driven rules of engagement. If Trump has peers—if there are people that matter to him beyond those who might be instrumentalized to advance his pursuit of more of everything—these are those people. Bloomberg will not be the next president of the United States, because virtually no one alive wants him to serve in that role. And yet he and his untouchable peers, who have been allowed through various long-standing failures to have so much more than any person ever should, will spend millions of dollars not in pursuit of any particular set of policies or even the office itself, but out of habit. Look at that photo again, and it is clear that none of the people in it are really friends—but just as important, they’re not enemies in any meaningful way, either. If you know the roles they play in our politics, the people in the photo seem like an unlikely foursome—the lumpy blowhards who backed into fascism for lack of any conviction deeper than a distaste for those with less than them, grinning alongside the savviest and most state-of-the-art ur-moderates. Someone who didn’t understand how weak everything around them had become, or how high these duffers had been allowed to rise as a result, might just look at the photo and see some old guys heading out to play some golf, and maybe bet a little something on the outcome to make things interesting.
In the competition to persuade wealthy customers to stay at high-end golf resorts, the Trump National Doral Miami is a so-so contender. When Golf magazine recently listed the top twenty-five golf resorts for luxury and the top twenty-five for general excellence, Doral didn’t make either list. It did get included in the top-hundred list, and it was also featured in the “Top 25 Resorts for Buddies,” a segment designed for hardcore golfers seeking “immersion therapy with multiple courses to play 18, 36, or until you just can’t see the ball anymore.” Doral has four courses, including the famous Blue Monster, which for many years was a regular stop on the P.G.A. Tour, and it’s certainly easy for your buddies to get to. Miami International Airport is just a few miles away.
Like many golf courses and golf resorts, Doral has faced serious challenges from rising competition and a decline in the number of people playing golf. In 2012, the Trump Organization purchased Doral out of bankruptcy court for a hundred and fifty million dollars—Deutsche Bank provided a mortgage—and added “Trump National” to its name. Once Trump bought the property, he started an extensive renovation, which was completed in 2016. The Trump Organization claimed that the renovation cost more than two hundred million dollars, although there is no way to verify that claim. But, in any case, Doral, which has almost six hundred and fifty guest rooms, represented a major investment for Trump, and it is by far the biggest of his golf resorts.
Despite the renovations, however, Doral’s struggles have continued. They may well have intensified. In 2016, Cadillac pulled out of sponsoring the venue’s annual P.G.A. Tour event, which created invaluable publicity, and the organizers moved the tournament to Mexico City. (“I hope they have kidnapping insurance,” a miffed Trump commented.) Earlier this year, the Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell, two reporters who have done sterling work tracking Trump’s intermingling of his public duties with his private business interests, reported that Doral had seen a “steep decline” in its business since Trump decided to run for President. The resort’s “room rates, banquets, golf and overall revenue were all down since 2015,” the Post reported. “In two years, the resort’s net operating income—a key figure, representing the amount left over after expenses are paid—had fallen by 69 percent.”
In a statement provided to the Post, the Trump Organization claimed that the Zika virus and hurricanes had driven visitors away from South Florida. But the paper cited statistics showing that “competing resorts in the same region of Florida still outperformed the Trump resort in the key metrics of room occupancy and average room rate.” It also quoted experts who suggested that the Trump name might be hurting the Doral brand.
Whatever the cause of its troubles, Doral clearly needed a boost, and its proprietor has now provided it with a huge one: a federal contract to host next year’s G-7 meeting, which will bring the resort a substantial sum of taxpayers’ dollars and generate invaluable publicity for Doral all over the world. On Thursday, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s chief of staff, announced that the summit will be held at Doral in June of 2020. Trump will attend the meeting, along with the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, and sizable delegations from each member country.
Nobody should be surprised, of course. In making frequent visits to his commercial properties in Florida, New Jersey, and other locales, Trump has been funnelling federal dollars into his own coffers ever since he was elected. For example, Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s oceanfront resort in Palm Beach, charges its government visitors up to five hundred and fifty dollars a night for their rooms, according to ProPublica. Trump started pitching Doral as the G-7 venue as early as June. By August, when he attended this year’s G-7 meeting, in the French coastal city of Biarritz, the fix was already in, although he tried to portray the choice of Doral as the outcome of a proper search process rather than that of a Presidential edict. “They went to places all over the country, and they came back and they said, ‘This is where we’d like to be,’ ” he said. “It’s not about me. It’s about getting the right location.”
Since resigning as the head of the U.S Office of Government Ethics, in 2017, Walter Shaub has taken on the invaluable role of pointing out Trump’s many transgressions and challenging them alongside his colleagues at the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or crew. But, as Shaub pointed out to me in a conversation on Friday, the selection of Doral represents a “new low” in the President’s behavior. “It’s just so obviously a right-and-wrong issue,” Shaub said. “It’s the kind of thing that we see happening in completely broken nations. There is no definition of corruption that anyone could think of that would lead them to say this isn’t corruption.”
The even greater scandal is that Trump continues to get away with this sort of thing. If an ordinary government official awarded a valuable federal contract to a company that he had an ownership stake in, he could well be arrested and sent to prison. As President, Trump is exempt from the federal conflict-of-interest statutes—a glaring omission that must have delighted him when he found out about it. That means there is virtually no chance of the Justice Department even looking into his involvement in the choice of Doral. Of course, other officials who were involved might not be so lucky. Shaub has raised the question of whether they may have violated criminal provisions of the Procurement Integrity Act, which lays down strict rules for the awards of government contracts. On Friday, Shaub and his colleagues at crew called on the State Department’s inspector general to look into the matter.
Since the delegations to the G-7 meetings routinely pay for their own hotel rooms and other facilities, choosing a resort that Trump owns to host the summit looks like a clear violation of Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution, which states that no federal officeholder can receive any “present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind” from any foreign state unless he receives the consent of Congress. (An emolument is a payment in money or anything else of value.) But a number of legal challenges to Trump’s self-dealing based on the Emoluments Clause have already been bogged down in the courts.
In July, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in Richmond, Virginia, threw out a lawsuit that claimed that the President’s ownership of the Trump International Hotel, in Washington, D.C., which representatives of many foreign governments now patronize, violated the Constitution. The three-judge panel said that the plaintiffs—the Attorney Generals of Maryland and Washington, D.C.—didn’t have legal standing to enforce the Emoluments Clause. Last month, a separate panel of judges, from the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which is based in New York, issued a ruling that rejected the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning and reinstated another emoluments lawsuit, which crew had filed. But that case, and a third one in Washington, D.C., where the plaintiffs are a group of Democratic lawmakers, are proceeding at a very slow pace—too slow to stop Trump.
With the courts tied up and the Justice Department under the control of a Trump loyalist, responsibility for bringing Trump to book falls squarely on Congress, which already has a lot on its hands. The Democrats are busy pursuing “Ukrainegate.” Most Republicans on Capitol Hill are as cowed by Trump as they’ve ever been, and at least one of them has welcomed the decision to hold the G-7 meeting at Doral. “Selfishly as a Floridian, senator from Florida, I think it’s great any time our community gets that kind of attention,” Marco Rubio said.
That statement, along with the over-all lack of reaction from other G.O.P. officials, caused Shaub to despair. He said to me, “If the Republican senators shrug this off, then their message is that there is literally nothing they would say is corruption.” Judging by Trump’s recent actions, he has already received the message.
More than half a century after it opened, the Lakemont Presbyterian Church last year was eyeing a move. But all it had to sell was an outdated building on 1.7 acres bordering a sea of empty lots.
Needing cash for a new facility, the church appealed to a higher power: Augusta National Golf Club, the nearby host of this week’s Masters tournament. Within months, they had a deal. Just before Christmas, the club bought the church for $1.65 million.
.. Last year alone, a corporate entity connected with the club spent a combined $41 million on a pair of adjacent strip malls whose tenants include a Hooters restaurant and a Publix supermarket. In February, the club filed plans with the city to dig a large tunnel under the area’s main commercial thoroughfare, Washington Road, that will connect its primary land with other lots it has acquired.
.. The extent of the land grab, which vastly exceeds any previously reported estimate, has been obscured by the club’s use of limited liability companies. Rather than buying land in its name, the club has instead done so using more than a dozen LLCs, which have no other known purpose.
Though their names—such as BC Acquisition Co. and WSQ—are not overtly related, all have used Augusta National as their registered address. Some have listed the club’s general manager, Will Jones, as their registered agent. Several people who have sold to the club said it represented itself as Augusta National throughout negotiations, using the LLCs only on paperwork for the sales.
.. With no claim to eminent domain, Augusta National has expanded its territory by more than 75% using its foremost instrument of power: mountains of cash. In a city where, according to Zillow, the median listed home price is around $125,000, the club often pays several multiples of the assessed property value. That, combined with the millions of dollars the club has donated to area charities, has helped keep community opposition to a minimum.
My round at Bedminster with the man himself was a jaw-dropping preview of things to come
It was, by our count, the 85th day of his 435-day-old presidency that Trump has spent time playing golf. By now it’s background noise to point out that Trump insisted repeatedly on the campaign trail that he would rarely, if ever, play golf once he became president. That he’s played on average once every 5.1 days seems to undercut that particular bit of rhetoric. (Since it is invariably asked how that rate of play compares with Barack Obama, who Trump regularly maligned for the frequency of his golf outings: Obama played once every 8.8 days while president. Meaning that over the course of 500 days, Obama would have played 57 times and Trump 98.)
.. So what of those 60 days when he didn’t play? They break down like this
.. That leaves nine other days.
.. On those days, he tweeted a combined 56 times.
If you change the boards of a ship one plank at a time, and replace all boards, is it the same ship?
- Ship of Theseus, described by Plutarch
- meriological: identity is sum of its parts
- Spacial Temporal Continuity: the ship moves smoothly through time. There is no point in time when you can say you have a new ship
- but what if you steal the ship piecemeal?
- the problem is unresolvable, only resolvable by using some external principle