Americas

From Trump’s Mar-a-Lago to Facebook, a national security crisis in the open

From Trump’s Mar-a-Lago to Facebook, a national security crisis in the open
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Akie Abe (right, partially obscured) attend dinner with US President Donald Trump his wife Melania, and Robert Kraft (2nd-left), owner of the New England Patriots at Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida on Feb 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters
Published: 10:30 AM, February 14, 2017

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump and his top aides coordinated their response to North Korea’s missile test on Saturday night (Feb 11) in full view of diners at Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida — a remarkable, public display of presidential activity that is almost always conducted in highly secure settings.

The scene — of aides huddled over their computers and the president on his cellphone at his club’s terrace — was captured by a club member dining not far away and published in pictures on his Facebook account. The images also show Mr Trump conferring with his guest at the resort, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan.

Shortly before Mr Richard DeAgazio, a new member of Mr Trump’s club, snapped the pictures, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile into the sea off its eastern coast. Mr DeAgazio posted his pictures to Facebook as the two leaders and their staff reviewed documents and worked on their laptops, using cellphones as flashlights.

“HOLY MOLY !!! It was fascinating to watch the flurry of activity at dinner when the news came that North Korea had launched a missile in the direction of Japan,” Mr DeAgazio wrote later on Facebook, describing how the two leaders “conferred and then went into another room for hastily arranged press conference”.

“Wow.....the centre of the action!!!” Mr DeAgazio wrote in the posting. The scene at Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, was first reported by CNN. Mr DeAgazio did not respond to a call seeking comment.

The fact that the national security incident was playing out in front of members of the public drew swift condemnation from some Democrats, who said it was irresponsible for Mr Trump not to have moved his discussion to a more private location, away from public view.

“There’s no excuse for letting an international crisis play out in front of a bunch of country club members like dinner theatre,” Rep Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, said in a Twitter message.

Discussions about how to respond to international incidents involving adversaries like North Korea are almost always conducted in places like the White House Situation Room, which have high-tech protections against eavesdropping. When presidents are away from the White House, they often conduct important business in a “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility”, or SCIF, a location that can be made temporarily impervious to eavesdropping.

Mr Trump and his White House aides who joined him for dinner, including Mr Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, did not relocate the discussion to such a facility.

The president’s dinner with Mr Abe was also a departure.

Mr Trump’s predecessors have almost always held such working dinners in private facilities, away from members of the public. In 2013, former President Barack Obama held a dinner with China’s President Xi Jinping at the Sunnylands resort in Palm Springs, California. But the dinner between the leaders was out of sight of members of the public.

But Mr Trump appears to enjoy presenting the spectacle of his presidency to those at his privately held club, where members pay US$200,000 (S$284,537) to join. While the club is not open to the public, Mr Trump’s dinner with Mr Abe was in the club’s dining room, where any member or their guests were likely to be.

Individual club members can invite guests, submitting a list of names of table guests for security clearance to officials ahead of time.

In addition to the pictures of the North Korea conversation, Mr DeAgazio also posted pictures of himself standing with a person he described as Mr Trump’s military aide responsible for carrying the nuclear “football” — the briefcase with codes for launching nuclear weapons.

After news reports were published about Mr DeAgazio’s Facebook account, the account was deleted, along with the photographs. THE NEW YORK TIMES