Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ
“What do most men do when they retire?” Greg Gutfeld asked the other hosts of Fox News’ The Five, three days before President Barack Obama left office in January. “They play golf. But what if you've been playing golf for the last eight years of your job? He should go back and work. He should get a job.”
A week later, when his colleague Eric Bolling claimed that President Donald Trump had already “accomplished possibly more than former President Obama accomplished in many, many years,” Gutfeld had a ready rejoinder: “That's what happens when you don't play golf.”
Right-wing media figures like Gutfeld spent years turning Obama’s golf hobby into a ready-made attack. They cited the president’s golf game as evidence he hadn’t “really been that engaged,” and claimed that false rumors that he was a Muslim circulated because he “is much more diligent at golfing than he is at church attendance.”
They criticized Obama for playing the sport during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while the economy was “doing really poorly,” during a Washington, D.C., earthquake, after a series of tornadoes hit the southeastern United States, following an earthquake in Japan, instead of attending the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, and in lieu of visiting the Gulf Coast to assess the response to the 2010 oil spill (which he had already done). In the eyes of these critics, the president shouldn’t play while “men and women in uniform are still getting killed in Afghanistan.”
Those criticisms never made much sense.
“Presidents have regularly turned to golf as a way to relax from their abnormally stressful job,” as CNN has noted. Given that presidents carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, it seems pointlessly cruel to begrudge them the leisure they need to recuperate. The specific criticism from the right wing -- that Obama was playing golf instead of doing something more important -- also never added up: When one is president, there is literally always something critical happening somewhere in the world. And indeed, polls showed that the American people largely found this line of criticism against Obama unfair.
When Trump because president, conservative pundits suddenly stopped complaining about the “Golfer in Chief.” But 66 days after taking the oath of office, Trump has already taken 14 trips to golf courses.
That’s still a far cry from the 1,200 and 800 rounds that Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Dwight Eisenhower played during their tenures in office. But there are a number of factors that make Trump’s golf habit worthy of note.
First of all, Trump was one of those conservative media figures who regularly lashed out at Obama for golfing. “Trump was adamant that his predecessor, Barack Obama, spent too much time on vacation while president,” The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted last month. “He tweeted his objections 38 times from 2011 to 2014.”
On the presidential campaign trail, Trump continued to slam Obama in office. During one 2016 event in Virginia, he claimed that if he was elected, "I'm going to be working for you; I'm not going to have time to go play golf." Obama has “played more rounds just about than people who play professionally on the PGA Tour,” he complained at another rally.
Meanwhile, just over two months into his presidency, Trump is visiting golf courses at a rate that translates to 77 trips per year, much more frequently than his predecessor, who played around 40 rounds per year. (The national average is reportedly 19 rounds. I have never played a round of golf.) And Obama didn’t play a round as president until April 26, 2009, more than three months into his tenure. By that time, he had negotiated through Congress and signed a $787 billion economic recovery bill, an expansion providing health care to 4 million children, and legislation making it easier to sue employers for wage discrimination based on gender. President Trump is still looking for his first legislative victory.
Second, Trump’s golf trips are part of his broader tendency to visit properties that bear his name, which he has done “on 21 of the 66 days he has been in office, meaning that for the equivalent of three full weeks of his just-over-nine weeks as commander in chief, he has spent all or part of a day at a Trump property,” according to the Post. From the White House, Trump has made three trips to Trump National Golf Club in Potomac Falls, VA; in Florida, he has visited Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach 10 times and Trump National Golf Club in Jupiter once.
Meanwhile, the president is calling his Mar-A-Lago resort -- which doubled membership fees following Trump’s inauguration -- the “Southern White House” and making regular weekend trips to his home there. And he’s stopped in at the Trump International Hotel in Washington for two meals as president. All of these businesses benefit from the publicity they received when Trump visits. And their success ultimately benefit Trump and his family financially.
“It is normal for presidents to get out -- and it can be a boost for small businesses across the city and the country,” Robert Weissman, the president of the nonprofit Public Citizen, told The New York Times. “But with President Trump, he spends his down time as a walking advertisement for his businesses. It is a major departure from historic norm and degradation of the office.”
Third, Trump’s White House is actively seeking to hide from the public whether he’s playing golf or not. Aides refuse to confirm to White House correspondents whether the president is playing golf when he visits his golf courses; reporters instead are piecing together what happened from social media posts of those Trump is playing with, concluding that he has played golf at least 12 times.
“The level of secrecy around golf is new for the presidency,” CNN noted. “While the Obama administration was hesitant to allow cameras to regularly get shots of the President hitting the links, they would tell reporters who joined the President for each round. Trump's nascent administration has not done that.”
In fact, press secretary Sean Spicer has tried to convince reporters not to assume that Trump is playing golf when he visits his golf courses. “Just because you go somewhere doesn’t necessarily mean you did it,” he told reporters last week. “So, on a couple of occasions, he’s actually conducted meetings there, he’s actually had phone calls. So, just because he heads there, it doesn’t mean that that’s what’s happening.”
Of course, the White House has places to conduct meetings and make phone calls. What it doesn’t have is a golf course.
Finally, it is difficult to apply to Trump the argument that the president is working really hard and so deserves whatever leisure time he wants. The president is spending several hours a day watching cable news. He was so manifestly ignorant of the details of his top-priority policy agenda item, repealing and replacing Obamacare, that he lacked “sufficient command of the policy details to negotiate” on the legislation with members of Congress. It wouldn’t hurt him to spend more time learning how to do his job, before he gets all of us killed.
Nonetheless, the conservative commentators and Fox News hosts who spent years demonizing Obama’s golfing have gone silent under Trump.
The change has been so dramatic that on one broadcast last month, The Five’s hapless liberal host, Bob Beckel, complained that he “used to listen to Eric and Kimberly talk about how much -- Greg -- how much golf Obama played.” But he noted that Obama hadn’t played a round in his first several months in office while “Trump didn't even wait a week.” “Well, he does have excellent company that he golfs with,” Kimberly Guilfoyle responded. “He was with Rory McIlroy this weekend.”
In fact, Fox is helping Trump’s White House hide his golf habit. Late Sunday afternoon, after Trump visited his Virginia golf club on two consecutive days, the network tweeted:
“The sad thing about this tweet is that it really would be news if Donald Trump was at the White House working this weekend,” Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum commented. “But no: Trump played golf at his club in Virginia this weekend, so it's not clear what Fox was up to here. Perhaps they meant to say that by 5:26 pm on Sunday, Trump was back in the White House.”
Fox could have told its audience the truth about the president’s weekend. But after eight years of priming its fans by attacking Obama for playing golf, the network knows exactly which buttons that would push.