Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton all spent Christmas at Camp David. George W. Bush celebrated the holiday there a dozen times — four times when his father was president, and eight more during his own time in office.
But Donald Trump is spending the holiday at one of his own resorts, which he seems to prefer.
Trump has spent just a handful of weekends at the presidential retreat during his first year in office. And that’s raising questions about the future of the rustic presidential retreat in the Maryland woods.
There’s no sign announcing the entrance to Camp David. But John Kinnaird knows the spot by heart. He grew up in Thurmont, Md., the closest town. Kinnaird, who’s now the mayor, drove his pickup truck up a winding two-lane road through Catoctin Mountain Park to the front gate, 1,800 feet above town.
“You know, we’re only 60 miles from Washington,” Kinnair said. “But you might as well be on another planet, because it’s nothing like D.C. Nothing at all. It’s a whole different world.”
A world not many people have seen.
“Manicured lawns, roads, trees. Very humble, I think subtle cabins,” said Rear Admiral Michael Giorgione, who served as commanding officer at Camp David for part of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s presidencies. He’s written about his time there in a new book called Inside Camp David.
“There’s no press. There’s no public. there’s no one watching,” Giorgione said. “I think what I observed was them being themselves with their family, friends, whomever.”
It was originally Franklin Roosevelt’s idea to build a handful of simple cabins on a secluded mountaintop in northern Maryland. Roosevelt called it Shangri La.
“There are Americans that prefer to be in the solitude of the woods and fishing to bring clarity to their mind and to de-stress,” says Rice University historian and Roosevelt biographer Douglas Brinkley. “FDR was one of those men. So was Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter.”
It was Carter who made the place famous around the world. He hosted secret negotiations between Israel and Egypt that resulted in the Camp David Accords. President Reagan spent the most time at Camp David — more than 500 days.
But not every president has fallen in love with the place. President Obama spent fewer than 50 days there. And just before he took office, President Trump told a European journalist: “it’s nice, you’d like it. For about 30 minutes.”
Trump has visited Camp David a handful of times, including last weekend. But he’s spent far more time at his own golf resorts in New Jersey and Florida.
“If I owned Mar-a-Lago, I’d be there,” said John Brown, who owns a jewelry store in Thurmont, down the hill from Camp David. The area is pretty heavily Republican. And some business owners would like to see President Trump visit more often.
“I think it’s good for business,” said Donna Bollinger, the owner of Bollinger’s Family Restaurant. “People get excited when they know the roads are closed to the park and they talk about it.”
The recent lack of presidential interest has prompted speculation about the future of Camp David, which costs the government about $8 million a year to run. But there may be other ways to justify the expense.
The strategic value of Camp David may have declined since the days when its location was a closely guarded secret. But the retreat still remains an important part of the government’s relocation plans, says Garrett Graff, the author of the book Raven Rock, about the government bunkers that are designed to protect U.S. leaders in case of attack.
“It was, after all, where [then-Vice President] Dick Cheney spent a good portion of the weeks and months after 9/11 in that undisclosed location,” Graff said.
There are signs, though, that President Trump may be growing more fond Camp David. After a “wonderful” visit this past weekend, Trump called the retreat “a very special place” on Twitter.
If Trump is having a change of heart, there’s a precedent for that, too. President Dwight Eisenhower was planning to shut the place down when he visited for the first time. Instead, Eisenhower renamed it Camp David — after his grandson — and came back many times during his presidency.