For months, ethics mavens have continually criticized members of the Trump administration for their habit of promoting the president’s private businesses while on the job. Ethics experts have slammed this bully-pulpit advertising as an unacceptable abuse of White House power to further private interests, while some supporters of President Trump insist that these incidents are merely innocent mistakes, growing pains of a nascent administration still adjusting to the myriad conflicts of interest rules.
This back-and-forth may be missing the bigger picture, however, if other parts of the federal government begin promoting the First Family’s businesses too — as seen with the State Department’s recent blog post on Mar-a-Lago. The post came dangerously close to advertising — quite literally — a way to curry favor with the president: joining his private club.
Naming the Palm Beach resort, which Mr. Trump bought in 1985, the “winter White House,” the article describes how its original owner gifted the estate to the US government in the hopes that presidents would host foreign leaders there. The post — which was published in early April but only gained attention last week — was removed from the State Department website on April 24 after a flurry of negative media coverage.
Federal ethics rules are designed to guard against this type of shameless promotion of private business. The Office of Government Ethics strictly prohibits federal employees from using their public office to endorse any “product, service, or enterprise.” These regulations — intended to prevent the “use of public office for private gain” — ensure that a public employee cannot use a taxpayer-funded soapbox for commercial benefit solely because he or she works in a position of power.
When Kellyanne Conway told Fox News viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” — a plug for the First Daughter’s retail line — earlier this year, she committed a textbook violation of the misuse of public office rules: “promoting a product on television” is the department’s first example of prohibited conduct.
The State Department’s post is, arguably, more concerning for two important reasons.
This is the first time we’ve seen promotion of the Trump brand extending past the president’s inner circle of White House staff and to the larger federal government. The president’s closest advisors have already been accused of violating the federal ethics regime, casting doubt that a meaningful separation between President Trump and the Trump Organization exists. It’s far more concerning to observe this behavior from those beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, especially from the diplomatic corps or the career civil servants at the State Department.
Second, the State Department’s blog post too closely resembles an advertisement for a stay at the Palm Beach country club as a way of ensuring access to the president. There are legitimate concerns that foreign diplomats will patronize Trump businesses abroad in an effort to “indirectly lobby” the President, and witnessing our diplomatic corps openly peddle the Trump brand does little to quell these fears.
The criticism following Ms. Conway’s TV debacle in February highlights why these types of endorsements are troubling: using the presidency to promote the Trumps’ private businesses sends the message that Mr. Trump and his associates are shamelessly growing their personal wealth via their public offices while opening themselves up to various conflicts of interest, thereby undermining public confidence in the integrity of our government’s highest office.
Viewed on its own, this blog post could be seen as a one-off mistake. But, when viewed in context — the president’s scathing criticism of Nordstrom on Twitter for dropping Ivanka’s products, Conway’s plug of Ivanka’s fashion line, and at least one foreign ambassador tweeting about his stay at a Trump-owned hotel — the Mar-a-Lago post appears to be the latest in a disturbing trend of ethics violations that are incrementally blurring the line between the president’s private businesses and the office in which he serves.