Someone in the Trump administration recognized that even for the Trump clan, the latest act of self-promotion went too far. As NPR spelled out:
“An article on a State Department website about President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort has been removed after criticism that it was an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds.
“Critics complained that resources were being used to tout the for-profit club, which Trump refers to as the Winter White House. The club, in Palm Beach, Florida, is held in Trump’s trust, of which he is the sole beneficiary.”
The State Department claimed that there was no intent to promote Trump’s property, but it was hard to see what possible other purpose it could have served. (”On the webpage about Mar-a-Lago, there was no discussion of policy. The page showed photos of the members-only club’s opulent rooms and exterior, and noted that ‘When he acquired the house, Trump also bought the decorations and furnishings that (original owner Marjorie Merriweather) Post had collected over the years, preserving Mar-a-Lago’s style and taste.’”
Trump had already doubled the new-membership fee for the club in January.
Jordan Libowitz of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington tells me: “This is very troubling and further shows the extent to which the Trump businesses are intertwined with the Trump administration. Things like this add to the constant ethical questions raised by the Trump administration’s behavior when it comes to the president’s portfolio.”
This time, the administration acted not just unethically but apparently illegally. “It manifestly violates 5 CFR 2635.702,” says legal scholar and litigator Laurence Tribe, referring to the statute that bars using public office for private gain. “Our emoluments case (challenging his receipt of foreign government monies derived from hotels) will put a stop to this sort of outrageous use of public office for private gain, which essentially puts the White House on the auction block and distorts U.S. government policy in the direction of foreign interests in ways that are opaque to public scrutiny.”
Ethics guru Norman Eisen concurs that it is a violation of this statute, “because the U.S. Government, the State Department, and the Embassies are using official channels to promote a private business, which happens to be that of their ultimate superior, the President. This is outrageous — more exploitation of public office for Trump’s personal gain.”
He adds: “Moreover, using government social media to promote Mar-a-Lago is of a piece with similar conduct by Kellyanne Conway promoting Ivanka’s business, which the Office of Government Ethics found to be a violation of the rule. Perhaps because that was, to OGE’s dismay, not punished, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin later did the same thing, promoting a film of his, and now this.” (The law states that “an employee shall not use or permit the use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public office to endorse any product, service or enterprise.”)
The damage cannot be undone by taking down the article. The bell cannot be unrung. This sort of blatant violation of ethical and legal norms will continue until the courts or Congress stop it. The latter won’t happen with a GOP majority in both houses, but the voters can change that in 2018.