WASHINGTON ― Before taking the oath of office as president of the United States, Donald Trump swept aside concerns about conflicts of interest arising from his family business with a clear assertion: “The president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
It only took three weeks into the real estate magnate’s presidency for this statement to be proven false.
Although the recent spat between Ivanka Trump and Nordstrom department store is minor in scope, it has prompted, at the very least, a question of whether White House adviser Kellyanne Conway broke ethics laws by urging people to buy the president’s daughter’s branded products.
But it is much more important than just that.
It also shows that the president is incapable of emotionally disconnecting himself from his family’s brand-driven financial interests ― and that this incapacity has trickled down to his staff. It reveals the fiction of any separation the president maintains from his Trump Organization while it is headed by his adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump.
Further, members of the president’s staff appear to believe that it is their jobs, as paid representatives of the president, to defend his personal and his family’s private business interests rather than the interests of the American people. There appears to be no conception in the White House that the family business is separate from the business of government.
“I actually think this is a really significant matter,” said Kathleen Clark, an ethics law expert at Washington University School of Law. “It seems to indicate that high-level personnel in the White House don’t understand the basics of why they’re there.”
The Nordstrom scandal developed over the course of eight days. The chain announced on Feb. 2 that it would no longer buy Ivanka Trump brand-products, based on their poor performance in the past year. There was a call to boycott companies that sold Trump products at the time, but Nordstrom denies its decision was based on that protest.
Six days later, the president used his personal Twitter account to blame the store’s decision on politics, without any evidence.
“My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person ― always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!” he tweeted.
This tweet was subsequently retweeted by the official, government-owned @POTUS Twitter account.
Then, at Wednesday’s daily press briefing, the White House communications director and press secretary, Sean Spicer, attacked Nordstrom in his official capacity as a government spokesman.
Like the president, Spicer, without evidence, insisted Nordstrom ceased to carry the president’s daughter’s product line because, “they have a problem with [Trump’s] policies.”
“For someone to take out their concern with his policies on a family member of his is just not acceptable,” Spicer added. Like the president, he ignored Nordstrom’s own explanation for why the line was pulled.
Next came Conway’s error. In a Thursday morning interview with “Fox & Friends,” she told viewers, “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff! I hate shopping, and I will go get some myself today.”
She added, “I fully, I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”
“The fear all along has been the concern that Trump intends to use the presidency not to pursue policy goals but to enrich himself and his businesses and his family,” Clark said. “And that’s what’s going on this week. That’s what he’s doing. And that’s what his subordinates, his appointees are doing.”
Federal ethics laws prohibit executive branch employees, including Conway, from promoting any private companies or commercial products. (These laws exempt the president, the vice president and their spouses.)
Conway’s statement was so clearly out-of-bounds that Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, actually denounced her.
Chaffetz and his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), sent a letter calling on the Office of Government Ethics to review Conway’s violation. A group of 40 House Democrats added their concerns in a separate letter. In addition, six Democratic senators urged White House counsel Don McGahn to stop any similar scandals from happening in the future.
On Thursday, Spicer would only tell reporters that Conway was being “counseled.” Clark described this as a common euphemism for being “scolded.”
Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), one of the 40 Democrats urging OGE to act on Conway’s statements, said that Conway’s error isn’t the real problem.
“What she did is predictable when the person at the top of your organization has this willful disregard of conflicts of interest and ethical standards,” he said.
The president set an example when he failed to fully separate himself from his business and declared that he could not have a conflict of interest. Similarly, his eldest daughter has not separated herself from her business ― despite saying she would do so when her husband, Jared Kushner, took a position as a White House adviser.
Trump’s attitude that he “can’t have a conflict of interest” has trickled down to members of his staff, who now treat his personal business interests as though they were the interests of the American people.
“The whole tone has been set by the man at the top, the president,” said Richard Painter, former White House adviser to President George W. Bush.
Not only did this lead Conway to commit a possible ethics violation, but it also led Spicer to attack a company for its private relationship with the president’s daughter’s business.
“Sean Spicer seemed not to understand that there is a difference [between] the federal government and Donald Trump,” Clark said.
The president has holdings that could present much greater conflicts, and have larger consequences, than the Nordstrom debacle. A foreign nation could interfere with his business holdings overseas. The General Services Administration could cancel its lease with the president to run a hotel out of the federal government-owned Old Post Office building.
The president, along with Spicer and Conway, are communicating that the president’s family business interests are an extension of the president. What is the message corporations and countries take from this?
“It sets the tone that you shouldn’t mess with Trump Inc., and if you want to kiss up with this White House, you’re going to do business with Trump Inc.,” Painter said.
Painter added, “They need to think seriously about whether he wants this job as president ― whether he’s going to make adjustments on his own investments and distancing himself financially, as well as emotionally, from the Trump business empire.”
So far, not so good.