In a move that is being interpreted as a rebuke of a Trump tweet about L. L. Bean, Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub issued a “Refresher on Misuse of Position”:
the rule against misuse of position prohibits employees from:
Using public office for their own private gain for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom they are affiliated in a non-government capacity;
Endorsing any product, service, or company;
The previous day’s Tweet from Trump included the sentence, “Buy L.L. Bean!”
Thank you to Linda Bean of L.L.Bean for your great support and courage. People will support you even more now. Buy L.L.Bean. @LBPerfectMaine
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2017
Trump’s “Buy L.L. Bean” — which incidentally linked to the wrong Twitter account — reflects a pretty obvious dynamic between Trump and his critics. If you tout or endorse Trump, as Linda L. Bean did, and get criticized or attacked for it, the president-elect will come out swinging and praise you and your company to the high heavens. You have to be particularly credulous to think of this as a personal endorsement of the company’s products; raise your hand if you think Trump has ever used some of L. L. Bean’s camping gear.
Is it an ethically problematic area when a president or president-elect starts touting a particular company? Sure. But how different is “Buy L. L. Bean” from Obama heading to the factory of a soon-to-be-defunct solar-panel manufacturer and declaring, “It’s here that companies like Solyndra are leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future.” That’s not an endorsement?
When the federal government owned lots of GM stock, the leader of the free world also wore the hat of a car salesman. President Obama would occasionally joke about his role, declaring at the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, “GM will rise or fall on the quality of its products –like the taut, athletic design of the new Buick Enclave. Its French-seamed leather and warm wood tones make the Enclave more than transportation. It’s a modern driver’s retreat. Come on, work with me here. I’ve got cars to move, people!”
Obama visited the Saft America battery plant in Florida to tout it as a stimulus success story, praised Master Lock in the State of the Union, saluted Adidas for partnering with high schools that want to change from Native American mascots, and credited Gap for raising its minimum wage. The White House held a “demo day” for 32 start-up companies.
What differentiates “praising” a company from “endorsing” it? We need a standard that’s clearer than, “it’s bad when the presidents I don’t like do it but okay when the ones I do like do the same.”