Companies take note: Play ball with the Trumps, or be attacked by the White House

Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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The blurry boundaries between the Trump family’s business ties and the presidency of the United States have not become much more clear since Donald Trump took office.

Despite the president’s assurances he would separate from the Trump organization, he only started filing papers to do so days after the inauguration, his daughter Ivanka continues to attend official meetings with top executives although she has no named role in the government, and she appears closely tied to Trump business as well as her own despite a pledge to resign from any “operational and management” roles.

This morning (Feb. 8), Trump blurred those lines even further, attacking Nordstrom on Twitter for what he said was the department store’s unfair treatment of his daughter, whose fashion line the company recently announced it would stop carrying due to poor sales.

Trump tweeted at 10:51am from his own personal Twitter account that Ivanka has been treated “so unfairly by @Nordstrom,” a message that was then quickly re-tweeted by the official US presidential Twitter account @POTUS:

Image for article titled Companies take note: Play ball with the Trumps, or be attacked by the White House

White House press secretary Sean Spicer doubled down later in the day, calling Nordstrom’s actions “a direct attack on his policies and her name” in the daily press briefing, despite the company’s insistence that the decision was not a political one.

“He ran for president, he won and he is leading this country,” Spicer said. “For people to take out their concern about his actions or his executive orders on members of his family, he has every right to stand up for his family and applaud their business activities, their success.”

“When it comes to his family, I think he has been very clear how proud he is of what they do and have accomplished. For someone to take out their concern with his policies on a family member of his is just not acceptable,” Spicer said, and Trump “has every right to stand up to them.”

Nordstrom has reiterated that the decision was not a political one, and says Ivanka Trump herself was aware of it before it was announced. ”Over the past year, and particularly in the last half of 2016, sales of the brand have steadily declined to the point where it didn’t make good business sense for us to continue with the line for now,” a spokesperson told CNN. “We’ve had a great relationship with the Ivanka Trump team. We’ve had open conversations with them over the past year to share what we’ve seen and Ivanka was personally informed of our decision in early January.”

The White House’s attack on the company alarmed ethics experts, who said it was the latest example Trump is not upholding the standards expected of the office.

Trump is misusing government resources, said Richard W. Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the former chief ethics lawyer for the George W. Bush administration. Painter said that by condemning a particular business in his official capacity Trump is also “threatening” them, a message that is sure to resonate through every branch of government.

“I have never seen a president of the US, because of a purely personal dispute, use their official position to go after a company,” said Painter, who called the White House’s actions “ridiculous.”

The problem is much bigger than using government resources like a Twitter account for personal reasons, he said. “This is about abuse of power.”

“If there’s too much more of this the House of Representatives and the Senate are going to have to sit him down and ask him whether he wants this job or not,” Painter said. “It’s not going to be allowed to continue this way.”

Ivanka Trump’s brand, which includes a line of apparel, shoes, and jewelry, has become an unlikely lightning rod in debates about the Trump family’s ethics. After the Trump family’s first nationally televised interview following his election victory, Ivanka Trump jewelry sent out a message promoting the bracelet she was wearing, raising questions about possible conflicts of interest.

The GrabYourWallet campaign has been boycotting companies affiliated with the Trumps since October, including the Ivanka Trump brand. It initially claimed credit (paywall) for the sales decline that led Nordstrom to drop the line, though Nordstrom’s statement today about the brand’s performance indicates that the drop predated the boycott. Nordstrom’s shares fell after Trump’s tweet but quickly recovered and traded over 4% higher by the end of the day.

Off-price retailers TJ Maxx and Marshalls instructed employees to discard Ivanka Trump signs and not to display her line separately in stores, the New York Times also reported today (paywall). A spokesperson for the companies said the stores weren’t removing the products from the sales floor, and that they decide which merchandise to display based on a variety of factors.

Trump’s original tweet was sent out just 21 minutes after he was scheduled to be in his “daily intelligence briefing,” according to the White House schedule.

Executive branch employee standards established by executive order by President George HW Bush in 1989 include prohibitions against “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, or for the endorsement or any product, service, or enterprise,” and against “using official time other than in an honest effort to perform official duties and a prohibition against encouraging or requesting a subordinate to use official time to perform unauthorized activities.”