Federal ethics laws are not ambiguous when it comes to White House officials: they can't use their position "to endorse any product, service or enterprise." Ivanka Trump nevertheless endorsed Goya Foods this week, because its CEO faced pushback after praising her father.
When the presidential daughter faced criticism for effectively doing an advertisement for a private company, Donald Trump went a little further, releasing a photo of himself endorsing Goya with several of its products arrayed on the Resolute Desk.
It's not that Team Trump is ignorant about ethical limits; the trouble is, the president and his team simply don't care.
The same is true about using the White House as a campaign platform. Andrea Mitchell noted this week that during her career, she's covered seven presidents, but she's "never seen" a sitting president "use the Rose Garden or any White House platform to launch a political attack against his opponent for reelection."
Donald Trump, Mitchell added, has demonstrated a willingness to hold "a campaign rally barely disguised as a faux news conference" at the presidential mansion.
An NBC News report added late yesterday that American leaders have traditionally tried to "draw a line between campaign and official business while seeking a second term." Now, Trump is all but erasing that line.
[W]hile every incumbent in some way blurs that line between the official and the political, Trump stands apart from his predecessors in that, his aides say, he doesn’t even see a line.
Trevor Potter, a Republican and a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who is now the president of the Campaign Legal Center, talked to the New York Times about these changing standards.
“Every White House I have known until this one -- of both parties -- has rigorously worked to separate campaign activity and official business,” Potter said, adding, “Traditionally, the White House counsel’s office has policed campaign activity to keep it off the White House grounds and out of official events. What we are seeing now is a complete overturning of these ethical and legal norms.”
If this were simply a matter of Donald Trump attacking Joe Biden from a White House podium with a blizzard of often-ridiculous attacks, it would still be a problem. But what makes this situation so jarring is its breadth.
Ethical limits are supposed to prevent White House officials from doing advertisements, but Trump and his team don't care.
Ethical limits are supposed to prevent White House officials from dispatching cabinet secretaries to help boost allied lawmakers' political campaigns, but Trump and his team don't care.
Ethical limits are supposed to prevent White House officials from using the Rose Garden as a prop for campaign rallies, but Trump and his team don't care.
Pressed last year on her own ethical transgressions, Kellyanne Conway told reporters, “Blah, blah, blah." She soon after added, “Let me know when the jail sentence starts,” she added.
It was an informative aside: Conway seemed to be suggesting that unethical behavior is fine, just so long as it's not literally criminal behavior that could lead to someone's arrest.
This helps capture the mindset of a White House team that's convinced itself that it can play by its own set of rules. Ethical limits are intended for others, the argument goes, not for the president and his allies.