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Is Team Trump using the Food Box Program as a campaign prop?

As Election Day draws closer, the Trump administration is requiring the Food Box Program to include signed letters from the president.
Image: President Donald Trump signs his cabinet nominations into law on Jan. 20, 2017.
President Donald Trump signs his cabinet nominations into law on Jan. 20, 2017.J. Scott Applewhite / Pool via Getty Images file

A couple of years ago, Donald Trump toured Mount Vernon and argued that George Washington was insufficiently focused on branding when naming his Virginia estate.

"If [George Washington] was smart, he would've put his name on it," the president said, according to three sources. "You've got to put your name on stuff."

It's a principle Trump takes a little too seriously.

For example, as regular readers may recall, when the CDC mailed a coronavirus advisory to many U.S. households in March, the front of the large postcard read, "President Trump's Coronavirus Guidelines For America" in all-capital letters. It wasn't long before the White House faced questions about whether the mailing was intended, at least in part, to help promote Trump in an election year.

Soon after, the White House reportedly pushed to add the president's name to coronavirus relief payments.

It's against this backdrop that Politico reports today the Trump administration last week began "mandating that millions of boxes of surplus food for needy families include a letter" from Trump claiming credit for the program.

The USDA's $4 billion Farmers to Families Food Box Program has distributed more than 100 million boxes to those in need since May, with the aim of redirecting meat, dairy and produce that might normally go to restaurants and other food-service businesses. But organizations handing out the aid complain the program is now being used to bolster Trump's image a month before a high-stakes election -- and some even have refused to distribute them.

Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, told Politico, "In my 30 years of doing this work, I've never seen something this egregious."

The article added that the practice of adding the Trump-signed letter to the Agriculture Department's food boxes began a few months ago, but it wasn't until last week that the USDA "began requiring the letters to be added to all boxes distributed by companies with government contracts, according to six people familiar with the program."

Of course, many of the groups that help distribute the boxes are non-profit organizations that are prohibited under federal tax law from engaging in election activities. They're now left to wonder: if they go along with Team Trump's scheme, and they agree to include election-season letters from the president to the public, are they aiding the president's campaign? Is that legal?

Ideally, the administration wouldn't generate these kinds of questions because they wouldn't try to exploit food aid with political antics. Nevertheless, here we are.

Politico's report added, "The administration has denied that these moves are political or improper."

Of course. Team Trump? Using the levers of federal power to boost the president's hold on power? Engaging in improper political activities five weeks before Election Day? Perish the thought.