An official State Department website is promoting President Trump’s private club in Florida, with help from a number of State Department Facebook accounts.
An April 4 post on U.S. Department of State: Economic & Business Affairs’ Facebook page characterizes Mar-a-Lago as the “winter White House” and links to an article on the State Department’s Share America site. That article — entitled, “Mar-a-Lago: The winter White House” — explains that the club “has become well known as the president frequently travels there to work or host foreign leaders” and provides some history about the property.
But what it doesn’t mention is that Mar-a-Lago is perhaps the most obvious vehicle Trump is using to profit off the presidency. Trump broke precedent by not divesting from his business interests when he became president. Shortly after he took office, Mar-a-Lago membership fees doubled to $200,000. Trump traveled to Mar-a-Lago seven out of the first 12 full weekends after his inauguration, and mingled with members on numerous occasions. The message is clear — the price of a Mar-a-Lago membership buys access to the president.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) drew attention to the Facebook post on Monday afternoon with this tweet:
— Ron Wyden (@RonWyden) April 24, 2017
That Facebook page isn’t the only official State Department account to promote Trump’s “winter White House” private club with posts that link back to the Share America article.
The US Embassy in Albania is also promoting Mar-a-Lago on its Facebook page: https://t.co/s8AuYWy8wy
— Paul Blumenthal (@PaulBlu) April 24, 2017
They’ve stopped even pretending. The US Embassy in the UK is promoting Mar-a-Lago on its website. https://t.co/C84tkA2Gs0
— Josh Schwerin (@JoshSchwerin) April 24, 2017
Unlike the White House or Camp David, Trump’s trips to Mar-a-Lago represent a huge cost for taxpayers — upwards of $3 million per trip. Nonetheless, Eric Trump recently compared his father’s visits to Mar-a-Lago to President George W. Bush’s trips to his ranch in Texas.
“I think being able to go to Mar-a-Lago, it is my father’s Crawford, Texas,” Eric, who is handling day-to-day management of the Trump Organization along with his brother Donald Jr., told the Irish publication Independent.ie. “Crawford was George W Bush’s ranch and Bush brought foreign leaders from all over the world [there]. He would go down to the ranch and they would drive a truck around and they would have fun and they would eat and that was his way of bonding.”
But Bush’s ranch wasn’t a private club. He and the foreign leaders he hosted were never placed in compromising situations where they had to handle a foreign crisis in full view of diners, as Trump and Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe did in February. Bush, who put his assets into a blind trust when he became president, didn’t charge hundreds of thousands of dollars for memberships to Crawford and then convey that buying one is a way to gain access to him.
In a statement sent to ThinkProgress, Norm Eisen, former Obama administration ethics czar, said the State Department’s conduct appears to be a violation of a federal statute prohibiting federal employees from using public offices for private gain.
“It is a violation of 2635.702 because the USG, the State Department, and the Embassies are using official channels to promote a private business, which happens to be that of their ultimate superior, the President,” Eisen said. “This is outrageous — more exploitation of public office for Trump’s personal gain. That, of course, is the kind of thing CREW and the other plaintiffs brought the emoluments case to stop.”
Eisen also put the State Department’s promotion of Mar-a-Lago in the broader context of a White House that doesn’t seem to care about problems created by using government platforms to promote private financial interests. On February 9, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway offered a shameless plug for Ivanka Trump’s brand during a Fox & Friends interview. Conway’s endorsement prompted the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) to send the White House a letter asking for an investigation and recommending that Conway be disciplined, but the White House decided to let it slide.
Then, late last month, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin plugged a movie he produced during an interview.
“Using government social media to promote Mar-a-Lago is of a piece with similar conduct by Kellyanne Conway promoting Ivanka’s business, which OGE found to be a violation of the rule,” Eisen added. “Perhaps because that was, to OGE’s dismay, not punished, Mnuchin later did the same thing, promoting a film of his, and now this.”
UPDATE: The State Department’s puff piece about Mar-a-Lago has been deleted from the Share America website, and this statement has been posted in its place: