Trump Enlists the White House Staff to Boost His Family Business

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Sturm und drang, the German Romantic movement of the 19th century, contains—as Merriam-Webster defines it—“ rousing action and high emotionalism that often deal with the individual’s revolt against society.” The U.S. might today be involved in what might fairly be called Nordstrom und drang, a period of rousing tweets and high emotionalism that deals with the adminstration’s revolt against society’s conflict of interest rules.

The saga began when the retailer announced it was cutting ties with Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. The president, who evidently doesn’t have much else to do with his time, fired back on Twitter:

My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 8, 2017

Federal law prohibits a government employee from using “his public office for his own private gain or for that of persons or organizations with which he is associated personally. An employee’s position or title should not be used to coerce; to endorse any product, service or enterprise; or to give the appearance of governmental sanction.” But as Trump never tires of pointing out, the president is exempt from these laws, meaning he’s off the hook. (Norm Eisen, a former top ethics lawyer to President Obama who has been a frequent critic of Trump’s conflicts of interest, suggested that Nordstrom could, however, sue Trump under state laws against unfair business acts.)

Yet the onslaught of criticism against Nordstrom didn’t end with the protective father’s Twitter barrage. “This is a direct attack on his policies and her name,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said on Wednesday.

Then on Thursday morning, presidential aide Kellyanne Conway appeared on Fox and Friends. “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would tell you. I hate shopping, I’m going to go get some myself today,” she said.

Trump critics immediately leapt on that, arguing that it violated the laws against pushing products. Larry Noble, the general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center pointed to the endorsement law, as did former Obama administration official Chris Lu, and Eisen agreed. Trump, as president, might be exempt from the law, but Conway is not.

Richard Painter, who was top ethics lawyer in the Bush administration, said a statement like Conway’s would never have been allowed during that presidency.

“It is a violation of federal ethics regulations prohibiting use of public office for private gain for any government employee in an official speech, an official capacity…