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Bright and early on Monday morning, President Trump sent out a tweet attacking a small farm-to-table restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, calling its exterior “filthy” and saying it “badly needs a paint job.” Why? Because the owner of the Red Hen restaurant had asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave shortly after serving her dinner on Friday night, on the basis of her work for an “inhumane and unethical” administration.
The exchange became public over the weekend when Sanders tweeted about it, writing that the owner’s “actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.” Since then, the Red Hen’s Yelp page has flooded with comments supporting and criticizing the owner’s decision.
Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left. Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) June 23, 2018
The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 25, 2018
It’s the latest in what has become a steady drip of moments in which the president or someone in his administration has used their platform to promote or criticize a retailer, drawing ethical complaints along the way.
When Nordstrom dropped the Ivanka Trump brand in February 2017 due to poor sales performance, Trump responded on Twitter, saying that “my daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by Nordstrom.” In a Fox & Friends appearance a few days later, Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway plugged the brand. Her explicit suggestion that people buy Ivanka Trump products prompted a recommendation from the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) that the White House investigate the issue and consider taking disciplinary action.
Trump’s tweet also sparked ethical concerns from Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and California Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
Just a month before that, Trump had instructed his Twitter followers to “Buy L.L. Bean” after word came out that a Bean family member serving on L.L. Bean’s board of directors had donated to a Trump super PAC, inciting a boycott of the brand.
Following the Red Hen incident, former OGE director Walter Shaub weighed in to say that Sanders’s tweet was a “clear violation” of ethics standards.
Sarah, I know you don’t care even a tiny little bit about the ethics rules, but using your official account for this is a clear violation of 5 CFR 2635.702(a). It’s the same as if an ATF agent pulled out his badge when a restaurant tried to throw him/her out. https://t.co/Fj6OfBAdew— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) June 23, 2018
Shaub, who resigned from his post in July 2017, cited a rule — 2635.702(a) in the “Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch” — barring staffers from using their position or authority “to coerce or induce another person, including a subordinate, to provide any benefit, financial or otherwise, to himself or to friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.”
Sanders had tweeted from the official @PressSec account, rather than from her personal, verified @SarahHuckabee handle.
According to Shaub, Trump’s tweet about the Red Hen also raises ethical concerns.
p.s. Trump’s Red Hen rant would also violate the misuse of position regulation, if he followed the tradition of trying to act as though it applied. But this walking conflict of interest has chosen to hold himself to a lower standard than the federal workforce he supervises.— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) June 25, 2018
A Gallup poll conducted in May 2018 found that Americans gave Trump officials the lowest ethical rating of any administration dating back to Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Just 37 percent of people surveyed between May 1 and 10 said Trump ethical standards were “excellent/good,” the next lowest rating being Bill Clinton at 43 percent in January 1994. By contrast, 40 percent called the Trump administration’s ethics “poor.” In second place? The Obama presidency, at 32 percent in June 2013.