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Why the Trump Administration’s Comments About Businesses Matter

Sarah Sanders and Donald Trump’s tweets about the Red Hen restaurant have raised ethical questions.

Sarah Sanders stands behind a podium, speaking to reporters.
Sarah Sanders conducts a White House briefing in June.
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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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.

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.

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.

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.