President Trump’s former ethics chief said the president’s decision to show off a $40 Trump campaign merchandise baseball cap on a visit to storm-struck Texas raises ethics concerns.
The president was pictured wearing the Official USA 45th Presidential Hats in two pictures released by the White House over the weekend, and in TV footage of an official visit to the state Tuesday. Both hats, described as “Proudly Made in the USA,” are sold as merchandise via the Trump campaign website.
“Any ethics issues raised by using official White House press releases on Hurricane Harvey to show off Trump’s re-election campaign merch?” tweeted Bloomberg analyst Anna Massoglia early Wednesday.
To which Walter Schaub, former Director of the Office of Government Ethics, simply replied, “Yes.”
The previous day, campaign group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, questioned whether Trump was seeking to use the pictures to advertise the hats.
“Even removed from the hurricane, it’s pretty inappropriate,” CREW spokesman Jordan Libowitz told CNN.
He stopped short of accusing Trump of breaking ethics rules though, saying: “There is a difference between what is technically legal and what is ethically right.”
Schaub, who was appointed government ethics chief in 2013, accused Trump of reducing America to a “laughing stock” when he left the office in July.
He slammed the president for unprecedented conflicts of interest, and for not disentangling himself from them.
Apart from questions of conflict of interest, others expressed astonishment at the price of the hats Trump wore, which retail at almost twice that of a New York Knicks cap.
President Trump, with a well-known fondness for golf hats bearing slogans, toured post-Hurricane Houston on Tuesday wearing white headgear emblazoned with “USA.” It had a U.S. flag on one side, and on the other side — maybe this was the giveaway — the numeral 45. Trump is the 45th president.
It was merchandise from his re-election campaign’s online store. On a webpage not updated since January, the campaign sells “the Official USA rope hat worn by 45thPresident-Elect Donald J. Trump, himself” for $40 – available in red, camouflage or white. And yes, it was made in the U.S.A., according to the website.
The White House issued a press release with photos of the white-hatted president meeting with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other officials. A White House spokeswoman seemed to dismiss concerns about merchandising, citing the hat’s USA logo.
But Fred Wertheimer of the watchdog group Democracy 21 said Trump has blended his business activities with his White House duties.
“There’s no apparent line for the president on how his office can be used for financial benefit, for profit going into his pocket or money going into his campaign,” Wertheimer said. “In essence, he’s now licensing the presidency.”
The Trump re-election campaign, not Trump himself, profits from sales of campaign merchandise.
While most other presidents in recent decades decided to avoid conflicts of interest by separating themselves from their investments, Trump has chosen to maintain ownership of his hundreds of businesses. Critics contend that when he uses his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida and Bedminster golf club in New Jersey as presidential retreats, he is also promoting them.