[Image: via Twitter]
What are the legal implications of his decision? It’s complicated.
According to the Code of Federal Regulations, government officials cannot use their public office “for the endorsement of any product, service, or enterprise.” The law further states that officials cannot use their position to give the appearance that the government “sanctions or endorses” the activities of a private party. In this case, “sanctions” can mean to penalize, much like the U.S. has placed sanctions on Iran. The catch here is that the law applies to every single government employee besides the president and the vice president. It was designed that way because, while other employees of the White House can step aside due to a conflict of interest, forcing the president to do so would leave a massive power vacuum.
That said, the regulations provide us with a clear guide as to the right and the wrong way to use the government’s power. It makes it clear that there is a distinction between using one’s capacity as a government official and acting as a private citizen. Trump first tweeted under his private Twitter handle, @realDonaldTrump, to make this statement. “I interpret this tweet to mean that Donald J. Trump is acting in his personal capacity, not on behalf of the United States government,” Clark says. “He’s talking about his daughter and he doesn’t invoke anything about the government here.”
According to Clark, this initial tweet was not an ethical violation. The law ensures that government employees are afforded the right to act as private citizens. “It’s absolutely critical that government officials, in general, make communications in their personal capacity,” she explains. “And that the government not be able to shut down or gag government employees by prohibiting them from speaking on their own behalf.”
But all of that changed when the official @POTUS account retweeted Trump’s original tweet, because suddenly the official weight of the government was behind Trump’s criticism of Nordstrom’s decision to drop Ivanka’s products. “The @POTUS handle is seen as government property,” Clark says. “It’s an official government organ.”