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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Trump vs. Nordstrom

Ivanka Trump (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Ivanka Trump (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Where is the duty of loyalty?

Hana Callaghan

By Hana Callaghan

In a fit of rage President Trump took to Twitter again this week—this time to take on a business in the private sector.  His anger was aimed at publically traded mega retailer Nordstrom for deciding to discontinue Ivanka Trump’s products due to lagging sales:

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

This was a private dispute--not government business.  However, the president’s tweet was sent out not only from his private Twitter account, but also from the official White House account as well.  Seemingly encouraged by their boss’ conduct, federal employees Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway defended the president’s rebuke of Nordstrom in their official capacities. Spicer exclaimed that Nordstrom’s decision was an attack on the president himself, while Conway went so far as to publically promote Ivanka Trump products.

Public officials and their staff have an ethical duty of loyalty to the public they serve.  The duty of loyalty not only requires that they put the public’s interest before their personal interest , but also that they refrain from  using their office or public resources for personal gain.  They also have a duty of fairness which means they must treat all constituents impartially.  President Trump’s tweet and the subsequent staff involvement violate all of these ethical principles.

Presidents’ words have power, particularly when uttered in their official capacities.  Their words can impact stock markets and can even turn public opinion against a particular crop. (Remember President George H.W. Bush’s declaration against broccoli in 1990?) In Trump’s case, do we want a business climate where companies are fearful of making business decisions and investors are fearful to invest because of intimidating presidential tweets? By engaging in Ivanka’s dispute with Nordstrom, the president is putting the interest of his family before the public’s interest in enterprise free from undue government intervention.

The president used public resources to advance his private dispute.  He used the White House Twitter Account to send out his attack and his government staff to defend his position.  Spicer and Conway may have violated federal law by getting embroiled in this private dispute on the taxpayers’ dime.  (In fact allegations of ethics violations have been filed against Conway in the Office of Government Ethics.) Although the Office of Government Ethics does not have jurisdiction over the president, good governance requires that he comply with the same ethical principles.

The president also has an ethical duty of fairness.  He is required to treat all constituents with impartiality.  His supporters are already rallying to boycott Nordstrom as a result of his tweet. By condemning Nordstrom his is putting the shareholders of the retailer at a disadvantage compared to other investors.

On January 11 the president declared that he would he step down from his business ventures and tend to the business of running the United States.  In that spirit, he would do well to stay out of his children’s businesses as well.

Hana Callaghan directs the government ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.  The opinions expressed are her own.

Feb 10, 2017

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