The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice
Given the tumultuous nature of the Trump White House, with a new crisis surfacing every 48 hours or so, it’s hard to remember that it was only about ten days ago when the outrage du jour was first daughter Ivanka’s eponymous line of jewelry, dresses, shoes and handbags.
This installment of Trump family conflicts of interest began on February 2nd when Nordstrom announced it was dropping Ivanka’s products. Neiman-Marcus followed the next day.
Like her father, Ivanka is a shameless salesperson. Less than 12 hours after introducing him at the Republican National Convention, she was hawking her pink outfit as the “Ivanka Trump Sleeveless Studded Sheath Dress” for $138. And then there was the Trump family post-election 60 Minutes interview in November. The next day fashion reporters received a helpful photo noting that Ivanka had been wearing “her favorite bangle from the Metropolis Collection,” which could be yours for a mere $10,800.
Presumably he had better things to do, but it took the President of the United States six days before he commented on the Nordstrom matter. Using what passes for speech in the Trump administration, he Tweeted, “My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by Nordstrom…Terrible!”
At least from a business perspective, Trump could not have chosen a worse target. Never mind that Nordstrom has 75,000 employees in 40 states. Nordstrom is the 13th most admired company in the world, ranking higher than Facebook and Coke, according to Fortune. And Nordstrom is the only traditional department store to make Fortune’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For.
Before delving into the mortifying conclusion of this saga, it’s worth stepping back a bit to consider what can happen when companies become embroiled in politics. As I’ve written in my book and in this law review article, companies should be wary of getting in the middle of political fights because shareholders and customers are increasingly politically polarized. A brand that’s seen as favoring one party could be sideswiped with rage from customers who belong to the other.
For example, customers threatened to boycott corporate members of the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) such as Coke and Kraft because of the group’s stand on issues such as stand-your-ground laws and restrictive voter ID requirements. Shareholders started asking pointed questions about ALEC at annual meetings. As detailed by Source Watch, these efforts led to over 100 companies leaving ALEC, including Coke and Kraft.
Similar pressure was applied to companies who were traditional sponsors of the Republican convention. Several firms bowed out, including Wells Fargo, United Parcel Service, JPMorgan Chase, Ford and Walgreens.
But the Trump Organization, the Trump family and the Trump presidency are an entirely new universe in the overlapping of brands and politics. For example, as George W. Bush’s ethics lawyer, Richard Painter has said, the fact that there are buildings around the world branded with big gold letters saying “Trump” is a huge problem. They can be attacked not because someone dislikes the Trump Organization, but because they are trying to harm the United States.
When Painter and Norman Eisen, among other ethics experts, implored Trump to divest from his businesses, they weren’t trying to hurt Trump or his enterprises. They were trying to save the new President from a series of conflicts of interest which could take down his presidency, including the on-going violation of the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause.
Meanwhile, there are efforts to boycott not just Trump’s brand, but his daughter’s. One such initiative is the #grabyourwallet campaign, which began in response to Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape. They have an updated spreadsheet of which companies to boycott and why, and the list includes retailers carrying Trump products such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Dillard’s.
The day after the president’s Tweet, the irrepressible Trump aide Kellyanne Conway gave a brief interview about the Ivanka developments to “Fox & Friends.” Only a Trump loyalist like Conway could turn the White House briefing room into a studio for QVC. “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would say,” Conway chirped. Later, she added, “I’m going to give a free commercial here: Go buy it today, everybody; you can find it online.”
One does not need to be Socrates to realize that there might be a wee bit of a problem if a federal employee endorses private products. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the GOP chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Conway’s comments were “wrong, wrong, wrong, and there’s no excuse for it.” So hours after the Fox interview, Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, announced that Conway had been “counseled.” He didn’t elaborate on what, exactly, that meant.
No matter. Within days we were on to immigration raids and Michael Flynn’s chats with the Russian ambassador. Then that pesky Office of Government Ethics raised its head.
In a letter Monday to the deputy counsel who is the White House’s designated ethics officer, Walter Shaub Jr., the director of the Office of Government Ethics, wrote that “There is strong reason to believe Ms. Conway has violated the standards of conduct and that disciplinary action is warranted.”
Poor Ivanka. The march of retailers that have dropped her merchandise now includes Belk, T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, Sears, Kmart and Burlington. And her father’s staffers can’t even defend her.
Yet Ivanka, whose website says she offers “solution-oriented product,” should have realized long ago that selling her togs would now be seen as a political act. Nordstrom hasn’t stayed in business for 115 years by alienating customers or by selling things they don’t want. (Ivanka’s sales fell by 32 percent in the last fiscal year.) It’s too soon to tell what the Trump presidency will mean for the overall Trump brand. But Ivanka’s brand has taken a tumble.