Why Was the State Department Promoting Mar-a-Lago?

Multiple government websites have retracted posts that were effectively advertising the president’s property in Palm Beach.

President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Three weeks ago, ShareAmerica, a website run by the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs, published a post about Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s resort in Florida. The article is, at a glance, fairly innocuous, describing some of the Palm Beach estate’s notable features and offering a brief rundown of its history and how it came into Trump’s possession.

On Monday, however, the Bureau came under heavy fire when numerous media outlets noticed the piece’s presence not only on ShareAmerica’s website but on that of the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in the United Kingdom and other embassies’ websites and social-media accounts. The post, as those outlets noted, could constitute an advertisement for Mar-a-Lago, which would arguably violate both the Constitution’s Domestic Emoluments Clause, which bars the president from accepting remuneration from the federal government beyond his official salary, and federal ethics laws constraining the use of government platforms for promoting private businesses.

Within hours of Monday’s media reports, the State Department pulled the page and offered a brief clarification: “The intention of the article,” reads the page the article once occupied, “was to inform the public about where the president has been hosting world leaders. We regret any misperception and have removed the post.” Though the retraction was apparently meant to put the matter to rest, it only further highlights how blurry the line has become between official government business and advertisements for the Trump Organization’s properties—and how the Trump administration’s lax ethical standards complicate the calculus for even the most banal functions of modern governance.

Broadly speaking, ShareAmerica’s stated rationale isn’t just PR blather; it actually does offer a logical explanation for the article. The site’s explicit purpose is to provide information about American current affairs for international audiences. For the most part, the website’s content is typically innocuous, if always distinctly patriotic, ranging from explanations of how the U.S. government works to spotlights on cultural traditions like jazz music and March Madness. And the site “works with U.S. embassies and consulates in more than 140 countries to engage with people around the globe on U.S. foreign policy and American society,” which would explain why, by the time the article on Mar-a-Lago was spotted by reporters, it had been picked up by multiple embassies.

Under previous presidents, a property like Mar-a-Lago likely wouldn’t have been featured by ShareAmerica. It was, as the initial article noted, designated as a National Historic site in 1969 and entered into the National Register of Historic Places three years later. The property’s first owner, the socialite and cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, willed the building to the government in 1973 in the hopes that presidents might use it to meet with foreign dignitaries, only for ownership to revert to Post’s estate in 1981 when the government decided that maintenance costs were too high; Trump purchased the resort in 1985. Before Trump purchased it, Mar-a-Lago was, in other words, a minor landmark—perhaps not enough to merit a standalone article, but certainly an interesting bit of historical trivia.

The fact that Trump still owns the property during his presidency fundamentally changes this calculus. On the one hand, Mar-a-Lago is newly prominent because of the sheer amount of time that the president has spent there: Already, Trump has spent seven weekends in Palm Beach, and brought both the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Chinese President Xi Jinping with him to the property. In that sense, the property could arguably be compared to, say, Camp David, the Maryland compound frequented by every president since Franklin Roosevelt, or George W. Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch in Texas. Trump’s decision to spend so much time at Mar-a-Lago automatically elevates its importance to the point that it’s not entirely unreasonable for the State Department to decide that the resort is worth describing on an official government website.

What sets Mar-a-Lago apart, though, is that previous presidents haven’t profited from their weekend retreats. While Trump has nominally stepped down from his leadership roles within his many businesses, he still owns, and therefore profits, off of all of his properties. Mar-a-Lago is a clear illustration of this problem. With every visit to the resort—which charges an initiation fee of $200,000, plus $14,000 in annual membership dues—Trump ensures that its name and location will appear in nearly every article on the topic, not only raising its profile but also implicitly suggesting that any dues-paying member will have a chance to hobnob with a sitting president. That guests frequently post pictures of Trump from their weekend visits only further reinforces this impression.

It seems safe to say that the club is enjoying  a bump in attendance thanks to its newfound prominence (though this can’t be said for certain, since Mar-a-Lago is not required by law to release either its membership list or guest records). Perhaps out of recognition of this fact, the Trump Organization actually doubled the club’s initiation fees in January, shortly before Trump became president. Moreover, many ethics lawyers have argued that, should a representative of a foreign government pay to attend Mar-a-Lago, that payment will constitute a violation of the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, which makes it illegal for government officials to “accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

On top of that, the Trump White House’s efforts to adhere to the ethical standards set by its predecessors have been lackadaisical at best. On top of the president’s own increasingly long list of conflicts of interest, his decision to bring his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner into the administration has drawn continual criticism, especially given the potential problems their own business holdings create. Two high-ranking officials, the counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, may have violated ethics laws by effectively using their positions to offer advertisements, the former for Ivanka’s clothing line and the latter for The LEGO Batman Movie, a film he executive-produced. And multiple nominees for cabinet-level positions have withdrawn due to their unwillingness to divest from their holdings to avoid conflicts of interest of their own.

Amid these many controversies, ShareAmerica’s article on Mar-a-Lago, however inoffensive it may have seemed to the government employees who put it out, can’t not come off as as promoting one of the president’s properties. (The liberal advocacy group Common Cause certainly seems to think so, and has filed a legal complaint to that effect.) Even if the Bureau of International Information Programs earnestly meant for the piece to be merely informative, its effect is to further entangle the day-to-day operations of the federal government with those of the Trump organization.