President Trump raised eyebrows after he posted five congratulatory tweets promoting a Monday announcement from the energy giant ExxonMobil, the company from which his secretary of state came to the administration.
The company had said earlier in the day that it was expanding its manufacturing operation along the Gulf Coast and creating more than 45,000 jobs in the region.
Initially, the White House posted a press release reiterating the ExxonMobil news. That press release contained a paragraph that appeared to be copied, almost word-for-word, from the Exxon announcement.
Trump, who wrote on Twitter on Monday that the move from Exxon showed that “we are already winning again,” then posted a nearly minute-long video praising the company soon after the administration’s release.
That video was pinned to the top of his account for a brief time.
“I’m very pleased to announce that the great company ExxonMobil is going to be investing $20 billion in the Gulf Coast and the Gulf Coast region,” the president said. “It’ll be 45,000 jobs, and they’re great jobs – $100,000 average. And this is something that was done, to a large extent, because of our policies and the policies of this new administration having to do with regulation and so many other things.”
“I said we’re bringing back jobs, and this is one big example of it,” Trump said. “I want to thank very much ExxonMobil. Special company. Special people.”
There is an incredible spirit of optimism sweeping the country right now—we're bringing back the JOBS! pic.twitter.com/BNSLvKiEVj
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 6, 2017
In the paragraph that appeared to be lifted from the ExxonMobil release and inserted into the White House’s release, it was made clear that the investment was part of a plan that began in 2013.
“Exxon Mobil is strategically investing in new refining and chemical-manufacturing projects in the U.S. Gulf Coast region to expand its manufacturing and export capacity,” the release said. “The company’s Growing the Gulf expansion program consists of 11 major chemical, refining, lubricant and liquefied natural gas projects at proposed new and existing facilities along the Texas and Louisiana coasts. Investments began in 2013 and are expected to continue through at least 2022.”
Exxon Mobil told Business Insider that it passed along the news to the White House hoping to shed light on its investment in the region.
“Our objective was to illustrate a very significant investment that we’re making in the Gulf Coast region, which is creating thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity – all thanks to the shale revolution,” Bill Holbrook, a senior adviser for Exxon Mobil, told Business Insider in an email. “We provided information about our announcement to the White House, and they decided they wanted to issue a congratulatory press release.”
The touting of Exxon’s move fit with Trump’s promise that jobs would be created in the country under his watch. But it entered a “gray area” in terms of ethically acceptable language and promotion from the White House of an individual business, experts said.
“They ought to be careful,” Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and former top ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, told Business Insider. “I mean, we would advise them to distance themselves, congratulate a company for the good work they do creating jobs, but not doing so much that it looks like you’re shilling for the company.”
Painter said it was “unusual” to be “mentioning a particular company this much.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, made his objection to Trump’s promotion of Exxon’s move clear in a statement to Business Insider.
“The White House has now become the mouthpiece of the oil industry – literally,” the Maryland Democrat said. “This is certainly the opposite of the president’s promise to drain the swamp.”
Adding to the appearance of an ethical conflict is the fact that Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was the CEO of Exxon Mobil until he was tapped to lead the State Department.
Tillerson took steps to clear up potential conflicts of interest before his Senate confirmation hearing, announcing in accordance with the company that he would receive a $180 million retirement package if he were confirmed. In exchange, he gave up the more than 2 million Exxon shares he would have received over the next decade, which could be worth more than the payment if Exxon’s stock appreciates in that time.
The left-leaning ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington still saw a potential conflict in the substantial praise of Exxon from Trump.
“The president went out of his way to praise the company that until very recently was led by his secretary of state,” Jordan Libowitz, a CREW spokesman, told Business Insider in a statement. “He went so far as to crib promotional material from the business. There appears to be a pretty significant conflict of interest there.”
Painter said the promotion of Exxon’s move should avoid significant scrutiny so long as Tillerson was not involved – and it did not appear he was. But Trump’s move enters the same territory as White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s touting of Ivanka Trump’s fashion brand in a Fox News interview last month, asking viewers to buy the product.
While Conway’s move was a “blatantly obvious” violation of the ethics rules in place, Painter said, Trump’s posts were more borderline. He said it was in Trump’s interest to have jobs created in the US and that it was fair to congratulate a company for doing so, just as Trump had done for other companies such as Carrier, LL Bean, and Ford.
“But at what point does that cross the line to where you’re shilling for a company that your secretary of state formerly has a close relationship with?” Painter said. “At a certain point, if this continues, could reach a point where the White House is advertising for these companies. And then the companies are in effect advertising through the White House.”
Before Monday’s tweets praising Exxon – and before he nominated Tillerson to lead the State Department – Trump had posted one tweet mentioning the company.
“Exxon donated $250g to Obama’s inaugural,” he wrote in 2013, linking to a Breitbart News story. “I guess the Democrats have no problem accepting money from ‘big oil.'”