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ILYA MARRITZ: Hey! It’s Ilya from WNYC with a Trump, Inc. podcast extra. Since you listen to this podcast, you already know that at the end of every episode, we ask you to send us tips, and you have delivered photos, documents, information. Thank you so much! Please keep those tips coming.
We wanted to give you a look at how we put those tips to use. So with me now is ProPublica’s Katherine Sullivan. She is a researcher who reads and catalogs all those tips you're sending. Hey, Katherine.
KATHERINE SULLIVAN: Hi, Ilya!
MARRITZ: So you have a little bit of a scoop for us. This is our first story from a listener tip, right?
SULLIVAN: Yes. And, first of all, I just want to say thank you to everyone who's sending in tips or questions. Um, I've been reading all of them. I might not have responded to you yet, but, I apologize. I am seeing them, so keep them coming.
MARRITZ: So what caught your attention about this particular tip that we're going to talk about today?
SULLIVAN: We got a tip through WhatsApp — um, it's a secure messaging service, uh, popular app — and we followed up on it and we found out that there is a company in Indiana that is manufacturing replicas of the presidential seal onto golf tee markers for a Trump golf course.
MARRITZ: Huh. Golf tee markers?
SULLIVAN: Golf tee markers.
MARRITZ: I’m not a golf guy. What — what are those?
SULLIVAN: In this case, they are round metal, made of aluminum, about a foot across. And they just sit in the grass to mark off where you stand to take your first shot.
MARRITZ: How do we know that these presidential seal golf markers are being made for the Trump Organization?
SULLIVAN: We actually saw an order form that had Trump International listed as the client for these golf tee markers. And then, to try and verify that, I called the company. I spoke briefly to the owner. Um, and he verified that they were, in fact, making them, and that they were golf tee markers, and that they would be placed on a golf course.
MARRITZ: “A” golf course?
SULLIVAN: Yes. He didn't exactly say which golf course they would be on. [PAUSE] So then if you go to the company's Facebook page — Eagle Sign and Design, Inc. — um, you'll see a album called “Presidential Seal,” and it has a very clear picture of the golf tee marker presidential seal. Um, and the caption of the album says “Trump International Golf Course.”
MARRITZ: Is there a golf course called Trump International Golf Course?
SULLIVAN: So, the Trump Organization owns about 17 or 18 golf courses. Some are under construction. And four of them are called Trump International Golf Course.
MARRITZ: Can you give me a sense of where those are?
SULLIVAN: The one in the U.S. is in West Palm Beach, Florida. There's one in Scotland, Dubai, there's one in Ireland, and there will soon be one in Indonesia — in Bali.
MARRITZ: So these seals could be going all over the globe? Potentially?
SULLIVAN: Yeah. We — we don’t know where they're going. Yeah.
MARRITZ: Huh. Eagle Sign and Design, Inc. — what do we know about them?
SULLIVAN: So, they're a company based in Indiana, and they make all types of metal signs for golf courses. And they've actually made signs like this for Trump's golf courses in the past.
MARRITZ: Oh, so they have a business relationship?
MARRITZ: Okay. So let's drill down on what might be improper here. ‘Cause you see the presidential seal all kinds of places. I don't know, like, Morgan Freeman-President of the United States-disaster movies, stuff like that. What's the big deal if a Trump golf course uses that seal on a golf tee marker?
SULLIVAN: The Official Seal of the President of the United States — its use is codified by law, and it's only supposed to be used in various specific instances. Those include, obviously, when the president himself is speaking in public office, or on Air Force One. This law says they're not supposed to be used for commercial purposes.
MARRITZ: And we're talking about the — the bald eagle with the arrows in his claws?
SULLIVAN: Right. It’s the presidential crest, which is the bald eagle. He has 13 arrows in his left talon and he has an olive branch in his right talon, and it's in a circle that says, “The Office of the President of the United States.”
MARRITZ: So the presidential seal here is kind of like the symbol of the Artist Formerly Known as Prince? It's only for use by that man at that time, yeah?
SULLIVAN: Yeah. That's maybe a good analogy for it. There have been cases of the presidents using the field on gifts, like on M&Ms or jelly beans. Both George W. Bush and Obama had presidential golf balls. But I talked to some lawyers about what the difference is, and they said the difference here is that those items were for personal use, and they were not for commercial use. They were ordered by the president as a person and not by a company.
MARRITZ: In the eyes of the law, the Trump Organization is just another private business. So how problematic or illegal is this?
SULLIVAN: Right. So I think that's kind of the fundamental question here. Um, so I spoke to Kathleen Clark — she’s an ethics lawyer, she's a law professor, um, and she had some thoughts about it.
KATHLEEN CLARK: It is an expression of the idea that public office and public authority should not be used for private gain. And here it — what it's doing is, it's imposing a prohibition, not just — not specifically on government employees, but on the private sector saying, “Don't you misappropriate these symbols — these government symbols.”
SULLIVAN: So I showed this picture to Kathleen Clark, the lawyer, so she could see it.
CLARK: And there it is. The presidential seal.
SULLIVAN: It’s made — it’s made from aluminum. Let's see, I have the dimensions.
CLARK: That’s okay.
CLARK: Wow. So let me just pull up the presidential seal.
CLARK: And, I mean, I know I'm not your fact checker.
SULLIVAN: But, yeah. Go ahead! No, go ahead.
CLARK: I just — I just want to get a sense of, like, how similar it is. [SHOCKED] Wow.
MARRITZ: Sounds like she hasn't seen anything like this before.
SULLIVAN: Yeah, that’s what — that’s what it sounded like.
MARRITZ: I remember, a few years ago in my Brooklyn neighborhood, there was a bagel joint that borrowed the symbol of one of our New York City subway trains, the F Train. And they got in trouble and they actually had to take that down — “F Train Bagels.” Is this sort of the same basic idea? Like, private businesses can't use certain kinds of precious public symbols?
SULLIVAN: I do know that, in 2005, The Onion — the satirical website — they had a column where they occasionally did radio broadcasts that they pretended were from the Office of George W. Bush. And they were using a replica of the seal — the presidential seal. And the Bush administration counsel — White House counsel — actually wrote them a letter and demanded them to take it down.
MARRITZ: Okay, so, in this case, we have the Trump administration and the Trump Organization on opposite sides of this issue. And as we understand the law, it would be illegal for a Trump golf course to use tee markers for members without some kind of special public dispensation from the president. And as far as we can tell, there has been none. [BEAT] Now that you've been sitting with this story for a few days, Katherine, what are your thoughts?
SULLIVAN: I’ve been thinking about this — and, especially recently, when Donald Trump Jr. was in India, he spent a lot of time ensuring people that there was no conflict of interest, and that the company was separate from his father's role as president. And this just seems like a really little thing that's really obvious that's mixing the President with the company.
MARRITZ: Right. So the President's private business, the Trump Organization, has commissioned this product in a way that maybe could be breaking the law. The law seems pretty clear on this issue and it's not like anybody's exactly harmed. But, then again, it's another example of the Trump Organization and the Trump White House just sort of blurring the lines. What have you heard from the Trump Organization? And from the White House?
SULLIVAN: We reached out to the Trump Organization, uh, to the White House, and to the Department of Justice, and they declined to comment.
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MARRITZ: Alright, so, big thank-you to our tipster, who wishes to remain anonymous. And if you have something to share, we are all ears! You can call or text us via Signal or WhatsApp — the number is (347) 244-2134 — or head on over to TrumpIncPodcast.org.
Katherine Sullivan, thanks a lot.
SULLIVAN: Thanks, Ilya.
MARRITZ: And one P.S. here — we looked up the specific relevant statute. It turns out a violation of this law is punishable by a fine or up to six months in prison, but the president can give his permission for the seal to be used for commercial purposes.
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