WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. State Department website on Monday took down an article it published this month about President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort which had prompted criticism from prominent ethics experts that the piece represented use of public office for private gain.
The original article was posted on April 4 on the “Share America” website, overseen by the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. It was also shared on the websites and social media pages of several U.S. embassies, including those in the United Kingdom, Portugal and Albania, as well as the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.
Although it was posted weeks ago, the article surfaced on Monday when it was shared widely on social media.
The State Department removed the article’s content around 7 p.m. on Monday, replacing it with a short statement saying its intention “was to inform the public about where the President has been hosting world leaders. We regret any misperception and have removed the post.”
The article described the history of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, and its size, status as a registered historic site, interior decoration and oceanfront location.
“By visiting this ‘winter White House,’ Trump is belatedly fulfilling the dream of Mar-a-Lago’s original owner and designer,” socialite and cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, the article said. “Post’s dream of a winter White House came true with Trump’s election in 2016.”
A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House did not know about the article in advance, and declined to comment further.
Norman Eisen, ethics chief under Trump’s predecessor, Democratic President Barack Obama, said on Twitter that the article violated a federal statute barring the use of public office for private gain.
Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer for Republican President George W. Bush, said on Twitter that the post constituted “use of public office for private gain pure and simple.”
Scott Amey, an attorney with the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, said the post may not be an outright endorsement of Mar-a-Lago, but that “someone inside of the government should have said ‘no’ to the story and further helping Trump make money while serving in the White House.”
The “Share America” article said that in 1973, Post willed the estate to the U.S. government, intending it to be used as a winter White House for the president to entertain foreign dignitaries.
But Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter never used the property, and in 1981 the government returned the estate to the Post Foundation because it was costing too much to maintain, according to the article.
Trump, a businessman turned politician, bought the property in 1985, and turned it into a club open to dues-paying members 10 years later, it said.
The club has a $200,000 membership fee, and Trump has hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the resort. Trump’s frequent visits there have come under scrutiny due to their expense and questions of how he has handled sensitive national security information while there.
Trump maintains ownership of his global business empire, though he has handed off control to his two oldest sons, an arrangement that ethics watchdogs said would not prevent conflicts of interest.
Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Steve Holland in Washington; editing by Jonathan Oatis