The Trump Organization ordered golf course markers with the presidential seal. That may be illegal

A White House staff member adjusts the presidential seal before a tax bill passage event with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A White House staff member adjusts the presidential seal before a tax bill passage event with U.S. President Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump loves putting his name on everything from ties to steaks to water — and, of course, his buildings. But now the Trump Organization appears to be borrowing a brand even more powerful than the gilded Trump moniker: the presidential seal.

In recent weeks, the Trump Organization has ordered the manufacture of new tee markers for golf courses that are emblazoned with the seal of the President of the United States. Under federal law, the seal's use is permitted only for official government business. Misuse can be a crime.

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Past administrations have policed usage vigilantly. In 2005 the Bush administration ordered the satirical news website The Onion to remove a replica of the seal. Grant M. Dixton, associate White House counsel, wrote in a letter to The Onion that the seal "is not to be used in connection with commercial ventures or products in any way that suggests presidential support or endorsement."

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After listening to the new ProPublica/WNYC podcast "Trump, Inc.," a listener brought the signs to our attention.

Eagle Sign and Design, a metalworking and sign company with offices in New Albany, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky, said it had received an order to manufacture dozens of round, 12-inch replicas of the presidential seal to be placed next to the tee boxes at Trump golf course holes. Two tee markers are placed on the ground at the start of a hole on golf courses to indicate where golfers should stand to take their first swing.

"We made the design, and the client confirmed the design," said Joseph E. Bates, who owns Eagle Sign, declining to say who the client was.

An order form for the tee markers reviewed by ProPublica and WNYC says the customer was "Trump International." The Facebook page for Eagle Sign and Design shows a photo of the markers in an album with the caption "Trump International Golf Course."

It is unclear how many Trump International golf courses will feature the markers. The Trump Organization owns four courses with the "International" name in the U.S. and abroad, with a fifth course in Bali, Indonesia, in the works.

Eagle Sign makes a wide array of tee markers out of bronze and aluminum, and has made other signs for Trump's courses, according to its website. At some of Trump's golf courses, tee markers have sported the Trump family crest, which he took from the family that originally owned Mar-a-Lago without permission and then altered by adding his own name.

Ethics experts have long been on the lookout for signs that the Trump Organization would exploit the office of the presidency for commercial gain. Several said that using the presidential seal on the company's golf courses would fall into this category.

A law governs the manufacture or use of the seal, its likeness, "or any facsimile thereof" for anything other than official U.S. government business. It can be a criminal offense punishable by up to six months in prison.

The "law is an expression of the idea that the government and government authority should not be used for private purpose," said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University specializing in government and legal ethics said. "It would be a misuse of government authority."

The Department of Justice declined to comment on whether it was aware the seal had been used by entities outside the government. The White House and the Trump Organization did not respond to request for comment.

The presidential seal was first sketched out by President Millard Fillmore in 1850 and the current design — which shows a bald eagle with an olive branch in its right talon, a bundle of 13 arrows in the left, and a scroll bearing the words "E pluribus unum" in its beak — was chosen by President Truman and made official in a 1945 executive order.

The seal that adorns the president's speaking lecterns is handmade by the Institute of Heraldry, a department of the Army located at Fort Belvoir in Virginia that designs and provides guidance related to military and governmental symbols.

Versions of the seal have occasionally been put to personal use by past presidents. George W. Bush and Barack Obama had custom sets of golf balls made with the seal. Ronald and Nancy Reagan had a set of presidential china bearing the seal, and there have even been M&M's and jelly beans that featured the seal.

In this case, the difference is that a private company is using the seal, said Richard Painter, vice chairman of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government accountability group. Painter also served as an associate White House counsel during the George W. Bush administration.

"If we had heard of a private company using it for commercial purposes, we would have sent them a nasty letter," he said.

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