Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ tweet about being kicked out of a restaurant broke the law, a former White House ethics chief has said.
Ms Sanders, the White House press secretary, was asked to leave Red Hen in Lexington, Virginia, because she works for Donald Trump.
Stephanie Wilkinson, the restaurant owner, said she had told Ms Sanders on Friday that her establishment “has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation”.
The senior Trump aide addressed the incident via her official White House Twitter account – telling her three million followers she “politely left” and the co-owner’s decision to kick her out “say far more about her than they do about me”.
“Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left,” Ms Sanders tweeted on Saturday.
“Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so”.
Walter Shaub, the federal government’s former top ethics watchdog, said Ms Sanders’s response was a clear violation of federal law.
“Sarah, I know you don’t care even a tiny little bit about the ethics rules, but using your official account for this is a clear violation of 5 CFR 2635.702(a),” Mr Shaub tweeted.
This is a reference to the law that stipulates government employees cannot use public office for private gain.
He added: “It’s the same as if an ATF agent pulled out his badge when a restaurant tried to throw him/her out.”
Mr Shaub also said the tweet violated the endorsements ban – arguing it was “an obvious corollary for discouraging patronage”.
He said: “Sanders used her official govt account to condemn a private business for personal reasons. Seeks to coerce business by using her office to get public to pressure it. Violates endorsements ban too, which has an obvious corollary for discouraging patronage. Misuse reg covers both.
“Opening sentences of 5 CFR 2635.702 cover both; 702(a) gives example of coercion; 702(c) gives example of endorsement. Also 2635.101(b)(8) bars preferential treatment, with obvious corollary for singling out. She can lob attacks on her own time but not using her official position.”
Ms Wilkinson said she asked Ms Sanders and her family to leave the restaurant – which is around 200 miles from Washington DC – because of former comments she made in defence of Mr Trump’s ban on transgender military members.
She said the restaurant had a number of LGBT+ staff and that some of them had expressed apprehension about serving the White House official.
“I’m not a huge fan of confrontation. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals,” she told The Washington Post.
The restaurant’s Facebook and Yelp pages have been bombarded with a range of one and five star reviews – with the saga sharply dividing opinion.
Some have heaped praise on the restaurant for taking a stand against the Trump administration but others have criticised the owner for being “intolerant.”
“If you are a whining liberal feel free to eat here, if you are a TRUE AMERICAN stay away,” said a Facebook reviewer.
“Thank you for not serving that liar,” chipped in another.
The ordeal comes says after two other members of the Trump administration – Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and White House senior adviser Stephen Miller – were forced to leave restaurants over protests at the administration’s controversial policy of separating families at the Mexican border.
Protesters heckled Ms Nielsen, Mr Trump’s homeland security secretary, while she was eating at a Mexican restaurant.
Demonstrators chanted “shame!” and noted the irony of the Trump official, who is responsible for implementing Mr Trump’s efforts to axe immigration, choosing to dine at a Mexican restaurant in Washington DC.
The new “zero tolerance” immigration policy of splitting families at the US-Mexico border has sparked worldwide condemnation and bipartisan criticism. Between 5 May and 9 June of this year more than 2,000 children were separated under the scheme, according to the Department of Homeland Security.