By Stephen Gandel
March 10, 2017

President Trump may be in Twitter trouble once again.

About 20 minutes after Friday’s jobs numbers came out, which showed that the economy added 235,000 jobs last month, White House Sean Spicer tweeted, “Great news for American workers. . .in first report for @POTUS Trump.”

A number of news organizations and at least one government official were quick to point out that Spicer’s tweet may have broken a government rule banning executive branch officials from commenting on jobs reports until an hour after the numbers are released. The rule dates back to 1985.

But along with Spicer, it appears Trump violated the long standing provision against either hyping or dismissing the jobs report—often considered the government’s most important regular economic report—within an hour after it is released. The president himself tweeted about the report at 8:41 a.m., 11 minutes after the report’s 8:30 a.m. release, and 11 minutes before Spicer commented himself.

The rule that Trump and Spicer seem to have violated was put in place by the Reagan administration and was adopted according to the rule “to preserve the distinction between the policy-neutral release of data by statistical agencies and their interpretation by policy officials,” and not to allow government officials to unduly influence financial markets before traders and investors themselves had time to process the information. The rule states that members of the “executive branch shall not comment publicly on the data until one hour after the official release time.”

(Related: White House Celebrates Numbers it Once Called Phony)

While former government ethics attorneys appeared to agree that Spicer’s tweet crossed the line, the president’s tweet may have been in the grey area. Former White House ethics czar under Obama Norman Eisen said it’s not clear to him that retweets are the same things as comments, but he says it’s a close call. “My advice would be: Don’t do it,” says Eisen. “But there’s a lot of things this White House is doing that I would say not to do.”

At a press conference on Friday, Spicer said that he understood the rule, but said that he didn’t think there was a problem because the news was already out there. But that of course doesn’t address the fact that White House officials are supposed to wait an hour before commenting.

Chris Lu, a lawyer and a former deputy secretary of Labor, says while Spicer and Trump won’t likely be punished for breaking the rule, the way the administration reacted to its first full jobs report in office is another bad sign. “There’s no penalty that goes with it, but it’s another example of how the Trump team doesn’t know—or care—about the rules.”

Austin Goolsbee, a former top economic advisor to President Obama says it could be worse than that. “The rules also restrict who is allowed to see the numbers the night before,” he says. “If they are going out flouting the rules on when they talk abou the numbers, are they also not following the rules on who can see them early or when they talk about them with other government official or outside ‘adviser’?” If the later was the case, Goolsbee says it would be a real problem.

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