Maine retail giant L.L. Bean was thrust back into the polarized national debate over Donald Trump on Thursday when the president-elect praised board member Linda Bean and urged followers to “Buy L.L. Bean.”

Four days after trying to extract the company from a political boycott, L.L. Bean officials were again disavowing any political involvement after family heiress Linda Bean went on the “Fox & Friends” television program Thursday morning to defend donations she made to a pro-Trump group that exceeded limits set by the Federal Election Commission.

Soon thereafter, Trump took to his favorite media platform to tweet the following to his 19.6 million followers: “Thank you to Linda Bean of L.L. Bean for your great support and courage. People will support you even more now. Buy L.L. Bean.”

Among other fallout from the news of Linda Bean’s campaign contribution has been a call to boycott L.L. Bean by an anti-Trump organization called Grab Your Wallet.

The firestorm of attention has put the 105-year-old Freeport provider of clothing and outdoor gear in a national spotlight. The Washington Post reported that Kellan Terry, a data analyst at Brandwatch, said online mentions of L.L. Bean have surged 900 percent since Wednesday, jumping from 2,200 to 22,000.

The dust-up was covered by The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate and other national media.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage also got in on the action Thursday.

The attention comes days after L.L. Bean tried – in vain, it now seems – to distance itself from the controversy over Trump by issuing a statement that the company “does not endorse political candidates, take positions on political matters, or make political contributions.”

L.L. Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem reinforced the company’s position late Thursday.

“Despite these recent developments, L.L. Bean’s position remains the same: no political endorsements or contributions. Period,” she said via email. “As always, our top priorities remain making boots, selling products and serving our customers.”

Social media and political communications expert Vincent Raynauld of Emerson College said the series of events illustrates how “you never know what is going to happen with the president-elect.”

“You can read in L.L. Bean’s Facebook post that they were trying to move past this, so I don’t believe the tweet this morning was thrilling to them,” said Raynauld, an assistant professor in Emerson’s Department of Communications Studies. “I suspect that this crisis was regional in nature before, but, with Donald Trump’s tweet this morning, the crisis has become national.”

MONEY, POLITICS, TV APPEARANCE

The Federal Election Commission said last week that Linda Bean contributed $30,000 to Making America Great LLC – nearly half of the $66,862 the group spent on signs, online, radio and television ads – when she was limited by law to an individual contribution of $5,000. It also said Diana Bean contributed $15,000 to the organization. Linda Bean has a sister named Diana Bean.

In response, the pro-Trump group began taking steps to transform itself from a regular political action committee to a super PAC. There are no limits on individual contributions to super PACs.

Trump might have been prompted to tweet out the support Thursday morning by Linda Bean’s appearance on “Fox and Friends,” a Fox News show. Linda Bean said “bullies” were targeting her for supporting Trump.

“It’s bullying me personally,” she said. “It’s bullying now the company that didn’t give the donation. I gave the donation personally to a PAC to support Trump.”

Bean told the show’s hosts that her cousin made donations to President Obama’s campaign four years ago, which caused no public outcry or repercussions against the company. She was referring to Leon Gorman, the former president and chairman of L.L. Bean who died in September 2015. According to FEC records, Gorman contributed $70,800 to the Obama Victory Fund in 2012 along with an additional $73,700 in contributions to primarily Democratic or left-leaning candidates, PACs and super PACs.

“And he gave many more times the amount I did,” Bean said. “But the point is we should have that privilege. We live in America. This is a free country.”

The “Fox and Friends” interview did not include any discussion of the fact that the FEC has deemed the amount of Linda Bean’s contributions to be over the legal limit, whereas all of Gorman’s contributions were within the legal limits. Nor was it clear in the exchange with host Maria Bartiromo when Linda Bean was talking about the companies she owns independently, such as Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine, and when she was talking about L.L. Bean, of which she is one of 50 family owners.

Linda Bean returned to Fox News later Thursday, appearing on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” She again defended her donations and clarified that she was speaking as an individual, not as a representative of the company.

“We never do that,” she told Carlson when he asked if L.L. Bean endorses candidates. “I’m speaking for myself here.”

Jeff Bernier of Oxford leaves L.L. Bean's flagship store in Freeport on Thursday. Bernier said he was pleased that company board member Linda Bean financially supported Donald Trump's campaign.

Jeff Bernier of Oxford leaves L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport on Thursday. Bernier said he was pleased that company board member Linda Bean financially supported Donald Trump’s campaign. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

UNWANTED ATTENTION AND IMPACT

New York University professor Irv Schenkler, who teaches public relations and crisis management, said some companies use social media or other platforms to communicate their commitment to certain values, such as environmental stewardship, employee diversity or conservative principles.

Schenkler questioned, however, what purpose Linda Bean’s comments will serve for L.L. Bean.

“It’s hard to rationalize it from a shareholder-value point of view as well as social-responsibility perspective,” Schenkler said. “When CEOs or board members or senior executives step into the breach to express purely personal opinions, they become lightning rods for an array of competing and contrasting interest groups. Some brands court controversy. But L.L. Bean? I don’t think so.”

L.L. Bean shoppers Lisa and Woodrow Irish, of Greene, said Thursday that the political views of individual company board members should not affect public perceptions of the businesses they’re involved in.

“What’s the business got to do with her views?” Woodrow Irish said, adding that the call for a boycott “just makes me want to get my Bean boots quicker.”

The Irishes, who lean conservative but consider themselves independents, said political discourse in the United States has become unnecessarily divisive. “People want everybody to think like they do, but we all deserve to think for ourselves,” Lisa Irish said.

Sharon Bennett, of Camden, said her decision to shop at L.L. Bean was unaffected by the news, but that she was heartened by company Chairman Shawn Gorman’s recent statement disavowing any connection between the retailer and Linda Bean’s campaign contributions.

“I was very pleased to hear that the company wasn’t going to be involved in politics. That seems very appropriate,” Bennett said.

GOV. LEPAGE SUPPORTS LINDA BEAN

Both Schenkler and Raynauld said the company will likely monitor the public response before deciding whether additional action is needed. But Schenkler pointed out that other companies – including PepsiCo and New Balance, which operates several factories in Maine – have had similar “eruptions” only to see the controversy pass.

The controversy was still playing out Thursday afternoon when LePage followed up on his earlier tweet with a written statement in support of Linda Bean.

In addition to sitting on the L.L. Bean's board of directors, Linda Bean owns and operates Linda Bean's Perfect Maine, a conglomeration of high-end lobster shacks, vacation rentals and other enterprises.

In addition to sitting on the L.L. Bean’s board of directors, Linda Bean owns and operates Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine, a conglomeration of high-end lobster shacks, vacation rentals and other enterprises. Press Herald File Photo

“Linda Bean is a great friend of the first lady and I, and the L.L. Bean brand is impeccable,” he said. “This company is not only an iconic brand in our state, but it is also a world-renowned retailer that represents the best of Maine and the U.S.A. The first lady and I want to thank Linda for all she has contributed as a citizen and businesswoman to the state of Maine. It is reprehensible how progressives have bullied her and her family’s company, and I encourage Mainers and customers around the globe to continue their strong support of L.L. Bean.”

Shannon Coulter, the founder of Grab Your Wallet, said Wednesday that the grassroots organization would consider removing L.L. Bean from its boycott list if Linda Bean stepped down from her position on the board. On the Fox show, Bean said resolutely that she will not step down.

Linda Bean has not responded publicly to the FEC allegations beyond a comment left on the Portland Press Herald’s report on the FEC action, saying that she thought the group was a super PAC, that she contributed $25,000 to the organization, and that she hasn’t received any notice from the FEC. Attempts by the Press Herald to reach her were unsuccessful Thursday.

Initially, the FEC said Linda Bean contributed $60,000 to the pro-Trump PAC. However, the PAC subsequently filed an amended report with the FEC indicating that Linda Bean contributed $30,000, not $60,000. It also said Diana Bean contributed $15,000 to the group, and that the remainder of the $60,000 came from four previously undisclosed contributors, including the PAC’s chairman, David Jones, The Associated Press reported.

L.L. Bean’s 10-member board of directors includes six family owners among whom Linda Bean, her son Nate Clark, and Shawn Gorman are publicly known, company CEO Stephen Smith, and three independent directors, Hugh Farrington, Matt Moellering and Lynn Wolverton Kilbourne.

Among the named board members other than Linda Bean, only Gorman and Clark made political contributions during the past two presidential campaign cycles.

Gorman contributed a total of $5,000 to the Republican National Committee and Republican candidates Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Mitt Romney. Former L.L. Bean President and CEO Chris McCormick, who was a board member until February 2015, contributed a total of $6,450 to Fiorina, independent Sen. Angus King and Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Clark, vice chairman of the board, contributed $500 to Fiorina in 2016.

COMPANY: BOYCOTT PUSH ‘MISGUIDED’

The group Grab Your Wallet has added Bean to its list of companies that it is encouraging consumers to boycott because of Linda Bean’s support of Trump. Linda Bean has contributed to conservative causes in the past and unsuccessfully ran for Congress in Maine twice.

The company has spoken out against the boycott, with Gorman calling the effort “misguided.”

“No individual alone speaks on behalf of the business or represents the values of the company that (founder L.L. Bean) built,” Gorman said.

Trump campaigned frequently in Maine, while Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton made one brief appearance in the state more than a year before the election.

Clinton won the statewide vote and the vote in the state’s 1st Congressional District, giving her three of the state’s four electoral votes. Because Trump carried the 2nd Congressional District, which covers central and northern Maine, he won one of the state’s electoral votes.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.