Standing in front of the White House seal this morning, Counselor to President Trump Kellyanne Conway endorsed Ivanka Trump’s clothing line and told the television audience that they should “go buy Ivanka’s stuff.”
“It’s a wonderful line, I own some of it, I’m just gonna give a free commercial here, go buy it today, you can buy it online,” Conway said on Fox & Friends.
Now, ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) are asking for an official investigation into whether Conway’s endorsement violated ethics laws.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chair of the House Oversight Committee indicated that he and Cummings, who is the ranking member, will jointly refer the matter to the Office of Government Ethics. Chaffetz, who as Chairman has power over the Committee’s actions, has previously been extremely reluctant to investigate allegations around Trump’s conflicts of interest.
Rep Cummings on the joint letter with Chaffetz: “This was a no brainer…you just can’t get a worse case than this. He had no choice really"
— Alex Moe (@AlexNBCNews) February 9, 2017
Federal employees are prohibited using their public office to endorse products, according to ethics regulations.
Speaking on MSNBC, Chief Ethics Lawyer to President George W. Bush George W. Painter said that Conway’s behavior was “illegal under the standards of conduct for federal employees.” Former general counsel and acting director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) Don W. Fox called Conway’s comments “jaw-dropping.”
“This rule has been promulgated by the federal Office of Government Ethics as part of the Standards of Conduct for all executive branch employees and it applies to members of the armed forces as well,” Fox told the Washington Post.
Cummings sent a letter to Chaffetz earlier on Thursday asking him to officially refer the matter to the OGE. Cummings called Conway’s comments “a textbook violation of government ethics laws and regulations enacted to prevent the abuse of an employee’s government position.”
“Since the Committee has direct jurisdiction over the ethics laws applicable to White House employees, I request that the Committee make an official referral of this matter to the Office of Government Ethics and request that it report back to the Committee as soon as possible with its findings,” Cummings wrote, requesting an answer from Chaffetz by the end of the day Friday.
Later Thursday, the AP reported that Chaffetz publicly called Conway’s comments “clearly over the line, unacceptable.”
BREAKING: House Oversight chairman calls White House aide's promotion of Ivanka Trump brand `clearly over the line, unacceptable'
— The Associated Press (@AP) February 9, 2017
Chaffetz told a reporter for NBC that he and Cummings will jointly ask for a referral on Conway’s comments.
Chaffetz says he & Cummings are "jointly going to send a letter to the White House and Office of Government Ethics for a referral” on Conway
— Alex Moe (@AlexNBCNews) February 9, 2017
Chaffetz has previously refused all calls from House Democrats to launch an investigation into the ethical conflicts posed by the President’s continued ownership of his businesses.
CREW also filed a complaint about Conway’s comments with the OGE and the White House Counsel’s office, calling for “an investigation into Ms. Conway’s conduct and take any necessary disciplinary action against her.”
“The law is clear that public officials should not use their offices for their own private gain or the private gain of others,” CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said. “It’s hard to find a clearer case of that kind of misuse of office than we saw today.”
In their complaint, CREW points out that not only does Conway’s endorsement appear to violate the ethics regulations regarding personal endorsements, but may also violate appropriations guidelines.
Conway’s official time is paid for by appropriations from taxpayer dollars, as is the upkeep for the White House Briefing Room from which she took the interview.
“Appropriations for the Executive Office of the President were not made for the purpose of endorsing commercial products,” reads the complaint. “By endorsing Ms. Trump’s products while acting in her official capacity, Ms. Conway appears to have violated the statute.”
The CREW complaint also questions whether, like previous administrations, the Trump administration has issued a policy making it clear that the regulations against using public office for private gain “apply to all White House employees, including the President.”
“It is not known if President Trump has issued a similar policy for his administration, but if he has, Ms. Conway’s endorsement of Ms. Trump’s products would also likely violate it.”
Trump himself yesterday weighed in on his daughter’s private business dealings on Twitter, both on his @realdonaldtrump account and on the official @Potus Twitter account, which is passed from President to President.
Trump has previously bragged that the conflict of interest regulations that govern all other government employees do not apply to him. Trump has also gone directly against the OGE’s advice in refusing to divest from and set up a blind trust for his businesses.
As a White House employee, questions over disciplinary action of Conway and the standards of her employment are largely under White House control.
In the White House Briefing on Thursday, Spicer was extremely brief on the subject of whether Conway had violated an ethical boundary.
“Kellyanne has been counseled, and that’s all we’re gonna say. She’s been counseled on that subject, and that’s it,” said Spicer, before moving on, suggesting that the White House had potentially given Conway a slap on the wrist, but likely no more.