WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - The White House said presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway “has been counselled” after she promoted Ivanka Trump’s clothing line in a television interview, an apparent violation of a federal rule that bars public officials from using their positions to promote private business interests.
Her remarks, made on Thursday (Feb 9) on Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends programme, drew quick criticism from ethics lawyers and liberal activists.
Enforcing the rule will be left up to the White House itself – or a federal agency that has traditionally shown little interest in launching investigations, legal specialists said.
At a briefing later in the day, White House press secretary Sean Spicer would say only that Conway had been counselled. He refused to elaborate.
Conway’s unusual product endorsement from the White House briefing room came in response to reports that retailers, including Nordstrom, have been dropping Ivanka Trump’s apparel due to lack of sales.
“It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it,” Conway said during the interview. “I’m going to give it a free commercial here. Go buy it today everybody; you can find it online.”
On Wednesday, President Donald Trump lambasted Nordstrom for its decision, saying in a tweet that his daughter had been treated “so unfairly” by the company. “She is a great person – always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”
After initially posting the message on his personal account, he later retweeted it from the official presidential handle, @POTUS.
Ethics rules that date to 1993 bar officials from promoting products for the private gain of friends and relatives. The employee’s agency – in Conway’s case, the White House – is responsible for enforcing the rules, though the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), which publicly clashed with Trump last month over his own potential conflicts of interest, could recommend disciplinary actions, the regulation states.
The OGE took to Twitter to note that its website, phone and e-mail systems were overwhelmed with contacts from citizens “about recent events.”
The agency said that “when OGE learns of possible ethics violations, OGE contacts the agency, provides guidance & asks them to notify OGE of any action taken.”
It said it is “actively following” that process.
Robert Weissman, president of activist group Public Citizen, said Conway’s remarks demonstrate that the Trump administration “will use the government apparatus to advance the interests of the family businesses.”
“Anyone harbouring illusions that there was some separation between the Trump administration and the Trump family businesses has had their fantasy shattered,” Weissman said in a statement.
The OGE or White House could issue a reprimand, suspension, demotion or removal from office, according to federal regulations. They both also have the option of waiving the rule in particular cases – or requiring offending employees to receive ethics counselling.
Larry Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Centre, said in an e-mail that it’s unlikely the OGE would take up the matter because of its longstanding position of not being an investigative agency. On Twitter, Noble wrote that Conway may have violated rules.
Peter Flaherty, president of the conservative watchdog National Legal and Policy Centre, said Conway’s comments fell short of a violation.
“Any federal official would look kind of foolish endorsing a commercial project, but what Kellyanne Conway was responding to is the assault on all things Trump,” Flaherty said. “Her remarks were political and rhetorical, and not a product endorsement.”
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, said, “This ought to be an area of sensitivity for the White House.” He said that a warning and ethics counselling could help her “defend the family in an appropriate way without endorsing their products.”
Retailers that carry the first daughter’s collection have come under fire from the Grab Your Wallet campaign, which encourages shoppers to boycott stores that sell Trump goods. Nordstrom said the decision to quit selling Ivanka Trump-linked products was an economic one – they weren’t generating sales.
Conway called the boycott campaign “a huge failure” during her Fox interview. Shares of Nordstrom rose as much as 4.2 per cent on Thursday. Wednesday, the department-store chain’s stock gained 4.1 per cent to US$44.53 after the President tweeted about the company, its biggest single-day advance in two months.
Conway also praised Ivanka Trump’s entrepreneurial spirit and hinted that the first daughter would find a more official role in the administration working on policy issues she promoted on the campaign trail, such as maternity leave, child care and equal pay.