Ethics Office: 'Disciplinary Action Is Warranted' Against Kellyanne Conway

In a letter to the White House, the government agency warns that “there is strong reason to believe that Ms. Conway has violated the Standards of Conduct.”

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The U.S. Office of Government Ethics recommended Monday that the White House investigate Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, for possible disciplinary action after she publicly endorsed Ivanka Trump’s products in a national television interview last week.

“Under the present circumstances, there is strong reason to believe that Ms. Conway has violated the Standards of Conduct and that disciplinary action is warranted,” OGE Director Walter Shaub wrote in a letter to White House Deputy Counsel Stefan Passantino on Monday. Democratic members of the House Oversight Committee released the letter to the public on Tuesday.

The specter of possible ethics sanctions against one of the most visible figures in the Trump White House comes as the administration grapples with the fallout from Monday’s firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, whose brief tenure was dogged by reports he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the inauguration.

Conway’s controversy began two weeks ago when Nordstrom announced it would drop Ivanka Trump’s brand from its department stores on February 2, citing flagging sales. Other retailers followed suit shortly thereafter. Six days later, President Trump fired back by claiming his daughter had been “treated so unfairly” by the company.

The following day, Conway appeared on Fox News’s Fox and Friends morning show from the White House press briefing room and defended the president’s remarks. She also claimed the executives who had dropped Ivanka’s merchandise were trying to target the president through his daughter’s brand. Then she offered a ringing endorsement.

“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would tell you,” she then added, “I hate shopping and I’m going to go get some for myself today.” After one of the hosts asked about grassroots efforts at a boycott, Conway went even further. “It’s a wonderful [clothing] line, I own some of it, I fully—I’m going to give a free commercial here: go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online,” she said.

“Those facts, if true, would establish a clear violation of the prohibition against misuse of position” under the standards of conduct for executive branch employees, Shaub wrote. He also pointed out that his office’s regulation on misuse of position uses a hypothetical example in which a presidential appointee appears in a television commercial to promote a product. “Ms. Conway’s actions track that example almost exactly,” he noted.

Conway’s comments, delivered from inside the White House, prompted immediate criticism from ethics experts and former White House officials, some of whom warned Conway’s remarks appeared to violate federal ethics laws and regulations. At a press briefing a few hours later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Conway had been “counseled” without offering further explanation. In his letter, Shaub noted that his office hadn’t received notification from the White House of any disciplinary actions taken against Conway, despite Spicer’s statement. He asked the White House to respond by February 28.

Fortunately for Conway, the watchdog agency’s bark is worse than its bite. The Office of Government Ethics lacks the power to investigate or discipline Conway on its own, but it can issue non-binding recommendations for executive agencies. OGE can also notify the president if those agencies fail to impose disciplinary procedures of their own, an option that implies the threat of direct White House intervention for inaction.

“However, such notice would be ineffective in this case because any decision not to take disciplinary action will have been made by the President,” Shaub noted in a separate letter to Republican and Democratic leaders on the House Oversight Committee.