White House counselor Kellyanne Conway found herself in hot water Thursday for telling Americans to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” in a Fox News interview.
Questions arose as to whether she violated federal ethics rules that prevent White House employees from promoting products for people “with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.”
It led to the filing of ethics complaints — including a letter from the Republican and Democratic heads of the House Oversight Committee, who requested a review of Conway by the Office of Government Ethics, an independent government watchdog.
The top ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, however, told Business Insider that the kerfuffle over Conway’s comments should pale in comparison to what President Donald Trump did a day earlier, when he attacked retail giant Nordstrom for dumping Ivanka’s fashion line from its offerings.
Nordstrom dropped Ivanka’s line last week, telling Business Insider the brand was cut from its offerings based on poor performance.
“This issue is the tone being set at the top by the president where he’s going to use the official twitter account, he’s going to use his position as president to seek to intimidate Nordstrom, to attack Nordstrom for having dropped Ivanka’s clothing line,” said the former Bush lawyer, Richard Painter, now a University of Minnesota law professor.
“And so … I think what he did was a lot more egregious in that he attacked a company for its decision in the free market that it didn’t think the clothes were selling well.”
He added that instead of “reining him in,” White House staff is, instead, “jumping into the fray” to help defend Trump’s actions.
Painter said the House Oversight Committee wrote the letter regarding Conway, while not addressing Trump’s tweet from Wednesday, because it “doesn’t want to confront the president.”
“The Republicans on the hill — and I’m a Republican and I’ve been very unhappy about this — they are not willing to confront the president and say that he has got to make some fundamental changes in his approach if he wants to keep this job,” Painter said.
“Intimidating people because of their religion, intimidating the press, trying to intimidate federal judges, and now jumping into the free market and trying to intimidate companies for decisions they make in the free market about what they want to buy and what they don’t — that’s not what the president should do in the United States,” he added.
Painter, who has criticised the president persistently since his election for not doing enough to sever potential conflicts of interest, said the White House is “fronting” for the Trump Organisation during the three weeks Trump has been in office. He said the actions of the president Wednesday, followed by Conway’s Thursday comments, “have illustrated that.”
“We haven’t elected a king or a fuhrer or whatever,” Painter said. “He’s a president. There’s a constitution. And the problem is the members of Congress are not willing to, at least the Republicans are not yet willing to face the fact that there needs to be a fundamental attitude adjustment on the part of the president if he wants to keep this job.”
“And, so, they can make all the stink they want about Kellyanne Conway, but she simply followed what he was doing,” he continued. “As a matter of fact, she didn’t go anywhere near as far as he did. She didn’t attack anybody. She didn’t seek to intimidate anybody for the decisions they make in the free market. Which he did. What he did was particularly reprehensible.”
He added that he did not approve of what Conway said, and that “no one” in the White House should be “shilling” for a company or a product.
Although Ivanka — whose husband, Jared Kushner, is a senior White House adviser — did not take a position in her father’s administration, she stepped down from her roles with the Trump Organisation and her fashion brands to help clear up any potential conflicts of interest or ethical issues. But Painter said that amounts to “just a facade,” comparing it to Trump’s transferring of his businesses to his two adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, in addition to a senior Trump Organisation employee.
“I’m sure she received a portion of the profits from her fashion brand — it has her name on it,” he said. “And so she owns it just like Donald Trump owns his business. It doesn’t matter who manages it.”
The episode involving Trump, his daughter, Conway, and Nordstrom is “just one more example of the serious conflicts and the inability of the administration to separate out their official responsibilities from the interests of the Trump business empire,” Painter said.
Painter added he believes Congressional Republicans’ patience regarding such episodes, steeped in conflicts of interest, will eventually run thin.
“I think as November of 2018 gets a little close they’re going to start thinking about [taking action],” he said, referencing the midterm congressional elections. “And I think that may come on sooner than that, because there is a limited amount of time they’re going to want to put into the baggage created by his own conflicts of interest. And what is here is a completely unjustified Twitter war with Nordstrom.”