- The US Office of Special Counsel determined that the White House counselor Kellyanne Conway violated federal ethics laws twice when she advocated and opposed Senate candidates.
- Ethics experts say those findings, along with a previous ethics violation, warrant Conway’s firing.
- The White House, however, has denied that Conway engaged in political advocacy.
The US Office of Special Counsel has determined that the White House counselor Kellyanne Conway violated federal ethics laws twice when she advocated and opposed Senate candidates during television interviews last year – violations that ethics experts say warrant Conway’s firing.
Special Counsel Henry Kerner, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, argued that Conway repeatedly violated the 1939 Hatch Act, which bars government employees from using their position to advance or promote political parties or candidates, even after receiving “significant training” on the law.
Kerner wrote in a letter to Trump that Conway made “intentional partisan jabs” at Doug Jones, the Democratic US senator, that were intended to “persuade voters not to support him in the Alabama special election.”
In a “Fox & Friends” interview on November 20, during which she was introduced as “counselor to the president,” Conway decried Jones, whom she called a “doctrinaire liberal.”
“Doug Jones in Alabama?” Conway said. “Folks, don’t be fooled. He’ll be a vote against tax cuts. He’s weak on crime, weak on borders. He’s strong on raising your taxes. He’s terrible for property owners.”
“So, vote Roy Moore?” the “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade asked, referring to Jones’ Republican opponent who was – and still is – facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
“I’m telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through,” Conway responded, adding: “I just want everybody to know Doug Jones, nobody ever says his name and they pretend that he’s some kind of conservative Democrat in Alabama and he’s not.”
Conway made similar comments in the second interview, on CNN on December 6, even after receiving public criticism for her statements on Fox News.
Kerner said Conway, who has remained silent on the charges, had been informed of the Hatch Act’s prohibitions before she “chose during both interviews to repeatedly identify reasons why voters should support one candidate over another in the Alabama special election.”
It’s up to Trump whether Conway will face any discipline
The special counsel turned its investigative report on Conway’s violations over to the president, who will decide whether and what kind of disciplinary action should be taken.
But in a statement, the White House defended Conway’s comments.
“Kellyanne Conway did not advocate for or against the election of any particular candidate,” the White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement. “She simply expressed the president’s obvious position that he have people in the House and Senate who support his agenda.”
Richard Painter, who served as the White House’s chief ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, said it was unprecedented – at least in the past few decades – for a White House to deny the findings of the independent ethics office.
“It’s very disturbing that the White House chief of staff is going to let White House lawyers say the Hatch Act means something entirely different than what the agency charged with enforcing the Hatch Act says it means,” Painter told Business Insider. “That’s just flat-out wrong.”
Walter Shaub, a former head of the Office of Government Ethics who served under both Trump and President Barack Obama, argued that the violations were indisputable.
“Only in a world of alternative facts could Conway’s televised words amount to anything other than advocacy against Jones,” he wrote in a November Washington Post op-ed article. “The case against Conway is airtight.”
The Campaign Legal Center, which Shaub now leads, filed a complaint against Conway.
This is not the first time Conway has violated federal ethics laws. In February 2017, she encouraged Fox News viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff,” saying she was “going to give a free commercial here.”
The Office of Government Ethics recommended the White House investigate and potentially bring disciplinary action against Conway for touting Trump’s daughter’s business, but Conway never received any disciplinary action.
“This is the third strike,” Painter said, calling them “slam-dunk violations.”
“She’s trained as a lawyer and she obviously can’t follow the rules,” he said. “And if she can’t follow the rules, she doesn’t belong in the White House.”
Trump crossing an ethical red line?
Norm Eisen, who served as the top ethics official for Obama,tweeted on Tuesday that the president’s dismissal of Conway’s latest violations would constitute crossing an ethical red line.
“Make no mistake about it, if Trump does not fire Kellyanne Conway after THREE Hatch Act violations another redline will be crossed,” Eisen said. “He will be saying breaking the law does not matter–I will pardon away any sins.”
Kathleen Clark, an ethics law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said Conway’s silence on the issue was troubling.
“It makes one question whether she even understands her responsibilities as a public official,” Clark told Business Insider.
Conway is not the first administration official to be found in violation of the Hatch Act. In early June, the Office of Special Counsel issued a warning to the White House social-media director Dan Scavino for having in April advocated on Twitter the electoral defeat of Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.
Kellyanne Conway defends Trump's endorsement of Roy Moore: "The President has tremendous moral standards… He doesn't want a liberal democrat representing Alabama in the US Senate" https://t.co/Zejo99jpca
— New Day (@NewDay) December 6, 2017
Allan Smith contributed to this report.