Ethics Watchdog Pushes Back on White House View of Rules

OGE faults administration for not taking action against Kellyanne Conway

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway’s comments on Fox News last month encouraging viewers to buy Ivanka Trump-branded products drew strong criticism from the Office for Government Ethics. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A top government ethics official told lawmakers Thursday that he was troubled by the Trump White House’s interpretation of ethics laws.

Walter M. Shaub Jr., who runs the Office of Government Ethics, said he remained concerned about comments last month by Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to President Donald Trump, encouraging Fox News viewers to purchase Ivanka Trump-branded products after some retailers announced they were discontinuing the presidential daughter’s line.

But that was only the beginning of his concerns, Shaub wrote in a letter to Reps. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and the panel’s top Democrat, Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland. Chaffetz and Cummings had asked Shaub to look into the Conway matter, which, experts agreed, appeared to be a textbook example of an ethics violation — using her official White House position to endorse products.

The White House’s response “makes clear that disciplinary action will not be taken” against Conway, Shaub wrote.

“Of greater concern, the White House’s response includes assertions challenging the applicability of ethics rules and OGE’s authority to oversee the ethics program for the entire executive branch,” he wrote. 

The OGE does not have authority to enforce ethics rules, but it does work with executive branch agencies to counsel officials on how to comply with the relevant laws. One of the office’s functions is to work with Cabinet and other incoming executive branch officials on ethics agreements that sometimes include divesting of assets that may create conflicts of interest.

Cummings responded to Shaub’s letters with his own dispatch to White House Counsel Donald McGahn, sending him a series of questions about what specific ethics rules he believes may or may not apply.

“The president’s staff need to follow ethics rules — not flout them,” Cummings wrote in the Thursday letter to McGahn. “When they violate these rules, the president must impose discipline, not invent a legal fiction that these rules do not apply.”

Shaub included with his letter to Chaffetz and Cummings another missive sent Thursday to Stefan Passantino, deputy White House counsel, who is the designated ethics official for the White House.

“Not taking disciplinary action against a senior official under such circumstances risks undermining the ethics program,” Shaub wrote to Passantino. “I am more concerned about the extraordinary assertion that ‘many’ of OGE’s regulations are inapplicable to employees of the executive office of the president. The assertion is incorrect.”

Conway’s Feb. 9 comments on “Fox & Friends” — “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would say” — caused a backlash and many called for an ethics probe. Her promotion of Ivanka Trump’s product line came amid a boycott of Trump’s apparel and other items from critics of the president. Nordstrom and other retailers said they would discontinue selling her goods because sales had declined.

The president also tweeted his displeasure at the retailers.

Recently, though, news reports have said Ivanka Trump’s brand sales surged in the past month.

“Ivanka sales are up, so it shows the investment that [the president] and Kellyanne made had a material benefit,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank NDN.

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