Conway's hawking for Ivanka triggers outcry
- 02/09/17 03:48 PM EST
President Trump’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, cast the White House into crisis mode on Thursday by hawking Ivanka Trump’s merchandise on cable news.
Hours after the comments, White House press secretary Sean Spicer indicated in a terse statement that Conway had been reprimanded.
“Kellyanne has been counseled, and that's all we are going to go with,” Spicer told reporters at the daily press briefing. “She's been counseled on the subject, and that's it.”
The unusual statement about one of Trump’s most trusted aides came as Democrats expressed outrage over the issue, and as legal complaints were filed with the Office of Government Ethics suggesting that Conway had broken a law prohibiting government officials from endorsing products.
Criticism also extended to Congress.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, followed with a letter to panel Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) requesting disciplinary action for Conway.
Chaffetz responded by saying that Conway’s remarks were “clearly over the line” and “unacceptable.”
Chaffetz and Cummings are “jointly going to send a letter to the White House and Office of Government Ethics for a referral,” a spokesperson said.
Complaints about the matter to the Office of Government Ethics appeared to crash its website, which was down most of the day Thursday. The agency tweeted that it its website, phone system and email systems had been besieged by “an extraordinary volume of contacts from citizens about recent events.”
The liberal group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the office.
It has already sued Trump on a separate matter, alleging that the president’s foreign business entanglements violate the Constitution’s “Emoluments Clause.”
“The law is clear that public officials should not use their offices for their own private gain or the private gain of others,” said executive director Noah Bookbinder. “It’s hard to find a clearer case of that kind of misuse of office than we saw today.”
Thursday’s uproar were set in motion last week, when the department store Nordstrom pulled Ivanka Trump’s line of clothing and accessories. That provoked the president to tweet angrily that the company had treated his daughter “unfairly.”
Spicer said the company was “targeting” Trump for her father’s political views and argued that the president was merely defending his daughter.
But Conway went further in a Thursday interview on Fox News Channel, urging consumers to run out and purchase Trump’s product line.
“Go buy Ivanka's stuff, is what I would tell you ... I hate shopping but I'm going to go get some for myself today,” Conway said. “I'm going to give it a free commercial here, go buy it today.”
Richard Painter, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who served as an ethics lawyer to former President George W. Bush, told The Hill that Conway had run afoul of the law.
“It is a violation of federal ethics regulations prohibiting use of public office for private gain for any government employee in an official speech, an official capacity TV interview or any similar communication to promote the products or services of a particular private business belonging to the employee's own family, the President's family, a friend, a campaign contributor or anyone else,” Painter said in an email to The Hill. “That was strictly forbidden in the Bush administration because it is illegal.”
The Nordstrom flap is one of a handful of recent episodes that have infuriated ethics experts and given ammunition to President Trump’s critics, who say that the president and his family are exploiting the White House for personal financial gain.
Trump made a show of turning his company over to his adult sons, Eric and Donald Jr., as well as longtime Trump executive Allen Weisselberg. Trump has said his sons will not discuss the business with him and that he will only review general profit and loss reports, rather than detailed business-by-business income statements.
This is not enough for most legal and ethics experts, who say nothing short of a blind trust or Trump dissolving the company will do.
Meanwhile, stories about Trump’s potential conflicts of interest continue to dog his administration.
Chaffetz said this week he is “curious” to learn more about Trump’s new Washington, D.C., hotel, which sits in a historic, government-owned building.
Trump’s contract with the federal General Services Administration prohibits elected officials from being a party to the lease or benefitting from it. Trump's critics have called on Chaffetz to investigate whether the arrangement constitutes a conflict of interest.
First lady Melania Trump filed a lawsuit this week with a media outlet over false claims that she was once an escort. The suit alleges that Mail Media, which owns the Daily Mail, was damaging her “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to launch a successful line of beauty products.
And when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife visit this month, they’ll become the first foreign leaders to stay at President Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-lago resort. That arrangement provoked questions about who was paying for the visit. The White House says that Abe and his wife will stay free of charge “as a personal gift.”
Trump has pledged to donate proceeds from foreign leaders staying at his properties to the U.S. Treasury. An email to the Trump Organization asking if it had made any payments has not been returned.
Conway’s remarks have reopened debate around Trump’s conflicts of interest. One former senior aide to President George W. Bush said her endorsement of Ivanka Trump’s product line is “trampling on the other side” of ethical.
“What she did isn't a blurry line,” the aide said. “It is the White House endorsing a specific brand and I don't know what the remedy is or how they come out of that.”
Trump’s allies don’t see a problem with how they’ve handled the Nordstrom flap, framing it as the president rallying behind his daughter.
“He's a guy who is always gonna defend his kids,” said Christopher Ruddy the CEO of Newsmax and a friend of Trump’s.
“That's his style,” Ruddy said, adding that it's more a defense of children than a verbal attack on an American store.
“I don't think that's going to change.”