Conway's Endorsement of Ivanka Trump Brand 'Unacceptable': House Oversight Chairman
Multiple legal experts and former White House officials say Kellyanne Conway's endorsement on TV of the Ivanka Trump brand violated ethics rules governing executive branch employees.
Responding to the barrage of criticism, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday that Conway "has been counseled" regarding her remarks.
Conway, a counselor to the president, made the remarks on Fox News on Thursday morning, responding to the recent decision by Nordstrom to remove Ivanka Trump items from its shelves.
"This is just a wonderful line. I own some of it, I fully — I'm going to give a free commercial here," Conway said. "Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online."
Former White House ethics officials and other legal experts said her endorsement appears to be a clear-cut violation of an ethics regulation barring executive branch employees from endorsing products and using their public office for the private gain of friends.
The comments earned a rare public rebuke from House Oversight Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz. A spokesman confirmed to ABC News that Chaffetz called the promotion "clearly over the line" and "unacceptable."
Kathleen Clark, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of the D.C. Bar rules of professional conduct review committee, told ABC News, "It is accurate to say that she broke the law. It's not a criminal law. It's a regulation." Clark added that the action would normally prompt some type of "employment discipline" within the White House.
Norm Eisen, who was an ethics czar for the Obama White House, said on MSNBC that the comments amounted to "a violation of the rules, pure and simple."
"I imagine that you are going to see complaints flowing in," Eisen said. "The responsibility to oversee this in the first instance is with the White House counsel, Don McGahn. He is going to need to look at the rules, look at the president and decide what range of penalties might apply."
Richard Painter, who was an ethics lawyer for George W. Bush's White House, would not say in an interview that Conway broke the law, but he spelled out what the regulation clearly prohibits.
"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. "That was strictly forbidden in the Bush administration because it is illegal."
The nonprofit watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said Thursday it has already filed a complaint with the Office of Government Ethics and the White House counsel's office over Conway's comments.
"This is just another example of what looks like a disturbing pattern of this administration acting to benefit the businesses of the president's family and supporters," the group's executive director, Noah Bookbinder, said in a press release. "Americans are unfortunately at the point where they have to question who the Trump administration is looking out for, the American people or the Trump family."
Former White House Cabinet secretary Chris Lu said on Twitter that if officials in the Obama White House had been caught making similar comments, it likely would have cost them their job.
My Obama WH colleagues can chime in. If we did what @KellyannePolls did, we would've been fired. Then again, our boss cared about ethics— Chris Lu (@ChrisLu44) February 9, 2017
ABC News has requested further comment from the White House and the Office of Government Ethics, but did not immediately receive any responses.
Nordstrom has said its decision to remove Ivanka Trump's clothing line is related to sales and was not politically motivated.
From his personal Twitter account, President Donald Trump on Wednesday tweeted that Nordstrom treated his daughter "unfairly." That was retweeted by the official POTUS account. Ivanka Trump said in an earlier statement that she would no longer be "involved with the management or operations of" her brand or the Trump Organization.
On Wednesday, Eisen criticized Trump for his tweet about Nordstrom and suggested that Nordstrom should sue under unfair competition laws that prohibit the type of behavior displayed in Trump's tweet.
"I do believe Nordstrom has a colorful claim," Eisen said. "This will be another place where the courts will remind him he's not above the law."
On Twitter, Eisen even offered to help Nordstrom should the company decide to file a suit. He is an outspoken legal critic of the president and is leading another lawsuit against him over the emoluments clause.
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