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White House senior advisor Kellyanne Conway received a talking-to from the administration after she hawked Ivanka Trump’s fashion line on Fox & Friends.
"Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would tell you — I hate shopping and I’m going to go get some myself today," Conway said from the White House briefing room in a Feb. 9 appearance.
After a discussion of the #GrabYourWallet boycott of businesses friendly to Trump, Conway offered more praise for the line before giving "a free commercial here. Go buy it today everybody. You can find it online."
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Conway had been "counseled" for her remarks.
Trump’s defense of his daughter had already prompted questions about his separation from his family’s empire. Conway’s comments raised more alarms because of rules for federal employees.
Let’s go through some key questions about Conway’s controversial comments.
Did Conway do something illegal?
Conway appears to have violated the Code of Federal Regulations’ Section 2635.702 of Title 5, said Kathleen Clark, a government ethics expert at the Washington University in St. Louis.
The section reads:
"An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity, including nonprofit organizations of which the employee is an officer or member, and persons with whom the employee has or seeks employment or business relations."
Conway’s promotion of Ivanka Trump’s products in a television interview is "absolutely" and a "clear cut" violation of the the code of conduct, said John Wonderlich, president of the watchdog Sunlight Foundation. "To make such a public statement, you’d either have to be flouting (the rule) or ignorant of it."
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit advocacy group, also suggested Conway also violated a statute of the U.S. Code as "appropriations for the Executive Office were not made for the purpose of endorsing commercial products."
What are the possible penalties?
House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told the Associated Press that the White House’s counseling of Conway is not a strong enough response. Chaffetz called Conway’s endorsement of Ivanka Trump products "wrong, wrong, wrong, clearly over the line, unacceptable."
Chaffetz and the committee’s top Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, wrote a letter requesting the Office of Government Ethics to review Conway’s statements and act promptly.
While the Office of Government Ethics can make recommendations for disciplinary action, the White House itself is the ultimate enforcer.
"It is up to the president and White House chief of staff to make sure White House staff comply with ethics rules," said Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush. "If they do not do so, Congress can take that into consideration when deliberating about whether the president is able and willing to do his job."
Just how unusual was Conway’s endorsement?
It certainly doesn’t happen every day, or every decade.
None of the experts we interviewed could name any precedent for Conway’s actions, which are particularly stark given the conflict of interest concerns already sparked by Trump’s vast business dealings.
Some of the president’s defenders have pointed to a letter President Harry Truman wrote to defend his own daughter in 1950. Truman was responding to a music critic who gave his daughter’s concert a bad review.
"It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work," Truman wrote, before threatening to punch the critic.
But the Truman letter is not exactly a parallel, as it was "not really about promoting a personal financial interest or a brand," Wonderlich said. "It’s telling that the best comparison we can think of is from 50 years ago."
New York Time, Kellyanne Conway Promots Ivank Trump Brand, Raising Ethics Concerns, Feb. 9, 2017
Washington Post, White House says Conway has been ‘counseled’ after touting Ivanka Trump’s products, Feb. 9, 2017
Code of Federal Regulations, §2635.702 Use of public office for private gain, Feb. 7, 2017
Email interview with Richard Painter
Email interview with Kathleen Clark
Interview with John Wonderlich