The White House on Thursday said that a top adviser to President Trump had been âcounseledâ after using a television appearance from the West Wing to promote the clothing and jewelry line sold under the brand of Trumpâs daughter.
The endorsement, in which Kellyanne Conway told Fox News Channel viewers to âgo buy Ivankaâs stuff,â appeared to violate a key ethics rule barring federal employees from using their public office to endorse products. The White House reaction was a rare acknowledgment of an ethical misstep.
Conwayâs remarks drew a sharp and unusual rebuke from a top Republican lawmaker, House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who said that Conwayâs comments were âabsolutely wrong, wrong, wrongâ and âclearly over the line.â
Chaffetz, who has resisted calls by Democrats to investigate potential conflicts related to President Trumpâs businesses, joined with the Oversight Committeeâs ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), in sending a letter to the Office of Government Ethics calling Conwayâs comments âunacceptable.â The letter asked the agency to recommend discipline given that Trump, who is Conwayâs âagency head,â holds an âinherent conflict of interestâ due to the involvement of his daughterâs business.
In a terse comment to reporters Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that Conway had been âcounseled on the subjectâ but did not say whether she would be disciplined. Spicer did not say why Conwayâs statements had required the intervention, and the White House declined to answer further questions.
Speaking on Fox News Thursday evening, Conway declined to comment but said Trump supports her â100 percent.â
Conway said she advised all women to, at some point in their life, have a boss who treats them âthe way the president of the United States treated me today.â
The incident was the latest illustration of how the Trump White House has struggled to grapple with long-established ethics rules as the president has attempted to balance the potentially competing interests of his new public position and his familyâs vast business holdings.
The matter has grown politically thorny in recent weeks as many opponents of Trumpâs policies have waged a campaign to boycott the familyâs brands and protest at its properties. The tensions underscore the difficulty Trump faces in carrying through on his vow to separate his presidency from his businesses â particularly given that he and his daughter have refused to divest their ownership stakes.
The president has faced criticism from ethics experts and Democratic lawmakers who have warned that his public power could be misused to enrich him and his family. Trump has turned over the management of his businesses to his two adult sons and a longtime executive.
Although Trump has said that most ethics laws and rules do not apply to the president, Conwayâs stumble Thursday served as a reminder that staffers are nonetheless subject to those provisions.
The Conway episode followed other instances in which Trumpâs political rise and his presidency have provided a promotional platform for the family businesses.
On Monday, first lady Melania Trump filed a lawsuit accusing a British news company of publishing an inaccurate story that hurt her ability to take advantage of a âonce in a lifetime opportunityâ to build her brand of jewelry and accessories. The lawsuit said that the August 2016 article, which falsely suggested that Melania Trump had once worked for an escort service, damaged her ability to build âmultimillion dollar business relationships for a multi-year termâ and damaged her brand during a time when Trump âis one of the most photographed women in the world.â
A day later, after ethics experts criticized the notion of Melania Trump attempting to make money from her public role, her attorney and a spokeswoman issued statements saying that the first lady âhas no intentionâ of using her position for profit.
The first family has struggled to cleanse its public appearances of private entanglements.
In his official biography on the White House website, Donald Trump boasts of the success of the business he still owns and cites his book âThe Art of the Deal,â which remains for sale.
Melania Trumpâs initial online biography referenced her jewelry line, once sold on the cable television channel QVC, and noted its trademark, a registration now overseen by a federal office led by her husband.
Ivanka Trump, whose brand includes dresses, shoes, skirts, handbags, jewelry and accessories, much of which is sold online and at dozens of the United Statesâ largest retailers and department-store chains, mixed her business and newly elevated political profile shortly after the election.
Hours after she was interviewed by CBSâs â60 Minutesâ about her fatherâs victory, her jewelry line alerted journalists to the fact that she was wearing an ÂIvanka-brand diamond bracelet, which viewers could buy for $10,800.
Conwayâs endorsement of Ivanka Trumpâs brand followed a tweet Wednesday by President Trump complaining that his daughter had âbeen treated so unfairlyâ by the department store Nordstrom, which dropped her clothing line, citing slow sales.
Conway touted Ivanka Trumpâs âwonderful lineâ of clothing and shoes during an interview Thursday morning with âFox & Friendsâ from the White House briefing room.
Responding to national boycotts of Ivanka Trump merchandise, Conway said, âGo buy Ivankaâs stuff is what I would tell you.â
âIâm going to give a free commercial here,â she added. âGo buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.â
Experts quickly seized on Conwayâs remarks as a direct violation of Office of Government Ethics rules. Don W. Fox, a former OGE acting director and general counsel, said Conwayâs statements were âjaw-droppingâ and âa clear violation of rules prohibiting misuse of public office for anyoneâs private gain.â
Peter Schweizer, who has worked closely with Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and wrote a book, âClinton Cash,â that was critical of donations to the Clinton Foundation, said, âTheyâve crossed a very, very important, bright line, and itâs not good.â
âTo encourage Americans to buy goods from companies owned by the first family is totally out of bounds and needs to stop,â ÂSchweizer added. âClearly, the Trumps feel some of this is related to politics. But whether thatâs true or not, these marketing battles need to be fought by Ivanka and her company. They cannot and should not be fought by government employees and the White House.â
Schweizer said that it was time for Trump âto move beyond the mind-set and the role of a businessman and assume the mantle of commander in chief.â
Federal law states that the director of the Office of Government Ethics can advise the White House and Conway of the violation and recommend disciplinary action. But the OGEâs recommendations are nonbinding, and the ultimate decision resides with the White House.
OGE officials did not respond to requests for comment. By midmorning, the agencyâs website had crashed, and the OGEâs official Twitter account said that the officeâs phone and email systems were receiving âan extraordinary volumeâ of citizen input about ârecent events.â
The office tweeted that its role is to help prevent ethics violations but not to investigate allegations that rules have been broken â a job reserved for the FBI, inspectors general and other watchdogs. Still, the OGE notifies agencies of possible ethics violations and asks for reports on any action taken, a process the office indicated it is âactively following,â according to the OGEâs tweets.
Experts said that a typical Âexecutive-branch employee who violated the endorsement rule could face significant disciplinary action, including a multi-day suspension and loss of pay. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees, for instance, face a five-day suspension or termination for using public office for private gain.
But enforcement measures are largely left to the head of the federal agency â in Conwayâs case, the White House. Conwayâs counseling, independent lawyers said, could have included a meeting with members of the White House counselâs office, but it remained unclear what disciplinary steps would be taken.
Independent ethics groups and Trump critics targeted the endorsement as a make-or-break moment for how the White House will address future ethical concerns.
Noah Bookbinder, director of the liberal Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed an official ethics complaint, called Conwayâs comments âjust another example of what looks like a disturbing pattern of this administration acting to benefit the businesses of the presidentâs family and supporters.â
Conwayâs endorsement of Ivanka Trumpâs business also highlighted an awkward reality for a White House threatening U.S. companies seeking to move jobs or operations overseas. Nearly all Ivanka-brand merchandise is manufactured in low-cost-labor countries, including China, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The president and his daughter have taken steps to put distance between their private companies and public ambitions. Both resigned their official leadership roles in the Trump Organization.
Ivanka Trump retains a financial interest in her separate business. The Trump company says the president does not have a financial interest or ownership stake in the Ivanka brand.