President Trumpâs official counselor, Kellyanne Conway, was âcounseledâ after she told TV audiences to âgo buy Ivankaâs stuff,â the White House said Thursday.
Legal experts said Conway had broken a key ethics law banning federal employees from using their public office to endorse products. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday that Conway âhas been counseled,â but offered no other comment.
Conway, speaking to âFox & Friendsâ viewers from the White House briefing room, was responding to boycotts of Ivanka Trump merchandise and Nordstromâs discontinuation of stocking her clothing and shoe lines, which the retailer said was in response to low sales and which the president assailed as unfair.
âIâm going to give it a free commercial here,â Conway said of the presidentâs daughterâs merchandise brand. âGo buy it today.â
Conway and officials from the Office of Government Ethics did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Conwayâs endorsement was âclearly over the lineâ and âunacceptable.â
Earlier in the day, the committeeâs ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), had urged Chaffetz to support a review into what he called âa textbook violation of government ethics laws.â
Several attorneys, including former heads of federal agencies, said Conwayâs endorsement directly conflicted with OGE rules designed to separate government policy from private business dealings.
âI donât see what their defense is,â said Campaign Legal Center general counsel Lawrence Noble, who is also former counsel for the Federal Election Commission. âShe did this on television. She was very clear it was advertising. Hopefully at the very least they will acknowledge this is wrong.â
Don W. Fox, former general counsel and former acting director of OGE, told The Washington Post that âConwayâs encouragement to buy Ivankaâs stuff would seem to be a clear violation of rules prohibiting misuse of public office for anyoneâs private gain.â
He added: âThis is jaw-dropping to me. This rule has been promulgated by the federal Office of Government Ethics as part of the Standards of Conduct for all executive branch employees and it applies to all members of the armed forces as well.â
Attorneys said a typical executive-branch employee who violated the rule could face significant disciplinary action, including a multi-day suspension and loss of pay.
Enforcement measures are largely left to the head of the federal agency â in Conwayâs case, the White House.
Federal law states the director of OGE can advise the White House and Conway of the violation, conduct its own investigation and recommend that they consider disciplinary action.
But OGEâs recommendations are non-binding, and the ultimate decision resides with the White House.
Conwayâs endorsement comes as the Trump administration faces growing scrutiny over whether it is taking fears of conflicts of interest seriously.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington executive director Noah Bookbinder called Conwayâs endorsement 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
The president took to Twitter on Wednesday to lash out at Nordstrom for dropping Ivanka Trumpâs line, saying his daughter had âbeen treated so unfairlyâ by the store.
Said Peter Schweizer, who has worked closely with Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon and wrote the book âClinton Cash,â which was critical of donations to the Clinton Foundation: âTheyâve crossed a very, very important bright line, and itâs not good. To encourage Americans to buy goods from companies owned by the first family is totally out of bounds and needs to stop.
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. âItâs time to move beyond the mind-set and the role of a businessman and assume the mantle of commander of chief.â
Conwayâs endorsement of the Ivanka business also highlights an awkward reality for a White House threatening U.S. companies seeking to move jobs or operations overseas. Nearly all of Ivanka-brand merchandise is manufactured in low-cost-labor countries, including China, Indonesia, and Vietnam.
Trump critics quickly seized on the endorsement. Robert Weissman, president of liberal advocacy group Public Citizen, said in a statement, âConwayâs self-proclaimed advertisement for the Ivanka Trump fashion line demonstrates again what anyone with common sense already knew: President Trump and the Trump administration will use the government apparatus to advance the interests of the family businesses.â
Trump last month tweeted his own support for another retailer, L. L. Bean, saying, âPeople will support you even more now. Buy L.L.Bean.â A company board member, Linda Bean, donated money to a pro-Trump super PAC. Lawyers said the federal ban on endorsements specifically exempts the president and vice president.