House Oversight Committee asks for review of Conway's endorsement of Ivanka Trump brand

Experts say Conway violated ethics rules in the endorsement.

ByABC News
February 9, 2017, 7:52 PM

— -- Congressmen have chimed in as the fallout of Kellyanne Conway's public pitch to "go buy Ivanka's stuff" continues, with the House Oversight Committee chairman calling the remarks "over the line" and asking for a review by the Office of Government Ethics.

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."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the same committee, have asked the OGE to review Conway’s comments and any potential ethics violations.

In their Thursday letter to Walter Shaub, the director of the OGE, Chaffetz and Cummings asked for a review of Conway's comments, as well as “appropriate disciplinary action (such as reprimand, suspension, demotion or dismissal) be brought against the office or employee.”

Chaffetz and Cummings asked OGE to “act promptly” and report back to the panel with a recommendation for disciplinary action. Any recommendation by the OGE is non-binding.

"Conway's statements appear to violate federal ethics regulations," they wrote in the letter. "In this case, Conway's statements from the White House using her official title could appear to constitute an explicit endorsement and advertisement for for Ivanka Trump's personal business activities."

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan independent watchdog, called for a Department of Justice investigation into Conway's comments in a letter to newly minted Attorney General Jeff Sessions on his first full day in his new role. The watchdog's letter took things a step further and also asked that Dan Scavino, assistant to the president and director of social media, be investigated as well for retweeting President Donald Trump's Wednesday tweet in defense of his daughter's fashion line on the official POTUS account.

Responding to the barrage of criticism, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday that Conway "has been counseled" regarding her remarks.

In an interview on Fox News, Conway said President Trump "supports me 100 percent."

"In fact, it was a very heartening moment," she said of meeting with the president Thursday afternoon. "All I can say to America’s women is, at some point in your life, you ought to have a boss who treated me the way the president of the United States treated me today."

When asked specifically how she was counseled, Conway said, "I'm not going to comment on that. ... I actually have nothing more to say about it."

Multiple legal experts and former White House officials say Conway's endorsement of the Ivanka Trump brand violated ethics rules governing executive branch employees. They say Conway's 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.

Before his joint letter with Cummings, Chaffetz called the promotion "clearly over the line" and "unacceptable," according to a spokesman.

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 OGE 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."

Criticism wasn't restricted to party lines. Tom Fitton, the president of conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, was also critical of Conway's comments in an interview with ABC News.

"At an abundance of caution, they should assume that direct advocacy to buy Trump family products should not be done from the White House," Fitton said.

The comments are notable from Fitton, a leading conservative activist who spent the 2016 cycle digging into Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation.

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.

ABC News has requested further comment from the White House and the OGE, 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.

ABC News' Julia Jacobo, Jordyn Phelps, Benjamin Siegel and Emily Shapiro contributed to this report.

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