The White House concluded in a letter to the Office of Government Ethics released on Wednesday that presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway acted “inadvertently” when she endorsed first daughter Ivanka Trump’s clothing and jewelry line during a Fox News interview on Feb. 9.
The letter from White House Deputy Counsel Stefan Passantino made no mention of having disciplined Ms. Conway – a course of action that the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) had earlier recommended for consideration, citing a “strong reason to believe” she had violated ethics rules. After meeting with Conway to review federal rules against endorsements, wrote Mr. Passantino, she was “highly unlikely to do so again,” according to Reuters.
“It is noted that Ms. Conway made the statement in question in a light, off-hand manner while attempting to stand up for a person she believed had been unfairly treated and did so without nefarious motive or intent to benefit personally,” said Passantino in the letter.
The episode was the latest to raise questions about potential conflicts stemming from the global business entanglements of President Trump and his close circle, especially for advisers and others who are subject to ethics rules from which the president himself is exempt.
As noted by CNN Money, Conway’s comments came a day after Mr. Trump had complained of unfair treatment by Nordstrom when it dropped his daughter’s fashion line from its catalog.
“It's a wonderful line,” she said of Ms. Trump’s clothing and jewelry, in an interview with the hosts of "Fox and Friends." “I own some of it. I'm going to give a free commercial here, go buy it everybody. You can find it online.”
Federal law prohibits government employees from using their “position or title ... to endorse any product, service or enterprise; or to give the appearance of governmental sanction.”
As The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month, White House officials have characterized Conway’s remarks as a defense of her boss’s daughter, not an endorsement. But government agencies have generally interpreted the endorsement rule as having potentially broad application when advising employees:
While the president and vice president are exempt from this federal law, it even extends to participation in fundraising events. In 2014, for instance, the State Department instructed US diplomats not to participate in the ice bucket challenge because it violates internal policy.
“There are firmly established rules preventing the use of public office, such as our ambassadors, for private gain, no matter how worthy the cause,” reads a diplomatic cable sent in 2014, according to NPR.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, criticized the White House’s response.
“Other federal employees would likely be suspended for engaging in this conduct, and White House officials should not be held to a different standard,” he said, according to CNN.
Norman Eisen, who served as special counsel on ethics to former President Barack Obama, said in an interview with Reuters that Passantino’s handling of the situation seemed reasonable, although he would have preferred a stronger response from the White House. Each federal agency decides for itself how to handle violations of the sort, he added.
The OGE can still recommend a suspension or other specific penalties for Conway, though the White House would not be obliged to carry out the recommendation.
This report contains material from Reuters.