OGE can’t take action against Conway itself. All it can do is send a letter to the White House insisting that an ethical breach has occurred and that the White House should punish Conway accordingly — which creates an interesting dilemma for Trump. On the one hand, the head of OGE (and the man who signed today’s letter) is Walter Shaub, the same Obama appointee who gave an unusual press conference last month attacking Trump’s solution to his business conflicts of interest as no solution at all. If Trump wants to pick a fight with OGE by slamming Shaub as a partisan with a vendetta against him, he could try doing that.
But there’s a wrinkle. As noted when I wrote about this the first time, OGE seems to have Conway dead to rights here. From the federal regulations:
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.
If the circumstances had been just a bit different, the White House could have argued that Shaub and OGE were misapplying the regs in this case. If Conway hadn’t been standing in the White House briefing room, with a White House placard over her shoulder, as she endorsed Ivanka’s clothes, maybe there’d be wiggle room. If Conway hadn’t actually used the word “commercial” in touting Ivanka’s line, they could have argued (feebly) that it wasn’t a true endorsement. As it is, they’ve got nothing. It’s such a clear-cut ethical lapse that members of the public deluged OGE’s website with complaints about it last week, knocking it offline. If Trump refuses to discipline Conway under those circumstances, it would be seen as a wholesale rejection of ethical accountability by the White House. And his critics, starting with the media, will have a field day with that, especially when they’re eyeing much bigger conflicts of interest in his sons’ management of the Trump businesses. The smart play given how minor this incident is would be for Trump to exploit it as a sign of how seriously he takes ethics by disciplining Conway while adding that he realizes she was guilty of little more than overzealousness in defending a friend, not of trying to line her own pockets. Because it’s Trump, though, there’s no telling what he’ll do. Maybe he’ll blow OGE off entirely and we’ll duly embark on a few days’ worth of “Trump declares war on ethics” news cycles.
Here’s Joe Scarborough just killing Conway this morning on MSNBC for having assured their network late yesterday afternoon that Mike Flynn enjoys Trump’s full confidence. Six hours later, he was gone. At some point we’re going to have to do a graphic showing all the alliances and enemies within the Trump universe, from the White House on out to conservative media. We can start with Scarborough and Conway in the “enemies” column.