A predictable reply to the letter sent to the White House by the Office of Government Ethics on February 14th requesting discipline for Conway. She went on a news program, while standing in the White House briefing room, with the White House insignia over her shoulder, and advised viewers to buy something from Ivanka Trump’s fashion line. A clear example of an executive branch official using her office to benefit a friend financially, no? “They’ve crossed a very, very important bright line, and it’s not good,” said Breitbart editor and “Clinton Cash” author Peter Schweizer after Conway’s appearance. “To encourage Americans to buy goods from companies owned by the first family is totally out of bounds and needs to stop.” Even Republican Jason Chaffetz, head of the House Ethics Committee, sent a letter to the White House complaining about it.
It was an easy opportunity for Team Trump to show they take conflicts of interest seriously by delivering a wrist-slap to Conway. Instead it sounds like they’re letting her off with a talking-to. C’mon, says the White House counsel — she did it in a “light, offhand manner.” It was basically just a goof.
“Inadvertently” is the wrong word. She knew what she was doing, even using the term “commercial” during the segment to describe it. The point of the exchange with the Fox News hosts, in fact, was to spite liberals who’d been threatening to boycott retailers if they didn’t drop Ivanka’s clothing line. Conway was trying to counter the boycott by goosing Ivanka’s sales. Even Ivanka herself allegedly found it inappropriate and said so to Conway afterward, but the boss might not be as much of a stickler for ethics. That is, although Conway didn’t make any money off the plug (and who knows if Ivanka did), it may have benefited her anyway by raising her standing with the president by showing him just how far she’d go to show loyalty to his family. Her demeanor was light-hearted, but ask Schweizer if he sees anything “nefarious” in the First Family’s top aides hawking their merch on TV in an official capacity.
And even if Conway had acted “inadvertently,” whatever that means in this context, intent isn’t mentioned in the relevant 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. The specific prohibitions set forth in paragraphs (a) through (d) of this section apply this general standard, but are not intended to be exclusive or to limit the application of this section.
What the White House is really arguing, or wants to argue, is that Conway’s infraction was de minimis, a half-joking pitch unlikely to produce much of a benefit to Ivanka. But they don’t want to say that flat out or else it’ll raise an obvious counterpoint: How large does an infraction need to be before it requires discipline? Conway’s a senior advisor to the president pitching goods sold by the president’s daughter on the country’s biggest cable news network. If she had been wearing an Ivanka-brand jacket during the interview and told viewers where they could buy it, would that suffice? A president that’s already been attacked by the head of OGE for implementing a sham resolution to his business conflicts of interest shouldn’t want to be making fine distinctions to excuse obvious ethical violations by his underlings, but here we are. And now the ball’s back in OGE’s court: They could respond by formally requesting discipline for Conway, although they have no power to make the White House impose some.
Exit question: Since returning to TV for regular interviews, has Conway appeared on any non-conservative outlets or is it strictly Fox News and right-wing talk radio right? I’m asking earnestly as I don’t know. But I do notice that she’s been off the Sunday shows for the past several weeks.