The White House’s top ethics lawyer held two meetings with Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway to instruct her on ethics rules after she used a Fox News interview to urge viewers to purchase products from Ivanka Trump’s fashion line.
However, White House officials decided that Conway’s endorsement was inadvertent and lacked any “nefarious motive,” according to a letter sent to a government ethics oversight office and members of Congress.
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“We concluded that Ms. Conway acted inadvertently and is highly unlikely to do so again,” Deputy White House Counsel Stefan Passantino wrote to Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub. “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.”
During a Feb. 9 Fox interview from the White House briefing room, Conway was asked about Nordstrom and other companies ending sales of Ivanka’s dresses and other fashion items. “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would tell you,” Conway said. “It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it. I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody.”
The remarks prompted an unusual bipartisan scolding from House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who wrote to the ethics office and the White House the same day to say that Conway’s statements “raised extremely serious concerns.”
Shaub, the ethics chief, followed up with his own letter a few days later asking White House Counsel Don McGahn to look into the issue.
Passantino reveals in the new letter dated Tuesday that the counsel’s office reached out to the ethics office just after Conway’s on-air pitch, perhaps looking to assure ethics officials that the matter would be promptly addressed. However, the White House lawyer stops short of saying that Conway violated federal regulations against hawking products in one’s official capacity.
“Both before and after receiving your letter, I personally met with Ms. Conway and advised her that her comments regarding Ms. Trump’s products implicated the prohibition on using one’s official position to endorse any product or service. Ms. Conway has acknowledged her understanding of the Standards and has reiterated her commitment to abiding by them in the future,” Passantino wrote.
Later on the same day Conway made the statement, she said she’d discussed the matter with President Donald Trump. His comments to her about the episode were not particularly harsh, she suggested.
“He supports me 100 percent,” she told Fox. “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 that the president of the United States treated me today.”
Cummings said on Twitter Wednesday he was disappointed that no specific action was taken against Conway.
“It’s is a very bad sign that the president chose not to discipline Ms. Conway for blatantly violating the law,” Cummings said. “Other federal employees would likely be suspended for engaging in this conduct, and White House officials should not be held to a different standard. I hope that the president reconsiders his decision and that he and his staff will take their ethical obligations more seriously.”
A spokesman for Shaub said the White House’s response is under review.
“We have received the letter and we are evaulating it,” the OGE spokesman said.
The rule against promoting products is contained in federal regulations. It is not a criminal or civil statute. There are obscure enforcement provisions available to Shaub’s office, but their application to the White House is unclear, lawyers said.