The Slatest

Ethics Chief to White House: Not Punishing Kellyanne Conway Risks Undermining the Entire Ethics Program

White House Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway is interviewed by Mercedes Schlapp at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 23.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The ongoing spat between the White House and the Office of Government Ethics over what to do with Kellyanne Conway continued Thursday with the federal agency once again making clear its concern over the Trump administration’s nonreaction to what in the eyes of pretty much everyone else was a clear violation of federal ethics rules.

“Not taking disciplinary action against a senior official under such circumstances risks undermining the ethics program,” OGE Director Walter Shaub Jr. wrote to the White House of its decision to give Conway a pass.

A refresher for those who need it. Standing in the White House last month, Kellyanne Conway had this to say about the clothing brand that bears the name of the president’s eldest daughter: “I own some of it. I fully—I’m going to just give it a free commercial here: Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”

OGE then investigated at the request of the bipartisan leaders of the House Oversight Committee, and found the same thing that most other experts did: A White House employee misusing her public position in a clear violation of federal ethics rules. Shaub concluded Conway’s actions were so outrageous as to warrant formal punishment from the president. To the surprise of no one, the Trump administration simply shrugged off the advice. In a response sent to OGE last week, a White House ethics officer claimed the comments in question were made in a “light, off-hand manner” and “without nefarious motive.” Conway, the White House concluded, “acted inadvertently and is highly unlikely to do so again.”

As long as the White House continues to stonewall—and Congress continues to sit on the sidelines—it’s not clear exactly what else the OGE can do. As I’ve explained before, normally, if the agency’s initial recommendation is ignored, the office then follows up by informing the president himself. In this case, though, Trump is already well aware of what happened—and he clearly doesn’t have a problem with it. Given what we’ve seen during the first few months of his presidency, it’s clear Trump has little use for the ethics program.