The Nordstrom department stores’ decision to drop Ivanka Trump’s label has reached the halls of Congress.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee, formally weighed in on President Donald Trump’s tiff with the store to say Kellyanne Conway’s public endorsement of Ivanka Trump’s clothing line was “wrong, wrong, wrong,” sharing a bipartisan letter to the Office of Government Ethics requesting a recommendation of disciplinary action.
The letter is the latest action in what has become a strange one-sided feud between the president of the United States and a department store. Trump angrily tweeted about Nordstrom’s decision to drop Ivanka’s line this week — a position Conway took one step further on Fox & Friends by saying, “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff, is what I would tell you.”
Her remarks crossed a line. Chaffetz and the committee’s ranking member, Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, wrote that Conway’s comments “appear to violate federal ethics rules,” which prohibit federal employees in the executive branch from endorsing the “personal activities” of another person, in a letter addressing Walter Shaub, the OGE chair:
As the director of OGE, you have authority to review potential ethics violations and notify the employee’s agency, which in this case is the White House. In this case, there is an additional challenge, which is that the President, as the ultimate disciplinary authority for White House employees, has an inherent conflict of interest since Conway’s statements related to his daughter’s private business. For this reason, we request that you use authority Congress granted to you under the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, as amended, to “recommend to the head of the officer’s or employee’s agency that appropriate disciplinary action (such as reprimand, suspension, demotion, or dismissal) be brought against the officer or employee.
As the letter suggests, OGE can’t do much
As Chaffetz and Cummings suggest, there are added challenges when the ethics violation in question is about the president’s family business. And OGE does not have the authority to investigate or enforce ethics violations — it can only refer cases to other federal agencies.
As Vox’s Libby Nelson explained, should the White House refuse to discipline Conway, there are certain actions Shaub could take:
1. If the ethics office thinks Conway did commit a crime, [Shaub] can refer the matter to the Department of Justice for prosecution.
2. Alternatively, Shaub can recommend an investigation by a federal agency (in this case, the White House). If the investigation isn’t completed in a timely fashion, he can inform the president.
3. After the investigation, or when Shaub decides a “reasonable time” has passed without a conclusion, the matter could be dismissed or go to the Office of Government Ethics’ general counsel or to a hearing before an administrative law judge.
4. Either way, Shaub then would review the counsel’s or judge’s recommendation and could suggest (but not require) that Conway be disciplined, a decision that will be made public. (If the ethics violation is ongoing, Shaub can also order a federal employee to stop doing it.)
The problem with this process, for ethics watchdogs, is that the buck stops with the president. Shaub’s only trump card, if his recommendations (which aren’t binding) aren’t followed, is that he can tell the president a federal agency is refusing to discipline its employees.
As it stands now, though, it doesn’t seem like the White House or the president is too inclined to do much. White House press secretary Sean Spicer addressed the issue at a press briefing, noting only that Conway had “been counseled, and that's all we're going to say.”