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Special counsel: Kellyanne Conway violated ethics law

The president could take disciplinary action — but don’t hold your breath.

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Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Kellyanne Conway is in hot water for her comments on the US Senate race in Alabama last year.

The US Office of Special Counsel (OSC) on Tuesday announced that Conway, an aide to President Trump, on two occasions violated the Hatch Act by “advocating for and against candidates” in the 2017 special election in Alabama to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from using their official authority or influence in political work. In a letter to the president announcing the findings, special counsel Henry Kerner said he was referring the matter to the president to consider “appropriate disciplinary action.”

In question are two televised interviews Conway gave in late 2017. On November 20, she appeared on Fox News’s Fox & Friends and argued that voters should not support Democrat Doug Jones in the Alabama special election. During the interview, for which she was introduced as a counselor to the president and identified as such on screen, she warned that voters shouldn’t be “fooled” by Jones, who she said would vote against tax cuts and was “weak” on borders and crime.

“Doug Jones is a doctrinaire liberal, which is why he’s not saying anything and why the media are trying to boost him,” Conway said, according to Kerner’s report.

In a separate appearance on CNN’s New Day on December 6, Conway encouraged voters to support Republican Roy Moore over Jones. “When the president endorsed Roy Moore — when he started to talk about Doug Jones, the opponent here which you still don’t want to talk about but the president does, Roy Moore took a lead in the polls again,” she said. “Why is that? Because the president, himself, came out and said he doesn’t want a liberal in the Senate. He doesn’t want a liberal Democrat in the Senate.” She also brought up Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), who stepped down in January over allegations of sexual misconduct.

The report points out that Conway has “significant knowledge” of the Hatch Act and attended a senior staff training on the matter soon after the president’s inauguration in 2017. She also received individual training on it and multiple other communications about it, including around the time of the two interviews in question.

This isn’t Conway’s first brush with ethics issues. In February of last year, she came under fire for violating a different ethics provision when she encouraged Americans to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff,” referring to Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, in an appearance on Fox & Friends.

Executive branch staff members are barred from endorsing products or companies and using public office for the private gain of themselves, friends, or relatives. The White House at the time told the Office of Government Ethics that Conway had “inadvertently” endorsed Ivanka’s products, that she would get extra ethics training, and that she was “highly unlikely” to repeat the mistake.

The president could take disciplinary action — but who knows if he will

Government officials found to have violated the Hatch Act can be fired, suspended, or demoted, and fined up to $1,000. Kerner’s letter to the president refers Conway’s violations to the president for his “consideration of appropriate disciplinary action.”

But it is unclear whether Trump will actually act. Conway, who served as Trump’s campaign manager in the final leg of the 2016 election, is one of the president’s most loyal aides, and the Trump administration has come in for heavy criticism for its ethical lapses.

“Kellyanne Conway did not advocate for or against the election of any particular candidate,” White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. “She simply expressed the President’s obvious position that he have people in the House and Senate who support his agenda. In fact, Kellyanne’s statements actually show her intention and desire to comply with the Hatch Act — as she twice declined to respond to the host’s specific invitation to encourage Alabamans to vote for the Republican.”

Richard Painter, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, on Twitter slammed the Trump administration’s defense of Conway as “disgraceful.”

Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, was also dinged for a potential Hatch Act violation last week over a press release for Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign in which he complimented newly announced campaign manager Brad Parscale for his “leadership and expertise” that would “help build a best-in-class campaign.”

In the initial version of the release, Kushner was named as a senior adviser and assistant to the president. A version of the press release announcing the Parscale pick posted on the Trump campaign’s website later removed Kushner’s White House title, identifying him only as President Trump’s son-in-law.

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