It may not have seemed especially notable two weeks ago when White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway used her position to go after former Vice President Joe Biden’s Democratic presidential campaign. Conway is a longtime Republican operative; she supports Donald Trump’s re-election; and so it may have seemed obvious that she’d target a leading rival from the other party.
But federal ethics laws restrict the political activities of federal employees, which means Conway may have technically been crossing a legal line. Reminded of this, the White House official was indifferent. “Blah, blah, blah,” Conway told reporters.
It appears some are far less cavalier about violations of ethics laws.
A government watchdog agency recommended Thursday that Kellyanne Conway, a top aide to President Donald Trump, be removed from federal office for repeated violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from engaging in certain political activity.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent government agency that enforces the act, said it sent a report to Trump detailing “numerous occasions” in which Conway violated the law by saying disparaging things about Democratic presidential candidates in television interviews and on social media while acting in her official capacity as counselor to the president.
The Office of Special Counsel – not to be confused with Robert Mueller and the special counsel’s office – described Conway as a “repeat offender,” which is true. In fact, she started ignoring federal ethics laws almost immediately after arriving at the White House, and kept ignoring the Hatch Act in the months that followed.
The OSC added, “Ms. Conway’s violations, if left unpunished, would send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions. Her actions thus erode the principal foundation of our democratic system – the rule of law.”
The appropriate next step, according to the agency, would be to dismiss Conway.
The Office of Special Counsel, incidentally, is led by Henry Kerner – a Trump nominee who was confirmed by the Republican-led Senate in a voice vote.
That said, if you’re waiting to see Conway leave the White House grounds this afternoon carrying a cardboard box, you may be disappointed.
Steven Groves, the White House deputy press secretary, dismissed the OSC’s findings as “deeply flawed,” before suggesting that Hatch Act restrictions violate Conway’s free-speech rights.
In other words, Conway has spent much of her White House tenure taking a “blah, blah, blah” attitude toward an ethics law, and Team Trump doesn’t much care.
As we recently discussed, I can appreciate why the Hatch Act may seem obscure and perhaps trivial. Those who break it are not felons, and as Conway made clear in her derisive comments two weeks ago, violators are not subject to prison sentences. When compared to some of the other offenses Donald Trump and his team have been accused of, it’s easy to see an ethics law like this one as unimportant – the practical equivalent of political jaywalking.
But the underlying principle deserves to be taken seriously: when White House officials declare their indifference to legal limits and conclude that the rules simply don’t apply to them, there’s a problem.