Under fire, Donald Trump aide Kellyanne Conway maintains support of US president
Kellyanne Conway, the high-profile White House counsellor, has come under fire from Democratic and Republican lawmakers, fact checkers and the media. But she's so far maintained the support of her boss, President Donald Trump.
Trump backed Conway both publicly and privately on Thursday (Friday NZ Time) after House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, criticised her for promoting Ivanka Trump's fashion line during a television appearance and urged the Office of Government Ethics to review the matter. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Conway had been "counselled" on her comments, but he would not expand on what that entailed.
The president appeared to take issue with his own press secretary's depiction, telling staff that he believed it was unfair to Conway and made it sound like she was in trouble, according to a person with direct knowledge of his comments. A White House spokeswoman said that while Trump didn't see Conway's television comments urging people to buy Ivanka Trump's products, he believed she was "merely sticking up" for his daughter after Nordstrom dropped her fashion line.
The flare-up came in the midst of a rough stretch for Conway, who is among Trump's most visible advisers.
Her reference to a nonexistent "Bowling Green massacre" made her a punchline for comics and internet pranksters. She said it was a slip of the tongue as she was describing the 2011 arrest of two Iraqi nationals in a failed plot to send weapons overseas to al-Qaida. It was later discovered that she had made that misstatement before.
Conway was then caught up in the bad blood between the Trump administration and CNN. The news network was angered last weekend when Vice President Mike Pence made the rounds of Sunday talk shows and pointedly left out Jake Tapper's CNN show. CNN said it "passed" when Conway was offered instead, while Conway said she was unable to appear.
Conway's high-profile and close relationship with Trump has created tension with some other advisers. One Trump associate said Conway's standing with some senior staff had been hurt by her recent missteps, though the person noted that her relationship with the president remained strong.
The Trump associate and the person with knowledge of the president's comments about Conway insisted on anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss internal matters.
"Go buy Ivanka's stuff!" Kellyanne Conway tells "Fox & Friends" viewers from the White House briefing room. pic.twitter.com/noIhnVgcAk— Andrew Kirell (@AndrewKirell) February 9, 2017
Conway's sales pitch for Ivanka Trump was particularly notable in that it sparked a rebuke from Chaffetz, a Republican who until now has not questioned the young administration on ethical matters. Chaffetz said Conway's actions were "wrong, wrong, wrong, clearly over the line, unacceptable."
The Utah congressman and the ranking Democrat on the committee, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, jointly asked for the ethics review. The Office of Government Ethics advises federal employees on such issues but is not an enforcement agency; enforcement falls to Congress, the General Accounting Office, the FBI, various inspectors general and others, OGE noted on Twitter. Ultimately, it is up to Trump to punish employees for ethics infractions.
While Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are not subject to ethical regulations and laws for federal employees, Conway, who is a counsellor to the president, is. Among the rules: An employee shall not use his or her office "for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise."
"For whatever reason, the White House staff evidently believes that they are protected from the law the same way the president and vice president are," said Stuart Gilman, a former special assistant to the director of OGE.
In addition to the House Oversight Committee, two liberal-funded government watchdog groups pounced on Conway's comments, filing ethics violation complaints with OGE. A third group, the Project on Government Oversight, asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to open a Justice Department investigation.
Nordstrom reiterated Wednesday that its decision to drop Ivanka Trump's brand was based on its performance, not politics. The company said sales of her items had steadily declined over the past year, particularly in the last half of 2016, "to the point where it didn't make good business sense for us to continue with the line for now."