White House Senior Counselor Kellyanne Conway twice violated ethics rules last year, according to a government ethics office, marking three times she’s been cited for breaking the same rule.
This was one of several data-points just from this week showing again that President Donald Trump is not so much draining the swamp, as he famously promised to do, as flooding it or giving it a gilded makeover in his own image. To be honest the new and at times novel tales of violations of ethical norms and rules are coming almost too fast to track; I wrote Friday and again Monday morning about the ways Trump and his administration are abusing their public offices and these new instances have surfaced since I filed the latter column.
Step right up and welcome to Donald Trump’s carnival of corruption.
First there’s Conway. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (not to be confused with the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller) issued a report Tuesday calling for “disciplinary action” against Conway for “impermissibly mix[ing] official government business with political views about candidates in the Alabama special [Senate] election” which took place in December. Under the Hatch Act, federal employees are prohibited from engaging in political activities from their official positions, but Conway did just that, according to Special Counsel Henry Kerner, going out of her way to attack Democratic senatorial candidate (and ultimate victor) Doug Jones twice in television interviews in the run-up to the election.
She appeared on “Fox & Friends” on Nov. 20 and CNN’s “New Day” on Dec. 5 and talked about the Alabama Senate race (in the former appearance without being asked about it) in ways that went beyond her remit, per Kerner. (This is Conway’s third apparent ethical violation in the White House, having last spring flogged Ivanka Trump’s clothing line on television.)
And here’s a key fact: After the Fox News appearance, she got two separate warnings about not violating the Hatch Act. In the first case, the White House counsel’s office reached out to her “due to the Hatch Act concerns raised by her interview and again provided her with Hatch Act guidance” on the day of her “Fox & Friends” appearance; then the counsel’s office emailed Conway and other White House officials a Hatch Act reminder the day before her CNN appearance. (These were the fifth and sixth instances where she’d gotten individual or group guidance about the law since the administration took office.)
Cartoons on President Donald Trump
More: Conway simply ignored the Office of Special Counsel when it asked her to respond to the allegations of violating the Hatch Act, though the White House counsel’s office did defend her appearances to Kerner. (The counsel’s office also promised that she would respond, which she did not.)
So what? The fact that she was directly warned about violating the Hatch Act and did it anyway indicates a level of confidence that she could violate the law with impunity. And guess what: Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley issued a statement Tuesday saying the White House didn’t think Conway did anything wrong. Not a surprise: The administration blew off the judgment of the independent investigator.
By contrast, Julian Castro, when secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, violated the act in July 2016, the administration owned up to the violation, admitted it was a mistake and promised to make sure it wouldn’t happen again. As Richard Painter, President George W. Bush’s ethics chief put it on Twitter about Conway: “In any other White House, a single major ethics violation would result in dismissal. This is her third, and all three within the same year. She needs to go.”
And Conway is not alone. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump lists five other Trump appointees who have had run-ins with the Hatch Act. “If this all seems confusing: Fair enough,” he writes. “That’s why the Office of Special Counsel offers training for administration officials about where the legal lines are.”
But of course all the training in the world won’t matter if the administration is going to simply ignore the law when it decides whether anyone will be disciplined for it. “The Hatch Act is either an enforceable statute or it isn’t,” MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid tweeted. “Trump is again testing the proposition that laws themselves don’t matter as long as he’s president.”
And yet this wasn’t close to being the only curious tale of ethical adventuring from the Trump administration. The Associated Press reported that a pair of Trump appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency have gotten waivers to do paid work for outside clients. Which clients will be supplementing the income of these ostensible public servants? “Those names were blacked out by the agency before a copy was provided to Congress, citing a privacy exemption more typically used to protect personnel records and medical files,” AP’s Michael Biesecker reports. One of the officials, Deputy Associate Administrator for Public Affairs John Konkus, spent fleeting moments in the spotlight last fall when he was put in the unusual position – given his status as a political appointee with little apparent background in environmental science – of vetting grants the agency distributes. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin reported that Konkus told EPA staffers he was looking out for “the double C-word,” climate change.
Konkus is starting with two mystery clients with the expectation of taking on others. I know Trump’s EPA isn’t so much into actually doing stuff, but is deputy associate administrator not a full-time job anymore? He has promised that he will avoid conflicts-of-interest with these mysterious clients, as presumably will Patrick Davis, a senior adviser in the EPA’s Denver regional office who will work as sales director for Telephone Town Hall Meeting. Call me jaded, but I don’t think anyone in this administration has the credibility to be taken at their word on these sort of things.
“This is insane,” former Obama ethics czar Norm Eisen tweeted. “In the Obama White House, I even made people quit uncompensated non-profit outside positions because of conflicts risks. This is FOR profit work that could conflict with official duties.” Eisen tied it all together on Twitter, writing that “the 2 big ethics stories of the day are related. EPA turned a blind eye to appointee conflict risk, and now we are waiting to see if Trump with [sic] do the same w/ Kellyanne. If he does not fire her, his message will be law does not matter.”
(And an important point from The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman: “At this point, my conservative friends are saying, ‘What about Huma Abedin?’ To which I’d reply, you were absolutely right to be outraged when it was reported in 2013 that in her last few months at the State Department, the longtime Hillary Clinton aide got approval to simultaneously do work for the Clinton Foundation and a consulting firm run by a former Clinton aide.”)
But wait – there’s a third EPA aide doing outside work: Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Tom Carper of Delaware wrote EPA administrator Scott Pruitt Tuesday to ask him about Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, “who lists himself as an ‘Acting Special Agent in Charge’ at the EPA and has traveled on multiple occasions with Pruitt as part of his protective detail,” per the letter, and is also a principal and founder at Sequoia Security Group; his business partner at Sequoia reportedly received a countersurveillance contract from the EPA to sweep Pruitt’s office for listening devices. How convenient.
Everything flows from the top of course. If Trump aides are feeling empowered to make extra bucks while in office it is of a piece with a culture where the top dog is in a very high-profile manner turning a buck off of the public trust.
ProPublica turned up the latest example of this over the weekend, reporting that “the Trump Organization has ordered the manufacture of new tee markers for golf courses that are emblazoned with the seal of the president of the United States. Under federal law, the seal’s use is permitted only for official government business. Misuse can be a crime.” Indeed, under previous administration from both parties, outside businesses have been warned off from using the seal.
This time it apparently took less official attention to meet the same end: ProPublica reported Tuesday that the presidential seal markers have been removed from Trump golf courses. “The plaques were presented to the club by a small group of members, who are incredible fans of the President, in honor of Presidents day [sic] weekend,” the Trump Organization said in a statement to ProPublica. “They were temporary and have since been removed.” Well I guess it’s OK if they’re incredible fans of the president.
One other Trump ethics issue that keeps percolating and is worth eyeing: The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld provided new detail Monday on the case of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s paying hush-money to porn star Stormy Daniels to keep her from talking about her affair with Trump in the waning days of the campaign. “Mr. Cohen said he missed two deadlines earlier that month to make the $130,000 payment to Ms. Clifford because he couldn’t reach Mr. Trump in the hectic final days of the presidential campaign,” they write, citing “a person familiar with the matter.” As the Post’s Aaron Blake notes, while it was widely assumed Cohen was acting on Trump’s behalf, this is the solid link establishing such foreknowledge. If provable it would strengthen the case the $130,000 was an illegal and illegally coordinated campaign contribution.