Believe it or not, Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is joining with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings in requesting that the Office of Government Ethics take a look at Kellyanne Conway’s flacking on behalf of Ivanka Trump’s clothing line.
A spokesman for Cummings, who is the ranking Oversight Committee Dem, confirms that Chaffetz is collaborating in a joint letter with Cummings that will be sent to OGE, asking it to look at Conway’s dual efforts as White House adviser and Ivanka clothing line pitch-woman. Chaffetz himself told the Associated Press that Conway’s performance was “wrong, clearly over the line, unacceptable.”
This suggests that it’s not entirely out of the question that congressional Republicans might be pushed and prodded into exercising oversight when it comes to President Trump. That is, if the transgressions are glaring enough.
This particular one was really glaring. Conway said on Fox News Thursday morning, in response to boycotts of Ivanka’s clothing line after President Trump attacked Nordstrom for declining to carry it, that people should “go buy Ivanka’s stuff,” adding: “I’m going to give it a free commercial here. Go buy it today.”
This “free commercial” took place in the White House press briefing room. Even more striking is that this part of a pattern at this point: Sean Spicer said Wednesday that Nordstrom’s decision was an “attack” on Trump. That came after the President himself tweeted in anger at Nordstrom’s decision. All of this basically adds up to the use of the White House bully pulpit as either a weapon against companies that decline to enrich Trump’s family or as a promotional tool designed to enrich Trump’s family.
The careful reader will note that the common thread there is the goal of enriching Trump’s family.
Thursday morning, Rep. Cummings sent a letter to Chaffetz, requesting that the Oversight Committee refer the Conway episode to OGE for review and potential disciplinary action. Cummings wrote that Conway had violated federal regulations stipulating that “an employee shall not use his public office” for the “private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.”
Cummings added that OGE has the “authority to review potential violations and discipline ranging from suspension to loss of pay to removal.” Cummings added: “Since the Committee has direct jurisdiction over the ethics laws applicable to White House employees, I request that the Committee make an official referral of this matter to OGE.”
This had an element of trolling to it, because Chaffetz had already told CNN that he didn’t see any problem with the President tweeting his displeasure over Nordstrom’s decision. And Chaffetz has not shown much of an interest in exercising oversight when it comes to Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest or in pushing Trump to show more transparency about his holdings, which would make it possible for us to keep track of those conflicts.
But it now appears that Chaffetz and Cummings are set to deliver a joint letter to OGE. It’s unclear precisely what the joint letter will say. But a spokesman for Cummings says that it might ask OGE to recommend a penalty for Conway to face.
It’s depressing that it took something so blatantly obvious as this to get Chaffetz to act. After all, the President and two of his top aides all used the White House megaphone to intervene in a business dispute involving the President’s daughter. One of those aides explicitly said from the White House briefing room that she was serving up a “free commercial” on that daughter’s behalf, while calling on the public to go spend money on her products. I don’t know if you could craft a more blatant flouting of ethical rules and norms if you tried.
But nonetheless, this reaction from Chaffetz is not nothing at all. Democrats, largely shut out of power in Washington, will have to resort to what I have called “guerrilla ethics warfare,” using innovative tactics to try to draw more public and media attention to Trump’s shredding of ethical norms, as well as to the refusal by congressional Republicans to exert any meaningful oversight toward it.
One tactic in the arsenal will be for Democrats to simply ask Republicans to do their jobs in situations such as this one, and to kick up as much noise as possible if they refuse, in hopes that media and public pressure makes doing nothing harder to sustain politically. Though we have no idea whether anything meaningful will result in this case, we now know that there are some situations that are egregious enough to spur congressional Republicans to act, or go through the motions of acting.