IN THE early days of the Trump administration, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway ran afoul of ethics rules when she urged the president’s supporters to buy products under his daughter’s brand. The White House said she was being provided with additional ethics training and recurrence was “highly unlikely.” Some thought stronger disciplinary action should have been taken, but at least there was some acknowledgment of wrongdoing and an implied promise to do better.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear the training did much good, as the Office of Special Counsel made clear recently in finding Ms. Conway in violation of federal law barring the mixing of partisan politics with official government business. More troubling than the latest violation was the White House’s refusal to do anything about it or even acknowledge it.
In a letter to President Trump, Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner reported that Ms. Conway twice violated the Hatch Act in the lead-up to Alabama’s 2017 special Senate election. Federal employees are prohibited from using their official authority or influence to affect the outcome of an election; partisan remarks are permitted only when federal employees are speaking in their personal capacity.
At issue were two television interviews in which Ms. Conway appeared in her official capacity and expressed political views about Democrat Doug Jones and Republican Roy Moore. “Folks, don’t be fooled,” she said on Fox News of Mr. Jones. “He’ll be a vote against tax cuts. He’s weak on crime, weak on borders. He’s strong on raising your taxes. He’s terrible for property owners.” Somehow — and with a straight face — the White House tried to argue that such language (on CNN, she said Mr. Jones was “against national security,” “against life” and “out of step for Alabama voters”) was not advocating for or against the election of any particular candidate.
Keep in mind that her unprompted harangue on Fox News about Mr. Jones, who subsequently won the election, came in response to a question about tax reform and Democratic opposition. Also keep in mind that she had received regular and repeated Hatch Act training and guidance. Contrast her case with those of two officials in the Obama administration — former Cabinet secretaries Kathleen Sebelius and Julian Castro — who were found to have violated the Hatch Act. Both cooperated with the special counsel, explained they didn’t intend to break the law but admitted their errors and promised to be more careful in the future (which they were).
Once again we need to remind ourselves: Thumbing your nose at the rule of law is not normal, and it is not okay.