Public Citizen Lobbyist: Kellyanne Conway Broke the Law

If the White House continues to pedal their own business interests and refuse to resolve conflicts of interest, it may cost them the next election, says Craig Holman

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KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network in Baltimore, I’m Kim Brown.

A routine media appearance on Fox & Friends, by White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway, is raising eyebrows and has caused at least two complaints lodged with the Office of Government Ethics.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: I do find it ironic that you’ve got some executives, all over the internet, bragging about what they’ve done to her and her line, and yet they’re using the most prominent woman in Donald Trump’s, you know… most prominent… his daughter.

TV REPORTER: Kellyanne?

KELLYANNE CONWAY: And… and they’re using her, who’s been a champion for women empowerment…

TV REPORTER: Sure.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: …women in the work place, to get to him.

TV REPORTER: Just, ah…

KELLYANNE CONWAY: I think people can see through that.

TV REPORTER: Thirty seconds.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: Go buy Ivanka’s stuff, is what I would tell you. I’m gonna… I’m gonna… I hate…

TV REPORTER: Well, there’s…

KELLYANNE CONWAY: …shopping, but I’m gonna go get some myself today.

TV REPORTER: There is that hashtag…

KELLYANNE CONWAY: It’s just… it’s a wonderful line. I own some of it. I fully… I’m gonna just give a… I’m gonna give a free commercial here. Go buy it today everybody. You can find it on-line.

TV REPORTER: All right. Kellyanne Conway from the brief…

KIM BROWN: Yes, that was an employee of the White House, calling for the public, on a national cable network, to purchase the goods of the daughter of the President of the United States.

So, did Kellyanne Conway break the law, or at minimum, did she violate ethics rules for government employees? And is this incident just the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to this administration’s habit of mixing branding business opportunities with the serious business of running the country?

To discuss this further, we’re joined with Craig Holman. He is currently the Government Affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, serving as the organization’s Capitol Hill lobbyist on campaign finance and governmental ethics. Craig, we appreciate you’re being here.

CRAIG HOLMAN: Glad to be here, Kim.

KIM BROWN: So, Craig, I mean, it seems slightly innocuous on its face, but when we look at actually what Kellyanne Conway did, and said, and from the position in which she did that, it is certainly getting people upset and certainly looking at this administration further. But let’s start off with how this all began.

So, Ivanka Trump, being the daughter of Donald Trump, Ivanka has a clothing line, shoe line that is being sold in a number of retail outlets. However, earlier this week, it was revealed that the outlet, Nordstrom, decided that they were going to drop Ivanka’s line. They said it was a business decision. It was due to poor sales. But this drew the ire of her father, the President of the United States.

If we could take to that tweet really quick, where President Donald Trump himself said, “My daughter, Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by Nordstrom. She’s a great person, always pushing me to do the right thing. Terrible.” Making this very much a political issue, as he takes to this on his twitter feed.

But for Kellyanne Conway, the White House Counsellor, to be addressing the media with the White House placard behind her, and encouraging the public to buy Ivanka’s stuff, what do you make of this?

CRAIG HOLMAN: First of all, there’s no ifs, ands or buts. Kellyanne did violate federal law. There is an explicit federal law that applies to every employee of the government, except the President and the Vice-President, that prohibits the use of public office for private gain. That includes endorsing products, doing sales pitches for commercial goods. And that is exactly what Kellyanne did. So, she did violate the law, and quite frankly, the White House concedes that, at this point.

However, really, in my opinion, the bigger story is the attitude and the tone that Donald Trump has set. Keep in mind, he’s the one who began this, when he started his tweeting yesterday, condemning Nordstrom for dropping Ivanka’s clothing line. You know, even though that the law may not apply to the President, we’ve got a president who now is mixing his business interests with his government service. We’ve never had that before.

I mean, literally, even though these conflicts of interest laws may not apply to the President, every president over the last 40 years has complied with the spirit of it. They have gotten rid of their conflicts of interest, financial conflicts of interest — either divested them or placed them in a blind trust. They’ve complied with the spirit of the conflict of the interest code.

The first president who has refused to do that is Donald Trump, and he even gets up there and proclaims that he can have no conflicts of interest because he’s the President. You know, perhaps the law may not be enforceable against him, but he comes into office with more conflicts of interest than we’ve ever seen in the history of the United States. And his refusal to try to address those problems is setting the tone for the rest of the administration.

What we just saw Kellyanne do is exactly what Donald Trump has been doing, except the law can be enforced against Kellyanne.

KIM BROWN: Indeed, and Craig I want you to take us through the process here because there’s already been a minimum, as far as I can tell, two complaints filed with the Office of Government Ethics. If we could take to that other tweet, from the Citizens for Ethics, who tweeted that, “Kellyanne Conway just used the White House to promote Ivanka’s clothes. That is not legal. So, we filed a complaint.”

And we’ve also heard from the House Oversight Committee, with the House Chairman of this Committee, Republican Jason Chaffetz, along with the leading ranking Democrat on that committee, Congressman Elijah Cummings, sending a letter to the Office of Government Ethics. Basically saying that yes, Kellyanne Conway appears to have violated these federal rules for federal employees. And also saying that how this usually works for a person to be disciplined, as a result of this, is that it’s recommended to the head of the officers or employees agencies, that appropriate disciplinary action be taken. Such as reprimands, suspension, demotion, or dismissal.

But in this case, with Kellyanne Conway being a direct employee of the White House, Donald Trump being her boss, it doesn’t seem very likely that she will be reprimanded. So, what recourse here does the Office of Governmental Ethics have, in dealing with Kellyanne Conway violating these Federal rules?

CRAIG HOLMAN: First, I want to emphasize because that complaint filed by Chaffetz and Cummings, that means there have now been three complaints filed with the Office of Government Ethics, not just two. And by the way, Cummings and Chaffetz were very adamant about, “OGE’s got to step in here and try to make sure something happened.” They filed with the Office of Government Ethics, just like I did.

Because they fully understood that there’s an inherent conflict of interest with Donald Trump. You try filing this complaint with Donald Trump or White House counsel, and you’re asking Donald Trump to step in and intervene when it comes to his own daughter’s business enterprise, you know he’s not going to do that. And that’s why we all chose to file with the Office of Government Ethics.

And the Office of Government Ethics is actually a bit of a toothless dog. It really doesn’t have any legal authority to make anyone do anything. But what OGE has done lately in the last several months, is it has taken a public position to try to push, and cajole, and perhaps even embarrass, the White House into doing what’s right, when it comes to the conflicts of interest.

That’s why we’re looking for OGE. OGE is credible. They actually believe in ethics, and if they can take a public position and, you know, stick their neck out there again, against the President, perhaps they can push the President and the White House and the entire administration, I want to emphasize, into realizing that we do have these very important ethics codes, and that they should start respecting it.

You know, it’s getting really kind of, embarrassing — I guess is the one word I could use — to see that the White House is spending so much time pedaling its own business interests. Using public office to try to promote the Trump towers, the Trump hotels, the Trump line, Ivanka’s clothing line, which is manufactured in China, by the way I want to add.

I mean, we have a White House that… it’s difficult to discern what their priority is. Is the priority the business, or is the priority public service? Hopefully, OGE can push the White House into taking the correct stance.

KIM BROWN: So, Craig, I mean looking forward here, who is going to stop Donald Trump? How is this administration going to be reined in? Because as you said, not even a 100 days in, not even 30 days into this administration, we have a long list of, at minimum, questionable actions and practices going on with this president.

And even more so, as you said, a difference of how this family is approaching being the First Family. In a recently settled lawsuit with First Lady, Melania Trump, against a blogger in Maryland, who had reported that Mrs. Trump had been working as a high paid escort, a prostitute of sorts. And this lawsuit was settled in the Trump’s favor. But one of the things that was cited on Mrs. Trump’s behalf, was that this smear of her allegedly cost her millions of dollars in marketing opportunities. And I’m not quite sure if we’ve ever seen, or interpreted, the role of the First Lady as an opportunity for financial enrichment.

And that’s just one example. And you talk about the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which it appears that Mr. Trump is in violation of in at least two ways, with his ownership of the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington DC, which he turned into Trump Hotel. Which sits on federal land and so, he is also leasing federal land, kind of, from himself. He’s not supposed to be an elected official leasing federal land, and his failure to divest from his business interests, not putting them in a blind trust.

So, what can be done here? Is there an agency; is there a branch of government that can step in — because it doesn’t seem likely that the Legislature is going to do it?

CRAIG HOLMAN: Yeah, Congress will do it. At this point Congress, you know, both chambers are controlled by Republicans, and these Republicans have so far fallen in line behind Donald Trump. So, it doesn’t look likely that the Republicans in Congress are going to step up to the plate. That leaves it to two different other elements to try to step in, and get the White House back into doing its government duty.

The first, and the most important, will be the voters. If we continue to complain about this, and to get upset about all these business, self-dealing opportunities we’re seeing coming out of the White House, and the entire administration, I might add, you know, perhaps this is going to take its toll. And Donald Trump will start realizing that if he continues doing these types of self-dealing enterprises that it’s going to cost him dearly in the next election. So, the voters are number one.

The other element that could perhaps get Donald Trump in check, when it comes to him selling his business through government office, is the courts. There is a lawsuit that’s already been filed against Donald Trump when it comes to the Emoluments Clause, claiming that he is violating the U.S. Constitution. And by the way, I want to emphasize, even though the conflict of interest statute itself may not specifically apply to the President, the Constitution does.

And so, this lawsuit is claiming that Donald Trump is in violation of the U.S. Constitution, literally asserting that we are in the middle of a Constitutional crisis right now, and asking the courts to step in and intervene. So, the voters and the courts, that’s what we’re counting on at this point.

KIM BROWN: Craig, I want you to sort of elaborate on that point, if you could briefly. Because during President Trump’s very first press conference, he had something really unusual happen, where he had one of his attorneys get up, and not so much answer questions, but actually read a statement about how the President’s business interests were not in conflict with his new role as Commander in Chief.

And, I mean, this is a thing actually, where the President and the Vice-President have been sort of looped into this particular, you know, clause that deals with conflict of interests. Can you make the distinction for us, between that and what the Constitution actually says?

CRAIG HOLMAN: Well, the Constitution applies to receiving any kind of profits or commercial ventures, or gifts or rewards from foreign governments. So, that specifically relies on foreign governments providing money to Donald Trump. And with Donald Trump’s vast global empire, in which he has some 500 businesses that he has stakes in, there are at least 23 countries where his businesses are very active.

What we’re seeing, is a number of foreign governments deciding to take advantage of that, thinking that they can buy favor with our president. For instance, Kuwait was going to celebrate its National Independence Day over at the Four Seasons Hotel, prior to Donald Trump’s election. Once Donald Trump was elected, they cancelled their Four Seasons event and moved it over to the Trump Hotel. Literally, just for the intent of throwing money at the feet of the President of the United States, believing that they can curry favor and access. That’s what the emolument clause is specifically designed to stop.

Now, when it comes to the other conflict of interest code, that’s federal law, 18 U.S.C 208, and that’s what Trump is continuing to declare that he can’t have conflicts of interest, because it has been interpreted as not specifically applying to the President, even though every president before him has abided by the spirit of that law.

KIM BROWN: Indeed. We’ve been speaking with Craig Holman. Craig is the Government Affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. He’s also served as an organizations Capitol Hill lobbyist and campaign finance and government ethics. He deals with those issues.

Craig, we really appreciate your time. I’m sure this won’t be the last time that we speak with you about an issue like this, pertaining to this administration. So, we do look forward to speaking with you in the future about something similar.

CRAIG HOLMAN: Great pleasure taking to you, Kim.

KIM BROWN: You as well. And thank you for watching The Real News Network.

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