When Nordstrom department store dropped Ivanka Trump’s clothing line in February, the White House’s objections drew fire for blurring the line between government and business.
The responses — a tweet by President Donald Trump and an unusual TV appearance by adviser Kellyanne Conway — alarmed Trump's ethics lawyer enough to swiftly huddle with the federal ethics office, which has tangled with the Trump White House, according to new emails obtained by NBC News.
After Nordstrom's decision was announced, Trump lashed out in a Feb. 8 morning tweet, "My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by Nordstrom. She is a great person -- always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!"
By 3:56 p.m. that day, the top lawyer at the Office of Government Ethics, David Apol, asked Trump’s White House ethics lawyer for a phone call to discuss “an issue that has come up.”
Records show Trump’s lawyer, Stefan Passantino, called the ethics office five minutes later. A summary of their discussion is now public for the first time.
In his email to the White House, Apol, the ethics office lawyer, said the phone call was to discuss “the President’s tweet concerning the decision of Nordstrom to stop carrying his daughter’s line of products.” The ethics office recommended the president follow basic standards of conduct that forbid misusing his position for personal gain, Apol explained, an ethical standard that is common but not legally required for a President.
By the next morning, the two lawyers were talking again, this time about another Nordstrom response from the White House.
Passantino called about Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway's plug for Ivanka Trump’s clothing line in a comment she made to Fox News on the morning of Feb. 9.
"I'm going to give a free commercial here," Conway said on Fox. "Go buy it today, everybody."
In an email, Apol said Passantino called to "reassure" the ethics office that he would “be taking appropriate action to address her conduct.”
The emails were obtained through a Freedom of Information Request by NBC News and The James Madison Project, represented by the law office of Mark Zaid.
Federal ethics regulations prohibit government employees from using their position to endorse any product or business, a rule that formally binds Conway, but not Trump.
The emails also reveal significant interest in Conway plug for Ivanka’s clothing line, with inquiries from reporters, Congressional staff and a surge of web traffic that crashed the ethics’ office website.
The office has not publicly commented on what caused the crash.
Emails show staff had internal discussions about how an “extraordinary level of public interest and concern” drove the web traffic.
The emails also reveal that the ethics staff viewed their office as underfunded, and thus at a disadvantage in patrolling the Trump White House and responding to unusual public interest.
“Despite this enormous unanticipated strain on OGE’s resources, OGE’s staff has acted swiftly to continue to be responsive to public demands despite being significantly constrained by the lack of our requested FY17 funding level,” one staffer wrote to a congressional aide.
The emails also show an inquiry from a staffer on the House Appropriations Committee asking what caused the ethics “website to crash,” and how much traffic it could handle.
"Reviewing these discussions, an outside observer almost has to feel a measure of sympathy for the individuals in the White House Counsel's Office,” says Bradley Moss, a partner at the law office of Mark Zaid, who reviewed the emails and handled the FOIA request.
“They face the daunting task of routinely cleaning up after the ethical disasters left by the President and his senior staff,” Moss said, “none of whom have shown to date a serious awareness of the standards of conduct expected of them."
White House officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the emails.
The revelations come as the head of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, sent an unusual letter on Thursday. Shaub wrote to Passantino, Trump's ethics lawyer, to say he is still “concerned about Ms. Conway’s misuse of position.”
Shaub disagrees with the White House decision to “counsel” Conway, rather than discipline her, and he said the Trump White House’s broader positions on ethics are even more troubling.
“I am more concerned about the extraordinary assertion that ‘many’ [ethics] regulations are inapplicable” to the president’s employees, he wrote, adding that that assertion by the Trump White House was “incorrect,” and had no legal basis.”