Kellyanne Conway, the senior counselor to the president, is a perfect proxy for Donald Trump in many ways, parroting his relentless attacks on ethics laws, political opponents and democratic institutions. Perhaps that's why, in an administration marked by high turnover, Conway has had tremendous staying power.
After becoming the first woman to lead a successful presidential campaign, Conway is now one of the most recognizable people in the Trump administration. She frequently appears in television interviews on behalf of the White House, and media outlets have praised her ability to channel the president.
But while Trump’s contempt for democratic norms is indefensible, a federal agency determined this week that Conway’s similar disdain for the rule of law, as represented by repeated violations of the Hatch Act, is fireable. And since Trump has shown he's unlikely to fire her despite that proven disdain, she must resign her government post.
As Trump has often noted, many ethics rules for government service don’t apply to the president of the United States and he has reportedly “dismissed concerns about the Hatch Act, sympathizing with aides found to have violated it."
The Hatch Act, though, ensures that Americans can access government services and officials regardless of their political affiliation. It bars federal employees from using their government titles or positions for partisan political purposes — and Conway has repeatedly and flagrantly chosen to ignore it. On Thursday, the independent Office of Special Counsel (not to be confused with Robert Mueller’s former investigative team at the Department of Justice) issued a report to the president finding that Conway engaged in "egregious, notorious and ongoing” violations of the act.
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As the agency noted, Conway has conducted several interviews on White House grounds this year where she “impermissibly mixed official government business with political views about candidates” in upcoming elections. (In April, she gave three such interviews in less than a week.) In May, Ms. Conway dismissed the agency's prior findings about her conduct and mocked reporters who asked if her political comments violated the law, stating, “If you're trying to silence me with the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work … Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”
Ethics abuses like these have been a regular occurrence in the Trump administration, and Conway is both one of many Trump appointees cited for breaking government ethics rules and one of 10 administration officials who’ve specifically run afoul of the Hatch Act. While the penalty for a single violation can include removal from office, such a sanction is rare — but Conway has repeatedly flouted ethics rules without remorse or consequences.
In February 2017, when she had been on the job less than one month, the independent Office of Government Ethics found that Conway violated federal regulations by endorsing Ivanka Trump’s fashion products in a television interview filmed at the White House. The agency characterized Conway’s actions as “a clear violation of the prohibition against misuse of position,” and even the then-Republican Chairman of the House Oversight Committee called her conduct “wrong, wrong, wrong.” The head of the agency recommended that the White House discipline her, but she was merely “counseled” instead.
Later in 2017, Conway violated the Hatch Act in two separate interviews in which she made political statements regarding the Alabama Senate race between Doug Jones and Roy Moore. Following the office's investigation, Special Counsel Henry Kerner, a Trump appointee, referred the violations directly to the president for “consideration of appropriate disciplinary action.” The White House dismissed the agency’s findings, and Conway was not disciplined.
In March 2018, the Office of Special Counsel released updated Hatch Act guidance after Trump officially became a candidate for re-election, indicating that executive branch employees should not promote the “success or failure” of the president's re-election or any “candidate for partisan political office” using government resources (like official social media accounts).
Unsurprisingly, Conway failed to adhere to these rules. Thursday's report — in response to multiple complaints brought by our organization — confirms that she broke the law more than 20 times during her tenure in government. And, despite repeated misconduct and endless counseling, Conway has given no indication that her behavior will change or that she'll be asked to change it: Following that latest decision, the White House attacked the agency’s reasoning and motives. But that’s only part of the problem.
It seems clear that protecting the president’s political, personal and business interests is part of Conway’s defined role in the Trump White House. She was a prominent surrogate for Republican candidates in 2018 and now regularly attacks the 2020 Democratic field in official interviews.
Unfortunately for Ms. Conway, many of the ethical loopholes that apply to the president's behavior don’t apply to White House employees. The president can promote his business and attack his political opponents from the White House; she can’t.
Given the administration’s response, however, there may be no end in sight. As Kerner wrote, “Ms. Conway’s disregard for the restrictions the Hatch Act places on executive branch employees is unacceptable” and “Her actions erode the principal foundation of our democratic system — the rule of law.”
Conway’s repeated ethics violations demonstrate that many of her responsibilities in the Trump administration are incompatible with government ethics laws. If Conway wants to be a partisan warrior for Trump, she can certainly take her talents to the campaign or the private sector, but American taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill or tolerate her dismissal of the rule of law.
No high-level White House official who openly and continually flouts federal law can be tolerated in a democracy. In order to protect the right of Americans to a government built on law that works for all of them, Conway must do what Trump will not — remove herself from government service.