Dem Senators Urge WH Lawyer To Prevent Future Conflicts Of Interest

Bill Clark/CQPHO

Six Democratic senators on Friday urged the White House counsel to establish guidelines to prevent what they called the “blatant conflicts of interest plaguing the Trump administration.”

Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Tom Carper (D-DE), Tom Udall (D-NM), Ed Markey (D-MA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) signed a letter, which called on White House counsel Don McGahn to “outline clear and specific steps the White House is taking to prevent further violations of government ethics laws by members of the White House and the administration of President Trump.”

After outlining the actions of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, who on Thursday urged Fox News views to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” during an interview, a press release accompanying the letter called the incident one of many examples of conflicts of interest.

“Other incidents include questions about whether Trump International Hotel violated a General Services Administration lease; doubling of membership fees at the Trump Organization’s ‘Winter White House’ in West Palm Beach, Florida, before the President’s first visit; the Defense Department leasing space in Trump Tower; and First Lady Melania Trump claiming in legal proceedings her new position is a ‘unique, once-in-a-lifetime’ business opportunity,” it read.

On Thursday, after Conway’s on-air transgression, the Republican chair and ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Ethics Committee sent a letter to the Office of Government Ethics to ask that it send suggestions for disciplinary actions against Conway to the White House.

Read the full letter and accompanying press release below:

Washington, D.C. – Today, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Tom Carper (D-DE), Tom Udall (D-NM), Edward J. Markey (D-MA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) urged the White House Counsel to take decisive action to end the troubling pattern of apparently blatant conflicts of interest plaguing the Trump Administration.

Counselor to President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway, appeared on Fox News yesterday from the White House briefing room, entreating viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” and “I’m going to just give a free commercial here. Go buy it today everybody. You can find it online.” The Senators note in a letter sent today that this is just one of many illustrations of potential breaches of federal conflict of interest law in the less than three weeks of Donald Trump’s tenure. Other incidents include questions about whether Trump International Hotel violated a General Services Administration lease; doubling of membership fees at the Trump Organization’s “Winter White House” in West Palm Beach, Florida, before the President’s first visit; the Defense Department leasing space in Trump Tower; and First Lady Melania Trump claiming in legal proceedings her new position is a “unique, once-in-a-lifetime” business opportunity.

The Senators write, “This pattern of behavior, in conjunction with President Trump’s failure to follow the advice of the Office of Government Ethics concerning his own assets, suggests that ethics violations will continue to plague this Administration throughout the length of its tenure. This not only distracts us all from the important matters facing our country, but it denigrates the esteem with which our government is held at home and abroad. We urge you to act decisively to address these concerns and, in the interest of transparency, make public any guidance provided by your office to White House staff to prevent further ethical violations.”

Full text of the letter is below. A PDF copy is available here.

Dear Mr. McGahn:

We write to request that you outline clear and specific steps the White House is taking to prevent further violations of government ethics laws by members of the White House and the Administration of President Trump. Yesterday’s statements by Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to President Donald Trump, were the latest in a series of statements and actions that suggest that the Trump Administration has either no understanding of, or complete disregard for, federal conflict of interest laws and regulations.

Speaking to viewers of “Fox & Friends” while standing in the White House briefing room, Ms. Conway referenced the merchandise collection owned and controlled by Ivanka Trump, President Trump’s daughter, and encouraged viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff.” While acting in her official capacity, Ms. Conway also stated “I’m going to give it a free commercial here” and “Go buy it today everybody. You can find it online.”[1]

This endorsement of specific merchandise would appear to violate ethics laws and regulations, which clearly bar federal employees from endorsing any product or enterprise for private gain. A rule adopted by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics prohibiting the misuse of public office for private gain specifically states that:

An employee may not use his public office for his own private gain or for that of persons or organizations with which he is associated personally. An employee’s position or title should not be used to coerce; to endorse any product, service or enterprise; or to give the appearance of governmental sanction.[2]

Ms. Conway’s statements from the White House briefing room clearly indicate that she was endorsing the product line for the private gain of an individual with whom she is associated personally. Furthermore, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics recently issued a statement to federal employees indicating that “all executive branch employees must refrain from misuse of position, including endorsements.”[3]

This is not the first time business dealings of President Trump and his family may have run afoul of federal laws or created the appearance of impropriety. In the three weeks since the President’s inauguration, questions have been raised about whether the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. is in violation of its lease with the General Services Administration, why his “Winter White House” at Mar-a-Lago increased membership fees without disclosing the names of all of its members, whether it is proper for the Department of Defense to rent space in Trump Tower if that rent would be paid to the Trump Organization, and why Melania Trump has claimed in legal proceedings that being the First Lady is a “unique, once-in-a-lifetime” business opportunity.

This pattern of behavior, in conjunction with President Trump’s failure to follow the advice of the Office of Government Ethics concerning his own assets, suggests that ethics violations will continue to plague this Administration throughout the length of its tenure. This not only distracts us all from the important matters facing our country, but it denigrates the esteem with which our government is held at home and abroad. We urge you to act decisively to address these concerns and, in the interest of transparency, make public any guidance provided by your office to White House staff to prevent further ethical violations.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

[1] Kellyanne Conway on Ivanka Trump’s Fashion Line: ‘Go Buy It Today!’ Fox News (Feb. 9, 2017).

[2] 5 C.F.R. § 2635.702.

[3] After Trump tweet, ethics office to U.S. employees: do not endorse products, Reuters (Jan. 13, 2017).

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