In Donald Trump's America, the White House has become a freelance ad agency.
On FOX & Friends Thursday morning, Trump administration official Kellyanne Conway responded to Nordstrom dropping Ivanka Trump's clothing line from its stores by saying, "It's a wonderful line. I own some of it… I'm going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online."
Here's a fun fact: This is probably illegal. Under a 1966 federal ethics law, the US Code prohibits federal employees from using public office for private gain, including "the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise."
Not only can Kellyanne Conway not promote "Kellyanne's Steaks" or anything else that grants her a personal benefit, but public officeholders cannot do anything that results in a private gain for "friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity." Conway shilling for Ivanka Trump seems to fall into that category; watchdogs like Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (and independent experts) certainly think so.
The catch, however, is that the law doesn't matter if nobody is willing to enforce it. And this shows how our Constitution and system of government isn't well-equipped to deal with someone like Donald Trump holding the nation's highest office.
The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) governs violations of the ban on endorsing products. But its ability to sanction employees is rather limited: It can investigate and make recommendations for enforcement, everything from suspending officials to docking them pay to firing them.
But somebody has to actually carry out the penalty. In this case, that would appear to be the White House counsel. Famously, the father of Ivanka Trump heads up the White House. You see the problem here. (Press Secretary Sean Spicer responded to questions about Conway Thursday by saying, "Kellyanne has been counseled. That's all we're going to go with.")
Public Citizen, another government watchdog group, optimistically wrote to the OGE requesting an investigation of Conway, saying that it "reflects an on-going careless regard of the conflicts of interest laws and regulations of some members of the Trump family and Trump Administration." But that careless disregard is precisely why nothing is likely to happen here.
I mean, Donald Trump is essentially pitching US companies from the Oval Office on an almost daily basis, whether it's computer chipmaker Intel or auto manufacturers or the major airlines. And Trump and his team have, at least in the past, had no problem touting businesses in which he has a personal stake.
Watch Sean Spicer try to defend President Trump's tweets about Nordstrom
During the campaign, Trump placed products named after him (most of which, to be fair, he never or no longer owned) on his podium during a news conference. And he held another news conference in front of his own hotel in Washington—which he does still own—spending several minutes extolling its virtues. White House press secretary Sean Spicer talked up that same hotel in his first press conference, the day before Trump's inauguration. First Lady Melania Trump complained in a libel suit that depictions of her in the media robbed her of the opportunity "to launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, each of which could have garnered multimillion dollar business relationships for a multiyear term during which plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world."
In other words, using public office for private gain is just what this family and their associates do. As Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, put it in a statement, "Kellyanne Conway's self-proclaimed advertisement for the Ivanka Trump fashion line demonstrates again what anyone with common sense already knew: President Trump and the Trump administration will use the government apparatus to advance the interests of the family businesses."
So watchdog groups and Democratic politicians can scream about this, and they should.
Even House Oversight Committee Chairman, Republican Jason Chaffetz, called Conway's actions "clearly over the line" and "unacceptable." But when a president is willing to ignore ethics laws, there isn't really an independent check on his power, practically speaking, unless, in this case, Trump's own party really goes after his staff. The Office of Governmental Ethics only has so much authority; ultimately it's dependent on federal agencies to carry out its wishes. And it's more likely that Ivanka would hop on QVC to sell handbags from inside the Oval Office than for Kellyanne Conway to face any real discipline for her free ad.
The most important principle in our system is that the laws be faithfully executed. Without that guarantee, the rule of law breaks down. We've all gotten so used to seeing different sets of rules applied in America depending on wealth and privilege, something like this might pass by unnoticed. But it shouldn't; it's a symptom of a real rot in our democracy.
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