Federal agency urges Trump to fire Conway over Hatch Act violations

Kellyanne Conway, couns­elor to President Donal­d Trump, during the president's working lunch with governors on workforce freedom and mobility in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, June 13, 2019. An independent government agency recommended on Thursday that Trump fire Conway for repeated violations of an ethics law barring partisan politics from the federal workplace. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — An independent government agency recommended Thursday that President Donald Trump fire Kellyanne Conway, his White House counselor, for repeated violations of an ethics law barring partisan politics from the federal workplace.

In a letter accompanying a report to Trump, the agency called Conway a “repeat offender” of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in campaign politics at work, saying that her flagrant defiance of the law justified her dismissal from the White House.

“As a highly visible member of the administration, Ms. Conway’s violations, if left unpunished, send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions,” said the letter to the president, signed by Henry Kerner, head of the agency. “Her actions erode the principal foundation of our democratic system — the rule of law.”

The agency, called the Office of Special Counsel, enforces the Hatch Act, and is not related to Robert Mueller, the former special counsel who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Despite its official mission, the office has no power to force Conway’s dismissal, and the White House quickly made clear that Trump would not follow its suggestion.

Conway had no immediate reaction, but she has previously scorned the office as irrelevant. “Blah, blah, blah,” she told a reporter who noted her past Hatch Act violations a couple of weeks ago. “If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”

The White House on Thursday released an 11-page memo from Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, rejecting the 17-page report by Kerner, the special counsel, who was appointed in 2017 by Trump.

“OSC’s draft report is based on multiple fundamental legal and factual errors, makes unfair and unsupported claims against a close adviser to the president, is the product of a blatantly unfair process that ignored statutory notice requirements, and has been influenced by various inappropriate considerations,” Cipollone wrote.

Among other things, he argued that the special counsel was applying an overreaching interpretation of the law to target the president’s aide, particularly by applying unjustified standards to social media.

“OSC’s overbroad and unsupported interpretation of the Hatch Act risks violating Ms. Conway’s First Amendment rights and chills the free speech of all government employees,” Cipollone wrote. The call for Conway’s firing, he added, “is as outrageous as it is unprecedented.”

Outside ethics watchdog groups praised the special counsel’s report and criticized Conway for disregarding the law. “It’s untenable for a senior counselor to the president to decide that civil law is no longer something she is bound by,” said Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, one of the groups. “No one is above the law.”

The House Oversight and Reform Committee’s Democratic leadership announced that it will hold a hearing on Conway’s actions on June 26 and invite her to testify. Trump has sought to block current and former aides from appearing before a variety of House committees on an array of issues, so this could open one more front in that broader fight between executive and legislative branches.

At issue are Conway’s media appearances attacking Democrats running for their party’s nomination to challenge Trump next year. The Office of Special Counsel concluded that she “violated the Hatch Act on numerous occasions by disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.”

Among other instances, the report highlighted Conway’s comments on Fox News attacking candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.

While identified as a White House official and speaking from the White House grounds, she accused Warren of “lying” about her ethnicity, said Sanders’ “ideas are terrible for America” and asserted that Biden had “no vision.” On one show, she said she had “yet to see presidential timber” among the Democrats. “I just see a bunch of presidential wood chips.”

The report is the second time the office has taken Conway to task, the only time it has ever issued multiple reports to a president on the same individual. In March 2018, the office found two violations of the Hatch Act by Conway when she argued in favor of Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for Senate in a special election in Alabama, with the White House as her backdrop.

The White House at the time refused to discipline Conway as the office recommended and instead defended her on the grounds that she was representing the president’s policy position.

Other administrations have run afoul of the Hatch Act, but within Trump’s first year in office more complaints were filed against his team than against top appointees in the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

First enacted in 1939, the Hatch Act was meant to keep politics out of the federal workplace while guaranteeing the rights of government workers to exercise their own partisan preferences on their own time. Among other things, it makes it illegal for an official to “use his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”