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Neither Kellyanne Conway nor any other White House staffer is excluded from federal ethics rules, the head of the Office of Government Ethics said this week. (Photo: Michael Vadon/flickr/cc)

Ethics Office Tells Trump & Co.: Sorry, You're Not Above the Rules

The No TRUMP Act, introduced this week, seeks to address at least some of President Donald Trump's conflicts of interest

Deirdre Fulton

The head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has taken issue with the Trump administration's grasp of ethics rules, expressing deep concern that the executive branch apparently thinks it is above such regulations.

In a letter sent Thursday to deputy White House counsel Stefan Passantino, OGE director Walter Shaub admonished the administration for failing to censure advisor Kellyanne Conway for her February endorsement of Ivanka Trump's products on the television program "Fox & Friends." The OGE had previously told the White House that there was "strong reason to believe that Ms. Conway has violated the Standards of Conduct and that disciplinary action is warranted."

But Passantino let Shaub know earlier this month that the White House would not discipline Conway, saying she acted "inadvertently" when she openly encouraged people to "go buy Ivanka's stuff" after President Donald Trump slammed Nordstrom department store for dropping his daughter's fashion line.

In that letter, Passantino further asserted: "We note initially that although many regulations promulgated by the Office of Government Ethics ("OGE") do not apply to employees of the Executive Office of the President, the Office of the White House Counsel has instructed all such employees to abide by 3 CFR 100.1," which NPR describes as "the segment of ethics law that pertains to Executive Office employees."

Shaub said Thursday he "remain[s] concerned about Ms. Conway's misuse of position," and that failing to issue punishment "risks undermining the ethics program."

However, he continued:

I am more concerned about the extraordinary assertion that 'many' of OGE's regulations are inapplicable to employees of the Executive Office of the President. The assertion is incorrect, and the letter cites no legal basis for it. Presidential administrations have not considered it appropriate to challenge the applicability of ethics rules to the entire executive branch.

The Hill reports:

Shaub also sent a letter to [House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason] Chaffetz [R-Utah] and House Oversight Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) on Thursday, admitting that the ethics office could take no further action against Conway.

"When an agency declines to take disciplinary action against an employee in connection with an ethics violation, OGE's only recourse is to notify the President," he wrote. 

"In this case, however, the White House's response makes clear that disciplinary action will not be taken."

Cummings also wrote to Passantino (pdf) separately on Thursday, stating that "[t]he president's staff needs to follow ethics rules—not flout them."

Noting that Passantino's language closely mirrored that of the Koch Brothers-funded conservative group Cause for Action, which itself wrote the OGE in February to defend Conway's conduct, Cummings then asked the administration to clarify its stance on how ethics rules apply to the executive branch.

Each week of the Trump presidency seems to bring additional ethical quandaries, leading Brennan Center fellow and Stetson University College of Law professor Ciara Torres-Spelliscy to write this week that rejecting formal ethics training for his staff, nominees, and advisors was perhaps "the worst $1 million Trump ever saved."

The Associated Press reported Wednesday, for example, that "China has granted preliminary approval for 38 new Trump trademarks, paving the way for Donald Trump and his family to potentially develop a host of branded businesses from hotels to insurance to bodyguard and escort services."

The wire service added:

Ethics lawyers across the political spectrum say that if Trump receives any special treatment in securing trademark rights, it would violate the U.S. Constitution, which bans public servants from accepting anything of value from foreign governments unless approved by Congress. Concerns about potential conflicts of interest are particularly sharp in China, where the courts and bureaucracy are designed to reflect the will of the ruling Communist party.

Dan Plane, a director at Simone IP Services, a Hong Kong intellectual property consultancy, said he had never seen so many applications approved so expeditiously.

"For all these marks to sail through so quickly and cleanly, with no similar marks, no identical marks, no issues with specifications—boy, it's weird," he said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also drew attention to the Chinese trademarks on Friday:

In an attempt to address at least some of the administration's conflicts of interest, U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) on Thursday introduced the No Taxpayer Revenue Used to Monetize the Presidency Act, or the No TRUMP Act.

The legislation would prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to pay for events, overnight stays, food, or other miscellaneous expenses at hotels owned or operated by a president or his or her relatives, according to a press statement. As examples, Blumenauer cited "reports of taxpayers footing bills for Secret Service and embassy officials to travel with Trump's children on a business trip and as government officials spend time at Trump facilities," USA Today reported.

"Trump and his family are riddled with conflicts of interests," Blumenauer said. "Putting a strain on government resources for Trump to hold meetings with U.S. officials at Mar-a-Lago or for the Trump children to travel the world to promote the family business are just more examples. Presidents should not financially benefit from holding the office. No taxpayer money should be spent at Trump hotels. Period."


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