Ethics experts say Trump should fire Kellyanne Conway after she crossed an ethical 'red line'

  • The US Office of Special Counsel determined that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway violated federal ethics laws twice when she advocated for and against Senate candidates.
  • Ethics experts say those findings, along with a previous ethics violation, warrant Conway's firing.
  • But, in an unprecedented move, the White House has denied that Conway engaged in any political advocacy.

The US Office of Special Counsel determined that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway violated federal ethics laws twice when she advocated for and against Senate candidates during television interviews last year — violations that ethics experts say warrant Conway's firing.

Special counsel Henry Kerner, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, argued that Conway repeatedly violated the 1939 Hatch Act, which prevents government employees from using their position to advance or promote any political party or candidate, even after receiving "significant training" on the law.

Kerner wrote in his letter to Trump that Conway made "intentional partisan jabs" at Doug Jones, then the Democratic candidate for Senate in Alabama, which were intended to "persuade voters not to support him in the Alabama special election."

In a "Fox & Friends" interview on November 20, during which she was introduced as "counselor to the president," Conway advocated against Jones, who she called a "doctrinaire liberal."

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Kellyanne Conway in her White House role
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Kellyanne Conway in her White House role
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway winks and waves at the news media as she goes to make a TV appearance at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 13, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
Senior advisor Kellyanne Conway (L) attends as U.S. President Donald Trump (behind desk) welcomes the leaders of dozens of historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 27, 2017. Jonathan Ernst: "We're often asked how much access we have to the Trump administration, and the answer is we have an awful lot. President Trump himself is very comfortable in the spotlight, and his aides are similarly unfazed by cameras. In this instance, senior advisor Kellyanne Conway was so comfortable in our presence she seemed not to consider the optics of kneeling on a Oval Office sofa to take pictures with her phone." REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo SEARCH "POY TRUMP" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2017 PACKAGES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
First Lady of the United States Melania Trump and Kellyanne Conway listen as doctors from Cincinnati Children Hospital talk about children's health at the hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, February 5, 2018. REUTERS/ John Sommers II
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White House Communications Director Hope Hicks (C) departs as she and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway (L) stand on the sidelines while U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. February 9, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway (L) laughs with other aides before U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivered joint statements from the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway whispers to Senior Advisor Jared Kushner before U.S. President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivered joint statements from the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
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(L-R) Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Senior Advisor Stephen Miller walk on the South Lawn of the White House upon their return with President Donald Trump to Washington, U.S., May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway arrives at Newark International airport in Newark, NJ U.S., with President Donald Trump, June 9, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 05: White House Senior Advisor, Kellyanne Conway (L), stand with White House Communications Director, Hope Hicks, during a news conference with U.S. President Donald Trump and King Abdullah II of Jordan, at the White House April 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. President Trump held talks on Middle East peace process and other bilateral issues with King Abdullah II. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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"Doug Jones in Alabama?" Conway said. "Folks, don't be fooled. He'll be a vote against tax cuts. He's weak on crime, weak on borders. He's strong on raising your taxes. He's terrible for property owners."

"So, vote Roy Moore?" "Fox & Friends" host Brian Kilmeade asked, referring to the controversial Republican candidate, who was — and still is — facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.

"I'm telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through," Conway responded, adding, "I just want everybody to know Doug Jones, nobody ever says his name and they pretend that he's some kind of conservative Democrat in Alabama and he's not."

In the second interview on CNN on December 6, Conway made similar comments, even after receiving public criticism for her previous statements on Fox News.

Kerner said that Conway, who has remained silent on the charges, had been informed of the Hatch Act's prohibitions before she "chose during both interviews to repeatedly identify reasons why voters should support one candidate over another in the Alabama special election."

It's up to Trump whether Conway will face any discipline

The special counsel turned its investigative report on Conway's violations over to the president, who will decide whether and what kind of disciplinary action should be taken.

But in a statement, the White House defended Conway's comments.

"Kellyanne Conway did not advocate for or against the election of any particular candidate," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement. "She simply expressed the President's obvious position that he have people in the House and Senate who support his agenda."

Richard Painter, who served as the White House chief ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, said it is unprecedented — at least in the last few decades — for a White House to deny the findings of the independent ethics office.

"It's very disturbing that the White House chief of staff is going to let White House lawyers say the Hatch Act means something entirely different than what the agency charged with enforcing the Hatch Act says it means," Painter told Business Insider. "That's just flat-out wrong."

Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics under Presidents Barack Obama and Trump, argued that the violations were indisputable.

"Only in a world of alternative facts could Conway's televised words amount to anything other than advocacy against Jones," he wrote in a November Washington Post op-ed. "The case against Conway is airtight."

The Campaign Legal Center, which Shaub now leads, filed a complaint against Conway.

This is not the first time Conway has violated federal ethics laws. In February 2017, she encouraged Fox News viewers to "go buy Ivanka's stuff," saying she was "going to give a free commercial here."

The Office of Government Ethics recommended the White House investigate and potentially bring disciplinary action against Conway for touting Trump's daughter's business, but Conway never received any disciplinary action.

"This is the third strike," Painter said, calling them "slam dunk violations."

"She's trained as a lawyer and she obviously can't follow the rules," he said. "And if she can't follow the rules, she doesn't belong in the White House."

RELATED: Members past and present of President Trump's inner circle

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Members past and present of President Trump's inner circle
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Members past and present of President Trump's inner circle
Hope Hicks: Former White House Director of Strategic Communications
Melania Trump: Wife to President Trump and first lady of the United States
Gary Cohn: Former Director of the U.S. National Economic Council
Michael Flynn: Former National Security Advisor, no longer with the Trump administration
Ivanka Trump: First daughter and presidential adviser
Gen. John Kelly: Former Secretary of Homeland Security, current White House chief of staff
Steve Bannon: Former White House chief strategist, no longer with the Trump administration
Jared Kushner: Son-in-law and senior adviser
Kellyanne Conway: Former Trump campaign manager, current counselor to the president
Reince Priebus: Former White House chief of staff, no longer with the Trump administration
Anthony Scaramucci: Former White House communications director, no longer with the Trump administration
Sarah Huckabee Sanders: White House press secretary
Donald Trump Jr.: First son to President Trump
Sean Spicer: Former White House press secretary, soon to be no longer with the Trump administration
Jeff Sessions: U.S. attorney general
Steve Mnuchin: Secretary of Treasury
Paul Manafort: Former Trump campaign chairman
Carter Page: Former foreign policy adviser to Trump's presidential campaign
Omarosa Manigault: Former Director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison
Jason Miller: Former White House communications director, no longer with the Trump administration
Mike Dubke: Former White House communications director, no longer with the Trump administration
Stephen Miller: Trump senior policy adviser
Corey Lewandowski: Former Trump campaign manager
Eric Trump: Son to President Trump
Rex Tillerson: Former Secretary of State
Sebastian Gorka: Former deputy assistant to the president in the Trump administration, no longer in his White House role
Roger Stone: Former Trump campaign adviser, current host of Stone Cold Truth
Betsy DeVos: U.S. Education Secretary
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Trump is crossing an 'ethical red line'

Norm Eisen, who served as the top ethics official for former President Barack Obama, tweeted on Tuesday that the president's dismissal of Conway's latest violations would constitute crossing an ethical "redline."

"Make no mistake about it, if Trump does not fire Kellyanne Conway after THREE Hatch Act violations another redline will be crossed," Eisen said. "He will be saying breaking the law does not matter--I will pardon away any sins."

Kathleen Clark, an ethics law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said that Conway's silence on the issue is troubling.

"It makes one question whether she even understands her responsibilities as a public official," Clark told Business Insider.

Conway is not the first administration official to be found in violation of the Hatch Act. In early June, the Office of Special Counsel issued a warning to White House social media director Dan Scavino for having in April advocated on Twitter the electoral defeat of Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan.

Allan Smith contributed to this report.

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