WASHINGTON — Kellyanne Conway, the high profile adviser to President Trump, was “counseled’’ by White House officials and sharply criticized by Republicans Thursday after she offered what she described as a “free commercial” for the Ivanka Trump clothing brand during a television interview.
Congressional officials asked for an ethics review after Conway openly hawked the commercial brand bearing the Ivanka Trump name, a vivid example of the myriad conflicts of interest posed by the sprawling Trump family business organization.
“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff, is what I’d say,” Conway said, speaking from the White House briefing room, with the seal of the White House behind her, just down the hall from the Oval Office. “I’m going to buy stuff today.”
“It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it,” Conway told Fox News during an interview on the controversy over a retailer’s decision to stop carrying the brand.
“I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online,” said Conway, whose official title is counselor to the president.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican best known for investigating the Clinton foibles, said Conway’s comments were “wrong, wrong, wrong, clearly over the line, unacceptable.” He added: “It needs to be dealt with. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.”
Chaffetz, along with the Oversight Committee’s top Democrat Elijah Cummings, in a rare bipartisan statement, sent a letter to the Office of Government Ethics to “review” Conway’s comments for ethics violations and recommend disciplinary action if warranted.
The White House did little to defend Conway on Thursday, a signal of how seriously the aide might have overstepped the rules.
“Kellyanne has been counseled, and that’s all we’re going to say,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said during the White House briefing. “She’s been counseled on that topic.”
A former Republican ethics attorney was more explicit about Conway’s actions. “It is a violation of federal ethics regulations,” said Richard Painter, a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, who served as the White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush. “That was strictly forbidden in the Bush administration because it is illegal.”
Conway’s Ivanka Trump interview came a day after the president was accused by critics of misusing his power by criticizing the retail chain Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s clothing line. The department store cited poor sales figures, but the first daughter’s clothing has also been the target of an organized boycott.
“My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom,” Trump wrote to his 24.3 million Twitter followers. “She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”
Larry Noble, the general counsel of the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, said Conway’s remarks were the most blatant violation of ethics rules prohibiting the promotion of a product that he’s ever witnessed.
“The whole context of what this is about is really trying to protect a private brand from what they perceive was an attack, and that is using government resources to promote or protect a private business,” Noble said.
Ivanka Trump’s business has caused headaches in the past. She raised some eyebrows when she wore a $138 pale pink dress made by her label for a primetime speech at the Republican National Convention — and then posted a link to purchase the dress on her Twitter account.
After her father won the November election, Ivanka Trump wore a $10,000 bracelet by one of her labels during a “60 Minutes” interview. A “style alert” was sent out from her company, describing the pricey bauble as Ivanka Trump’s “favorite bangle,” a move that was widely seen as an attempt to capitalize on the interview as a way to sell the jewelry.
You can also find Ivanka Trump merchandise — which is made in China — at T.J. Maxx, three blocks from the White House, which, in turn, is just a few blocks from the Trump International Hotel, which Donald Trump’s business organization operates in an iconic Washington building leased from the federal government. The intersection of business and official government is unprecedented for a family that has amassed billions of dollars in the fields of real estate, branding, retail marketing, and entertainment.
Conway, who is Trump’s frequent defender on numerous television news shows, joined the Trump orbit in July 2016 and became campaign manager the following month as the candidate reshuffled his staff. She’s been a lightning rod for controversy, at one point defending the White House’s attempts to inflate the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration as “alternative facts.” More recently, she took the media to task for failing to adequately cover the “Bowling Green massacre” terror attack, an event that did not take place.
President Trump, meanwhile, has signed operational control of his global real estate empire and other businesses to his family members, but he retains ownership, and ethics experts have said the move falls far short of the sort of disinvestments and blind trusts that would be needed to appropriately deal with conflicts of interests.
First lady Melania Trump has also been eyeing the financial benefits of becoming a globally known name. In a defamation lawsuit filed this month seeking tens of millions of dollars from the Daily Mail, her lawyers said that the newspaper threatened her “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to “launch a broad-based commercial brand” while Melania Trump is “one of the most photographed women in the world.”
Ivanka Trump — whose husband, Jared Kushner, is a high level White House adviser — said in January that she’ll take a “formal leave of absence” from her executive positions at her company and the Trump Organization. The White House declined to say whether she has actually submitted paperwork separating herself from her business.
Ivanka is often referred to as first daughter, and she has filled in on occasion in roles normally reserved for the first lady, Melania Trump, who is living in New York instead of Washington while the Trumps’ son, Barron, attends school.
The two days of news about Ivanka Trump’s brand have filtered well beyond the political class. At the T.J. Maxx near the White House, Ivanka Trump’s clothing was deeply discounted, and the clothing was interspersed on racks with multiple brands. One pale pink blouse with gold-colored buttons, made in China, went for $29.99, marked down twice from the original $69.
Shoppers around lunchtime were well aware of the debate stirring at the White House. “Now I associate her with her father,” said Christel Oomen, 32, of Falls Church, Va., who added that she’s a Democrat.
She’s never been a fan of the brand, but now it repulses her. “I picked up a shoe and saw it was Ivanka Trump, and I instantly put it back,” she added.
Like the divided country, there was a wide range of views.
Regina, a 41-year-old woman who didn’t want to give her last name because she works in law enforcement, was out shopping specifically to find the brand on sale.
“Fifty percent of my clothes are Ivanka Trump,” she said. “It’s very stylish. Very European.”
Regina also doesn’t support Trump but believes Ivanka Trump has the right to have her own life and business that’s separate from her father’s politics.
“I don’t think the children should have to pay for what the father has done,” she said.