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White House and White House appointee fight over Kellyanne Conway

Office of Special Counsel accuses Conway of violating Hatch Act as White House punches back

Kellyanne Conway speaks to the media outside of the White House on the North Lawn in June. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Kellyanne Conway speaks to the media outside of the White House on the North Lawn in June. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A federal special counsel nominated by President Donald Trump is calling for White House counselor Kellyanne Conway to be removed from office for taking overtly political actions while fulfilling her official government duties.

But the White House is pushing back, saying the office violated Conway’s due process rights and is questioning the special counsel’s motivations.

Special Counsel Henry Kerner concluded in a report that Conway violated federal law multiple times by ”disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.”

The 1939 Hatch Act prohibits most executive branch employees — except the president, vice president and a handful of others — from conducting political business while in their official capacity.

The White House press office and White House counsel in turn criticized Kerner and accused the Trump appointee of harboring political motives.

“The Office of Special Counsel’s (OSC) unprecedented actions against Kellyanne Conway are deeply flawed and violate her constitutional rights to free speech and due process. Others, of all political views, have objected to the OSC’s unclear and unevenly applied rules which have a chilling effect on free speech for all federal employees,” White House deputy press secretary Steven Groves said in a statement.

“Its decisions seem to be influenced by media pressure and liberal organizations — and perhaps OSC should be mindful of its own mandate to act in a fair, impartial, non-political manner, and not misinterpret or weaponize the Hatch Act,” Groves added.

And in a letter to the special counsel, White House Counsel Pat A. Cipollone, slammed Kerner’s probe and approach to it.

“Even assuming that the Hatch Act applies to the most senior advisers to the president in the White House, OSC has violated its statutory obligation to provide Ms. Conway a reasonable opportunity to respond, violated Ms. Conway’s due process rights, and abused its discretion by issuing a report tainted by inappropriate external influences,” the top White House lawyer wrote.

Yet, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other Trump officials have stood at the White House podium — when daily or regular press briefings were held — and declined to answer questions by pointing to the Hatch Act. But as those briefings have dried up, less formal “gaggles” have occurred daily in the White House’s north driveway after Sanders and others do television interviews. Conway is one of the most frequent officials who routinely take part in these free-for-all sessions, and she rarely holds back criticizing Democrats or any Trump political foe.

For instance, during a recent television appearance Conway called 2020 Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke, a “loser.” She has accused all the opposition party’s White House hopefuls of being “obsessed” with Trump. She has said Mexico is willing to “do more” to secure America’s southern border than congressional Democrats. And like other officials, she has painted Democrats as all being in favor of socialism.

Cipollone accused the special counsel of going “overboard” with an “unsupported interpretation of the Hatch Act risks” and with “violating Ms. Conway’s First Amendment rights,” saying that “chills the free speech of all government employees.” The White House attorney also took umbrage with Kerner finding that Conway’s Twitter posts violated the law.

What’s more, Cipollone slammed Kerner for calling on the president to fire Conway.

“Worst of all,” he told the special counsel, “OSC’s ‘call’ upon the President ‘to remove Ms·. Conway from her federal position immediately ’ is as outrageous as it is unprecedented.”

But one non-partisan government watchdog group, the Project on Government Oversight, trumpeted Kerner’s findings.

“I’m very glad to see the Office of Special Counsel is continuing to take the Hatch Act seriously, even though Kellyanne Conway clearly doesn’t. The Hatch Act contains vital provisions to keep partisan politics out of the executive branch, and enforcing it at the highest level of government is in the best interest of each American citizen,” Liz Hempowicz, POGO’s public policy director, said in a statement.

“Ms. Conway, while maintaining her position in the White House, represents the administration,” Hempwitz said. “It’s untenable for a senior counselor to the president to decide that civil law is no longer something she is bound by. No one is above the law.”

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