The federal watchdog that called for White House aide Kellyanne Conway to be fired for her series of Hatch Act violations has slammed Trump administration pressure to retract the request as “wholly inappropriate.”
A statement from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel issued Thursday also appeared to raise the specter of obstruction of justice by the administration. It said that pressure from White House lawyer Pat Cipollone “introduces a serious perception of undue influence” in the OSC’s independent investigation.
Last week, the OSC recommended that Conway be fired for her “egregious, notorious and ongoing” violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits most federal employees from using their official position to influence an election.
Kerner, a Trump appointee, said in a letter to the president that allowing Conway to break the Hatch Act with impunity erodes the “principal foundation of the democratic system — namely, the rule of law.”
White House deputy press secretary Steven Groves responded by accusing the OSC of “weaponizing” the Hatch Act by enforcing it and “violating” Conway’s constitutional rights. Trump himself characterized the call to fire Conway for campaigning for him on a taxpayer salary as a “free speech thing.”
Cipollone sent an 11-page letter to Kerner, attacking the watchdog report’s “flawed” conclusions and calling on Kerner to “withdraw and retract the report.” Cipollone also demanded the “entire investigation files related to the report.”
The OSC statement responded that “such requests ... are wholly inappropriate.” It added:
These requests represent a significant encroachment on OSC’s independence. This attempt by the Counsel’s [Cipollone] office to oversee our investigative and enforcement authority introduces a serious perception of undue influence in an apparent effort to bias the outcome of OSC’s independent investigation.
Conway has repeatedly bashed Democratic presidential candidates in her official capacity to groups of reporters and on national TV. In her first Hatch Act violation in 2017, she plugged Ivanka Trump’s products on TV during an interview.
Neither Trump nor Conway has denied that Conway violated the Hatch Act. The president has indicated the law is unconstitutional, though it was held up by the Supreme Court twice in 80 years. When Conway was recently challenged by a reporter about her Hatch Act violations, she responded: “Blah, blah, blah ... Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”
Walter Shaub, former ethics chief for Trump and the Obama administration, said in a recent series of tweets that he feared Trump would fire Kerner in retaliation. He later deleted his tweets, saying he didn’t want to risk “baiting a thug” to take action against someone.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee will hold a hearing later this month with Kerner to discuss Conway’s alleged Hatch Act violations.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is currently gathering signatures on a petition calling for Conway’s ouster.
The “violations, and her expressed disdain for the law, make clear that her removal is necessary to preserve the rule of law,” said the legal advocacy group that targets corruption in Washington. “Conway must resign or be fired immediately.”
The petition had more than 21,000 signatures as of Monday morning.