Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway speaks to reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, May 29, 2019. Credit: Andrew Harnik | AP

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Friday that he will not fire White House counselor Kellyanne Conway for repeated violations of the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in political activity in the course of their work.

“Well I got briefed on it yesterday, and it looks to me like they’re trying to take away her right of free speech, and that’s just not fair,” Trump said during an interview on Fox News.

His comments came a day after the Office of Special Counsel publicly recommended Conway’s removal from federal office, calling her a “repeat offender.”

A report submitted to Trump found that Conway violated the Hatch Act on numerous occasions by “disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.”

“No, I’m not going to fire her,” Trump said. “I think she’s a terrific person. She’s a tremendous spokeswoman. She’s been loyal. She’s just a great person.”

Trump characterized the comments in question from Conway as merely responding to questions.

“You ask a person a question, and every time you’re supposed to say, ‘I can’t answer, I can’t answer?’ ” Trump said. “I mean, she’s got to have a right of responding to questions.”

On Thursday, the White House counsel immediately issued a letter calling for the Office of Special Counsel to withdraw its recommendation that Conway be removed – a request the agency declined.

In an interview, Special Counsel Henry Kerner called his recommendation that a political appointee of Conway’s stature be fired “unprecedented.”

“You know what else is unprecedented?” said Kerner, a Trump appointee who has run the agency since December 2017. “Kellyanne Conway’s behavior.”

“In interview after interview, she uses her official capacity to disparage announced candidates, which is not allowed,” he said, adding: “What kind of example does that send to the federal workforce? If you’re high enough up in the White House, you can break the law, but if you’re a postal carrier or a regular federal worker, you lose your job?”

The Office of Special Counsel is a quasi-judicial independent agency that adjudicates claims of retaliation by whistleblowers and administers the Hatch Act and other civil service rules. It is a separate agency from the office run by now-former special counsel Robert Mueller, who led the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In its 17-page report, the Office of Special Counsel found that Conway repeatedly attacked 2020 Democratic presidential candidates while she was being interviewed by media outlets in her official capacity and tweeted about the candidates from her official account.

The agency noted that Conway attacked former vice president Joe Biden’s lack of “vision,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts spent “decades appropriating somebody else’s heritage and ethnicity,” and called Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey “sexist” and a “tinny” “motivational speaker.”

During a one-week period leading up to the 2018 midterm elections, Conway posted at least 15 messages on Twitter that were political and in support of midterm election candidates or the Republican Party, according to the report.

“Her defiant attitude is inimical to the law, and her continued pattern of misconduct is unacceptable,” the agency wrote.

The Washington Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Lisa Rein and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.