On Thursday, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel — a watchdog agency with no connection to Robert S. Mueller III — recommended that Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway be fired for multiple violations of the Hatch Act. That’s the federal law that limits political activities by government employees.
The White House rejected the report’s “overbroad” interpretation of the law, so it doesn’t look as if Conway will be spending more time with her family (including her husband, George Conway, a caustic critic of the president).
In his letter to President Donald Trump, Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner observed that Conway had “repeatedly violated the Hatch Act” during media appearances and on Twitter. Kerner cited interviews in which Conway made “statements directed at the success of your reelection campaign or at the failure of candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.”
To which a lot of viewers of cable news (not to mention “Saturday Night Live”) will reply: “Isn’t that her job?” After all, Conway is probably Trump’s principal apologist — more prominent than Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, whose departure from the White House was announced on Thursday.
The special counsel’s letter cites “a pattern of partisan attacks on several Democratic Party candidates shortly after they announced their candidacy for president, including Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Congressman Robert Francis ‘Beto’ O’Rourke, and former Vice President Joe Biden.” Among the highlights (or lowlights): Conway called Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders “two old white straight men career politicians,” and she retweeted a description of Biden as “Creepy Uncle Joe.”
Kerner may be right that Conway’s statements about Democrats violate the Hatch Act’s proscriptions — a conclusion the White House obviously disputes — but it’s surreal to fault a political player for making political statements.
When the Trump transition team announced Conway’s appointment after the 2016 election, it said that she would “continue her role as a close advisor to the president and will work with senior leadership to effectively message and execute the administration’s legislative priorities and actions.”
That job description admittedly doesn’t include partisan advocacy, but the president Conway serves is a politician, albeit an unconventional one. And she is by trade a political operative. Presumably she wasn’t hired to advise Trump on the intricacies of healthcare policy or Middle East peacemaking.
Again, I’m not disputing Kerner’s legal conclusion or the constitutionality of the Hatch Act. (The law was upheld by the Supreme Court against a 1st Amendment challenge in 1973). And Conway’s paycheck comes from the taxpayers, not Trump’s campaign war chest. But for someone in Conway’s position, the line between policy and partisanship seems pretty artificial.
Perhaps the Hatch Act should be amended to recognize explicitly that a president is entitled to one or two people on his official payroll who can openly engage in an activity they are probably pursuing covertly: working for the president’s reelection. Then there wouldn’t be a problem with rank-and-file employees thinking that they could violate the law.
Another benefit: The special counsel wouldn’t need to say that he’s shocked, shocked that a political player is engaging in politics.
Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.