House Panel Votes to Subpoena Kellyanne Conway

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway talks with reporters outside the White House on April 30, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) – In a bid to compel Kellyanne Conway’s testimony before Congress, the House Oversight Committee voted Wednesday to subpoena the White House counselor for violating federal ethics rules.

The vote came as the committee met Wednesday to discuss the Office of Special Counsel’s findings on Hatch Act violations by members of the Trump administration. The Hatch Act bars employees from participating in partisan politics while serving in an official capacity.

Similar in name only to the probe run by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the Office of Special Counsel or OSC is an independent oversight agency without enforcement powers.

The incidents that prompted the OSC to recommend Conway’s removal occurred between February and May of this year when Conway gave multiple official interviews in which she attacked Democratic Party candidates shortly after they were announced.

Her reference to Senator Cory Booker as “sexist,” her claim that Senator Elizabeth Warren was “appropriating somebody else’s heritage,” and her attack on Congressman Beto O’Rourke – she baselessly claimed O’Rourke believed the women running in 2020 were “not good enough to be president” – were just some of the offenses cited in the OSC’s report.

The OSC also called out Conway for singling out presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign videos as “very dark and spooky,” and criticizing both Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as “two old white straight men career politicians.”

Compounding the violation, the OSC noted that Conway gave each of these interviews despite having been warned in March 2018 that she violated the Hatch Act during interviews about the Alabama Senate’s previous special election.

The oversight body recommended to President Donald Trump in a June 13 letter that Conway be fired. Trump swiftly went to the program “Fox & Friends” to reject the idea, saying Conway had been “loyal” and is entitled to express her views.

Conway echoed these remarks Monday in an interview on the same program. “They want to put a big roll of masking tape over my mouth,” she said. “This is my First Amendment right. So they want to chill free speech because they don’t know how to beat him at the ballot box.”

House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, dismissed the assertion ahead of Wednesday’s vote.

“This is not a conspiracy to silence her or restrict her First Amendment rights, this is an effort to enforce federal law, which very clearly prohibit employees from engaging in political activities on federal property or while using their official position,” Cummings said. “She knows Trump will not take any disciplinary action against her. Now they are arguing the Hatch Act does not even apply to her. Tell that to all the other federal employees who have to adhere to this law.”

The White House counsel has insisted that no violations have occurred and that even if they had, the law does not apply to the most senior adviser to the president.

The White House also instructed Conway not to appear before Congress for testimony.

Cummings denied that a subpoena of Conway implicates privileged material. “We’re not asking about any conversations she had with the president or advice she gave,” he said. “Here we have a clear-cut case of a federal employee violating federal law over and over and over and over again. … This is the opposite of accountability and is contrary to our fundamental system of laws. Nobody is above the law. Not even Ms. Conway.”

Defending the report before the committee this morning, OSC special counsel Henry Kerner rejected assertions that he was politically motivated.

Himself a Trump appointee, Kerner noted that that Conway’s conduct sets her apart from other Trump administration officials whose speech has invited regular public scrutiny.

Kerner pointed to former White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders specifically, noting how she “deftly pivoted” from press corps questions about election issues to avoid potential violations while in her official capacity.

“Conway’s comments, by contrast, were indistinguishable from the partisan attacks a campaign official would make,” Kerner said.

Ultimately, it is the president’s prerogative on what punishment to impose on Conway, if any.

“That’s his choice and that’s consistent with the statute,” he said.

But in the history of OSC, Kerner noted, there had “never been a repeat offender” like Conway, nor had there ever been a situation where so many violations stacked up.

“And she made a comment to suggest she didn’t feel bound by it,” Kerner said. “There’s no way to stay in federal employment while she feels she is not obligated to abide by the law.”

Apart from Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, who broke party lines to support the subpoena vote, several Republicans on the committee refused to back down.

With Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina insisting that the subpoena sets a “dangerous precedent,” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio argued that members of the Obama administration had not been held to the same standards for Hatch Act violations. 

In reality, however, two Obama administration officials Kathleen Sebelius and Julian Castro both expressed remorse when the OSC found them in violation of the Hatch Act. In the case of Sebelius, who had been secretary of Health and Human Services, a fine was also levied for the violation.

Representative Harley Rouda, an Ohio Democrat, said the difference between the administrations is clear cut.

“Today we have one person here who has 11 violations,” Rouda said.  

After an intense exchange with Meadows, Chairman Cummings sternly warned the lawmakers they were verging on bullying as they insinuated Kerner was lying under oath.

Specifically, Meadows took issue with reports that Kerner spoke to a small group of people inside OSC about his frustration with Conway when she refused to come into compliance.

A self-professed conservative Republican, Kerner admitted he expressed frustration, and that he believed the OSC had been “poked in the eye” by Conway’s refusals. Denying that there was any impropriety, however, he noted that the entire OSC report was written prior to any of his comments.

“We felt that since we had the report, and there was no way for her to come into compliance, it was time to release the report,” Kerner said. “It wasn’t done because she hurt my feelings, though I was disappointed she said these things because I hoped we could reach an agreement with her. Whatever feelings I had were unrelated to the release of the report.”

The White House did not immediately respond to request for comment.

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