By Kristi Ellis
with contributions from David Moin
 on February 9, 2017
Ivanka Trump

WASHINGTON — The battle between the Trumps and Nordstrom has turned from a tempest in a teapot into an ethical firestorm ensnaring one of the president’s top aides.

A day after President Trump blasted Nordstrom on Twitter for dropping his daughter Ivanka’s fashion line, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, went on “Fox & Friends” to defend the First Daughter — and urged consumers to buy her merchandise.

“Go buy Ivanka’s stuff, is what I would tell you,” Conway said on the show. “I hate shopping and I’m going to get some myself today.

“This is just a wonderful line,” Conway added.  “I own some of it. I fully — I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”
Ethical questions already had been raised by the president of the United States criticizing one of America’s largest department stores over a business decision involving his own daughter. But Conway’s comments sent off an even greater ethical firestorm and she is now facing at least one formal complaint from a watchdog group in Washington.

Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer said at the administration’s daily press briefing Thursday afternoon that Conway has been “counseled” by the White House after making the comments promoting Ivanka’s brand. Spicer declined to comment beyond that curt response.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed complaints seeking an investigation with the Office of Government Ethics and the White House Counsel’s Office Thursday, while the chairman and ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee both reportedly said they would ask for an investigation into Conway’s remarks.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), chairman of the House oversight panel, wrote a letter with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics office for review and also sent it to the White House Counsel.

“Conway’s statements appear to violate federal ethics regulations which prohibit activities that imply government endorsements of the ‘personal activities’ of another person,” said the letter.

“In this case, Conway’s statements from the White House using her official title could appear to constitute an explicit endorsement and advertisement of Ivanka Trump’s personal business activities,” they further stated.

The two lawmakers noted that this particular case represents an “additional challenge” in that president is the “ultimate disciplinary authority for White House employees [ but ] has an inherent conflict of interest since Conway’s statements relate to his daughter’s private business.”

In that light, they requested that the director of the ethics office use his authority to recommend disciplinary action if warranted.

According to the federal ethics code: “An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives.”

“The law is clear that public officials should not use their offices for their own private gain or the private gain of others,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the watchdog group, CREW, which filed two formal complaints. “It’s hard to find a clearer case of that kind of misuse of office than we saw today.”

Bookbinder said Conway appears to have violated federal law prohibiting the use of public funds for “non-official” purposes.

“This is just another example of what looks like a disturbing pattern of this administration acting to benefit the businesses of the president’s family and supporters,” he added. “Americans are unfortunately at the point where they have to question who the Trump administration is looking out for, the American people or the Trump family.”

Other ethics experts and former White House officials chimed in.

“It is not allowed for a government employee to use your public office for private gain,” Norm Eisen, the ethics czar under President Obama, said on MSNBC. “And by doing this ad, I have never seen anything like it. It’s a violation of the rule. Pure and simple.”

Eisen said he expected to see the complaints against Conway start “flowing in” and said the White House counsel would need to look at the rules, range of penalties and weigh whether Conway made the comments knowingly or if it was a mistake and her first violation.

“The Office of Government Ethics will have to look at it,” he said. “It’s a serious matter.”

Conway’s comments came a day after President Trump criticized Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s brand and charging that she had been treated “so unfairly.” Nordstrom said last week that it had made a decision to stop selling clothing and accessories from Ivanka Trump’s signature line, based solely on the brand’s performance, according to a spokeswoman. Nordstrom also fired back on Wednesday, claiming it dropped her brand because sales had “steadily declined” in the second half of the year.

Nordstrom isn’t the only retailer to drop the line. Neiman Marcus has said it will stop selling Ivanka Trump jewelry on concession, while TJ Maxx and Marshalls have removed signage promoting the Ivanka Trump brand.

However the ethics office rules, it was clear Thursday that Conway was firmly backing her boss’ daughter in the fight with Nordstrom. Conway said she met with Ivanka on Wednesday and praised her for being a “very successful businesswoman” who while stepping away from her business still has a brand and company that bears her name.

“I think she’s gone from 800 stores to 1,000 stores, or places where you can buy. You can certainly buy her goods online,” Conway said.

“I do find it ironic that you’ve got some executives all over the Internet bragging about what they’ve done to her and her line,” Conway charged. “Yet they are using the most prominent woman in Donald Trump’s daughter and they are using her, who has been a champion for women empowerment, women in the workplace to get to him. I think people can see through that.”

Many in the Twitterverse also took to social media to express support for Ivanka Trump’s brand as the hashtag #BuyIvanka began circulating widely on Thursday. Several commenters vowed to stop shopping at Nordstrom and buy the brand elsewhere.

For now they can try Bloomingdale’s, as well as Lord & Taylor.

Bloomingdale’s said the store has made no changes in its approach to the Ivanka Trump label and continues to sell her shoes and dresses.

Hudson’s Bay Co. continues to sell Ivanka Trump apparel and shoes at its Hudson’s Bay and Lord & Taylor department stores. “We respect our customers’ right to choose the brands that work for them. In turn, our customers’ choices inform our decisions on which merchandise we offer,” the company said in a statement.

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