By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. government watchdog agency on Thursday recommended Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to President Donald Trump, be fired for repeatedly violating U.S. law with political comments while serving in the White House.
The White House immediately rejected the special counsel office’s ruling and demanded that it withdraw its report.
A statement from the Office of Special Counsel cited Conway’s comments in television interviews and social media posts as violations of the Hatch Act, a 1939 law prohibiting executive branch employees from engaging in some political activities. The president, vice president and certain other senior officials are exempted.
The OSC, which can make such recommendations but does not have the authority to enforce them, referred to disparaging comments Conway made about Democratic presidential candidates.
“Given that Ms. Conway is a repeat offender and has shown disregard for the law, OSC recommends that she be removed from federal service,” the statement said.
Conway, 52, served as Trump’s campaign manager in 2016, becoming the first woman to head a winning presidential campaign, and is one of his most loyal aides and fiercest defenders.
She currently is leading White House efforts on reducing deaths by opioids and Trump likely would be loathe to have her leave the White House right when he is cranking up his re-election campaign.
White House deputy press secretary Steven Groves said the OSC action violated Conway’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process and was pushed by media pressure and liberal organizations.
“Based on the numerous errors in the report and the flawed process under which it was issued, we ask that you withdraw and retract the report and continue the dialogue with this office that should have taken place and that could have avoided many of the errors in the current draft,” said a letter to the OSC from White House legal counsel Pat Cipollone.
Democrats pounced after the report was released.
“Complying with the law is not optional. President Trump should terminate Ms. Conway’s employment immediately in light of these dozens of violations of federal law,” said Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House of Representatives’ Oversight and Reform Committee.
He said he would hold a hearing with the OSC on June 26 and invite Conway to “answer for her violations.”
The Special Counsel’s office is an independent agency run by lawyer Henry Kerner, who was confirmed by the Senate in October 2017 after Trump nominated him for the position.
In attempting to discipline officials as senior as Conway, the agency can only recommend action, not carry it out.
Last month Conway was critical of former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the leading Democrats seeking to unseat Trump in 2020, in conversations with reporters at the White House. In recent television appearances she attacked another challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders, and scoffed at candidate Seth Moulton, a member of the House of Representatives, as an unknown.
The special counsel office cited Conway last year for favoring a Republican candidate over a Democrat in an interview discussing a special Senate election in Alabama in 2017. The White House said she was only expressing Trump’s preference.
Conway’s husband, Republican lawyer George Conway, is a vociferous Trump critic who has called for impeachment and said Trump is “mentally unwell.”
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Jeff Mason; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)