Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz leads the House committee tasked with combating corruption in the federal government. Last month, Chaffetz released a list of 43 issues his committee will be taking on this year. The ethical questions raised by our president’s globe-spanning business empire failed to make the cut. In fact, the only Trump-related item on the House Oversight Committee’s agenda is an investigation into Office of Government Ethics — ostensibly, for its alleged bias against the president.
On Wednesday, President Trump publicly disparaged a private company for dropping his daughter’s product line amid lagging sales.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended the president’s statement — arguing that Trump had every right to respond, since refusing to sell Trump-branded products is tantamount to attacking the president’s policies.
“There’s a targeting of her brand and it’s her name,” Spicer said. “There are clearly efforts to undermine that name based on her father’s positions on particular policies that he’s taken. This is a direct attack on his policies and her name.”
Chaffetz saw nothing untoward in all this.
“I think the president has the right to weigh in on his opinion on things, and especially as it relates to his children,” Chaffetz told CNN. “I tweet a lot about cheeseburgers … I’ve never had people complain about that.”
If Chaffetz can suggest that cheeseburgers are preferable to grilled chicken sandwiches, why can’t the president try to intimidate companies that drop his daughter’s fashion line?
But while Chaffetz has little interest in policing Trump’s ethical lapses, he is happy to play the independent overseer when one of the president’s surrogates takes sycophancy too far.
On Thursday morning, counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway addressed the Nordstrom controversy on Fox & Friends. “It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it,” Conway said. “I fully — I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”
Federal employees are prohibited from using their public offices “for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise.” Giving a “free commercial” would seem to qualify as an endorsement. And, in this case, Chaffetz recognized a distinction between vouching for cheeseburgers and shilling for the First Daughter’s brand.
The congressman called Conway’s remarks “wrong, wrong, wrong, clearly over the line, unacceptable.”
“It needs to be dealt with,” Chaffetz told the Associated Press. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
So, why is Chaffetz more scandalized by Conway’s endorsement of Ivanka’s fashion, than by Trump’s attack on Nordstrom’s business decisions?
The most defensible answer is that the former appears to be illegal, while the other is not. As Trump loves to point out, the president is immune from federal conflict of interest laws.
But the president is not immune from the Constitution. And Chaffetz has expressed little concern over Trump’s apparent flouting of the Emoluments Clause.
So, the most important factor here would seem to be the lack of political downside in holding Conway to account. Judging from the administration’s endless leaks, taking Kellyanne down a peg may make Chaffetz more friends in the White House than enemies.