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WASHINGTON – The White House will block counselor Kellyanne Conway from testifying before a House panel about allegations by a government watchdog that she violated the Hatch Act, increasing the likelihood of another subpoena battle between the two branches of government.
White House lawyers on Monday rejected the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s request for Conway to appear at a hearing Wednesday.
In a letter addressed to Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, Pat Cipollone, counsel to the president, wrote that “in accordance with long-standing precedent, we respectfully decline the invitation to make Ms. Conway available for testimony before the Committee.”
House Democrats counter, however, that the White House has no right to claim executive privilege or immunity for Conway because the alleged violations deal with her personal actions – not her duties advising the president or working in the West Wing.
The Hatch Act bars federal employees from engaging in political activity during work hours or on the job. But a report submitted to President Donald Trump earlier this month by the Office of Special Counsel – which a Trump appointee runs – found that Conway violated that law on numerous occasions by “disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.”
It recommended that Trump terminate her federal employment.
The panel plans to vote Wednesday to subpoena Conway if she does not agree voluntarily to answer questions.
Meanwhile, Conway has appeared on national television to defend her name. On Monday morning, she said on Fox News Channel that House Democrats are trying to retaliate against her for managing Trump’s 2016 campaign.
“You know what they’re mad about?” Conway said. “They want to put a big roll of masking tape over my mouth because I helped as a campaign manager for the successful part of the campaign. . . . So they want to chill free speech because they don’t know how to beat (Trump) at the ballot box.”
Special counsel Henry Kerner, a longtime congressional GOP staff member, said in an interview that her description is not true.
“We’re trying to hold Ms. Conway to the same standard we hold other people in government to,” Kerner said Monday. “My staff came up with violations. They’re obvious. She says things that are campaign messages.”
The Office of Special Counsel is a quasijudicial independent agency that adjudicates claims of retaliation by whistleblowers and administers the Hatch Act and other civil service rules. It is separate from the office run by former special counsel Robert Mueller, who led an inquiry of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Because Conway is a presidential appointee, the Office of Special Counsel has no authority to discipline her. It can make recommendations, but it falls to Trump to make a decision. He has indicated that he has no plans to fire her.
In its 17-page report, the office found that Conway repeatedly attacked 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in interviews with media outlets in her official capacity and tweeted about the candidates from her official account.
The agency noted that Conway said former Vice President Joe Biden had a lack of “vision,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, spent “decades appropriating somebody else’s heritage and ethnicity,” and called Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, “sexist” and a “tinny” “motivational speaker.”
During a one-week period leading up to the 2018 midterm election, Conway posted at least 15 messages on Twitter that were political and in support of candidates or the Republican Party, according to the report. “Her defiant attitude is inimical to the law, and her continued pattern of misconduct is unacceptable,” the agency wrote.
House Democrats argue that Conway’s alleged infractions are emblematic of the administration’s behavior and a prime example for their oversight. Conway was warned to change her behavior but has not, and lawmakers think they can hold her up as an example to argue that the administration thinks it is above the law.
The hearing Wednesday will feature the agency’s recommendation to remove Conway, as well as its reports about other Trump administration appointees. Conway and Kerner were invited to attend.
In her TV appearance on Monday, Conway said that it wasn’t clear that she is subject to the Hatch Act and that the situation is being misconstrued.
“We think I’d be the first member of the West Wing to ever be hauled in front of Congress to talk about the Hatch Act,” Conway said.
“The Hatch Act means that you can’t advocate for or against the election of – of an individual,” she continued. “And if I’m talking about the failures of Obama-Biden care, if I’m talking about the fact that 28 million Americans have no health insurance, that’s a fact. If I’m quoting what some of the candidates say about the other candidates, I’m just repeating the news to you as I read it that day.”
The Washington Post’s Lisa Rein and Michelle Ye Hee Lee contributed to this report.