House Panel Subpoenas Kellyanne Conway on Ethics Law Violations

WASHINGTON — A House panel voted on Wednesday to subpoena Kellyanne Conway for her testimony after she failed to show to a hearing at which a special counsel told the committee she should be fired from the White House for her “egregious, repeated, and very public violations” of federal ethics law.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee’s action against Ms. Conway escalates the standoff between the Democratic House and President Trump as the White House stonewalls Democratic oversight inquiries, moving to keep the deliberations of its top officials confidential. The White House blocked Ms. Conway, a counselor to the president, from testifying about allegations of repeated violations of a federal ethics law that prohibits government officials from engaging in political activities at work.

Her failure to show set up yet another clash between the executive branch and Congress that may end with an administration official held in contempt of Congress. Representative Justin Amash of Michigan, the one Republican who has called for President Trump’s impeachment, joined Democrats to vote for the subpoena, 25-16.

In pointed testimony, Henry J. Kerner, the special counsel, whose work is unrelated to the office that was run by Robert S. Mueller III, detailed how the White House counselor’s conduct created an “unprecedented challenge” to his ability to enforce the federal ethics law, known as the Hatch Act.

The repeated violations, “combined with her unrepentant attitude, are unacceptable from any federal employee, let alone one in such a prominent position,” Mr. Kerner testified.

Mr. Kerner was nominated by Mr. Trump for the position in 2017, and previously worked for former Representative Darrell Issa, a fiercely partisan Republican from California, when he was the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

House Democrats on the panel requested Ms. Conway’s testimony after the Office of Special Counsel, an independent government agency tasked with enforcing the ethics law, recommended in a report released earlier this month that President Trump fire Ms. Conway, one of his most dogged defenders, citing her penchant for “partisan attacks” on Democratic Party candidates during interviews in her capacity as the president’s counselor. For Democrats, who have made imposing stricter ethics rules on federal officials one of the centerpieces of their legislative agenda, the opportunity to shed light on one of Mr. Trump’s most public advisers is a propitious opening.

Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the committee, made clear he is prepared to hold Ms. Conway in contempt if she does not comply with the subpoena.

“There are rarely issues that come before our committee that are so clear cut, but this is one of them. This is about right and wrong,” Mr. Cummings said. “Contrary to claims Ms. Conway and President Trump have made, this is not a conspiracy to silence her or restrict her First Amendment rights. This is an effort to enforce federal law.”

A rhetorical bulldog equipped with a vast arsenal of spinning and deflecting techniques, Ms. Conway would have surely relished the opportunity to spar with Democratic lawmakers on live television. But directed by the White House not to testify, she was represented in the hearing room on Wednesday with an empty chair.

Republican lawmakers on the panel stepped in to defend her and turn the scrutiny on Mr. Kerner, adopting an argument deployed by Pat A. Cipollone, the White House counsel, that the office of the special counsel had treated the Republican administration unfairly and that his report was influenced by “personal pique” against Ms. Conway.

“The report is outrageous, it’s unprecedented, it’s unfair and it’s just wrong,” Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, the committee’s top Republican said, arguing that Mr. Kerner’s office “doesn’t like the fact Ms. Conway is conservative.”

“She’s being targeted because she is good at what she does, and this is why this should not stand,” Mr. Jordan said.

Mr. Jordan’s tactic was reminiscent of his attacks on Mr. Mueller and his team, as well as on F.B.I. investigators who opened the investigation into the Trump campaign and its possible ties to Russian election interference.

The Hatch Act is designed to ensure that government employees avoid the appearance of partisanship and do not use their official authority to influence the results of an election. “At a time when the country appears sharply divided on partisan lines,” Mr. Kerner said, “the public must be able to trust that regardless of which party is in power, or which candidate a federal employee supports, federal law is administered uniformly and without partisan bias.”

Ms. Conway is far from the first administration official across a number of presidencies to be accused of violating the Hatch Act. Julián Castro, who is now running for the Democratic presidential nomination but served as the Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Barack Obama, was rebuked in 2016 for a violation stemming from his endorsement of Hillary Clinton. In the George W. Bush White House, the Office of the Special Counsel found that Karl Rove broke the law by coordinating appearances of cabinet members at political rallies for Republican candidates during the 2006 midterm elections.

In most cases, violators have escaped punishment by apologizing and vowing to refrain from such actions in the future. After the Castro case, members of Mr. Obama’s cabinet were barred from speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention to avoid further violations.

[Read an explanation of the Hatch Act.]

In his testimony on Wednesday, Mr. Kerner sought to differentiate Ms. Conway’s conduct from past violations, however, noting that his office’s repeated warnings about her potential violations went ignored.

Bolstered by Mr. Trump’s declaration that he would not fire her, Ms. Conway has remained unapologetic in the face of the charges and dismissed outright the office’s report earlier this week as a politically motivated ploy.

“They want to silence me now. These are my First Amendment rights, they want to chill freedom of speech because they don’t know how to beat him at the ballot box,” Ms. Conway said on Monday in an interview with Fox & Friends. “Even if the Hatch Act applies, our position is, I haven’t violated it.”

If Ms. Conway defies the subpoena, she would likely become the third administration official a House panel moves to hold in contempt. The committee previously voted to recommend holding William P. Barr, the attorney general, and Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, in contempt after the White House invoked executive privilege to block the disclosure of documents on the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. The Judiciary Committee also recommended the House hold Mr. Barr in contempt, for his refusal to provide the panel an unredacted version of the Mueller report and its underlying evidence.

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