WASHINGTON - A House committee voted Wednesday to authorize a subpoena for White House counselor Kellyanne Conway after she failed to show for a hearing on a government watchdog's findings that she broke the law dozens of times.
The House Oversight Committee voted, 25-16, for the subpoena after Special Counsel Henry Kerner said she blatantly violated the Hatch Act, a law that bars federal employees from engaging in politics during work.
"Ms. Conway's egregious and repeated Hatch Act violations, combined with her unrepentant attitude, are unacceptable from any federal employee, let along one in such a prominent position," Kerner told the panel. "Her conduct hurts both federal employees, who may believe that senior officials can act with complete disregard for the Hatch Act, and the American people, who may question the nonpartisan operation of their government."
White House lawyers on Monday rejected the House Oversight Committee's request for Conway to appear at the hearing, citing a bipartisan practice that West Wing officials don't come before Congress while they still work in the administration. In a letter addressed to Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., 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."
Democrats, however, criticized the White House for barring Conway from appearing to answer for her alleged crimes, arguing that the Trump administration was moving to stonewall yet another House investigation. House Democrats say 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.
"This is about right and wrong. This is about the core principle of our precious democracy - that nobody, not one person, nobody in this country is above the law," Cummings said in his opening statement. "Contrary to claims by Ms. Conway and President Trump, this is not a conspiracy to silence her or restrict her First Amendment rights. This is an effort to enforce federal law."
It is unclear, however, what Democrats will do if Conway ignores the subpoenas. She could be held in criminal contempt of Congress.
The Hatch Act bars federal employees from engaging in political activity during work hours or on the job. But a report submitted to President 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 president had indicated that he will not fire her.
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."
Republicans also derided the hearing as a political attack aimed at silencing one of Trump's most loyal aides. Before her time in the White House, Conway helped run Trump's campaign, pushing him to victory in 2016. Since then, she has frequently appeared on television to defend Trump and attack his political opponents.
Kerner in an interview pushed back on that assertion.
"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 hearing is expected to create more than a few awkward moments. Kerner is a former Oversight committee staffer who worked for Republicans and spent years investigating former president Barack Obama. He was once well-liked and friendly with fellow committee GOP staff and lawmakers. And he actually sat beside them on the dais years ago, advising GOP chairmen.
Now, Kerner has returned as a star witness for the Democrats.
Still, Republicans are trying to undermine his credibility, top committee Republican Jim Jordan of Ohio argued that Kerner felt slighted by Conway and sought to punish her.
"The reason we're here today is because Mr. Kerner got his feelings hurt," Jordan said. "Mr. Kerner felt slighted. Ms. Conway didn't pay enough attention to him and his office . . . You know why she didn't? Because the allegations were ridiculous."
The Office of Special Counsel is a quasi-judicial 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.
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The Washington Post Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.