Trump: 'Not going to fire' Kellyanne Conway despite finding she made illegal political statements

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(WASHINGTON) -- President Donald Trump said on Friday that he has no plans to fire his senior adviser Kellyanne Conway despite a federal watchdog agency's call the day before that she should be “removed from service” for using her office for political activity.

"No, I'm not going to fire her, I think she's a tremendous person, tremendous spokesperson, she's loyal, she's a great person," Trump said in an interview on Fox and Friends.

He added, "They have tried to take away her speech and I think you're entitled to free speech in the country. Now, I'm going to get a very strong briefing on it and I will see, but it seems to me very unfair."

The Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that investigates wrongdoing by government employees, said on Thursday that Conway “violated the Hatch Act on numerous occasions by disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.” The report released Thursday cites comments Conway made during the Alabama Senate special election in December 2017, which the office found violated the Hatch Act in another report released last year.

Conway, whose formal title is Counselor to the President, commented on the Alabama election in multiple interviews at the time, though the White House defended her comments as reflecting the president's positions on policy.

"Doug Jones in Alabama, folks don’t be fooled," Conway said during one Fox and Friends interview. "He’ll be a vote against tax cuts. He’s weak on crime, weak on borders. He’s strong on raising your taxes. He’s terrible for property owners. And Doug Jones is a doctrinaire liberal, which is why he’s not saying anything and why the media are trying to boost him."

The report also cites more recent statements to White House reporters in which Conway criticized former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, both of whom are seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.

In an interview on May 29, Conway reportedly downplayed the law, according to Thursday's OSC press release, saying she wouldn't stop making political statements.

“If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work,” and “Let me know when the jail sentence starts," she said, according to the OSC press release.

A spokesman for the office said it's the first time the office has recommended the removal of a White House official. In the report, sent to Trump on Thursday, the office said that Conway has not faced consequences for her repeated violations of ethics rules on government employees.

The office recommended Conway be removed from her position because she has "shown disregard" for the law that prohibits federal government employees from engaging in political activities.

"Ms. Conway's disregard for the restrictions the Hatch Act places on on executive branch employees in unacceptable," Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote in the report. "If Ms. Conway were any other federal employee, her multiple violations of the law would almost certainly result in removal from her position by the Merit Systems Protection Board."

"As a highly visible member of the administration, Ms. Conway's violations, if left unpunished, send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act's restrictions. Her actions erode the principal foundation of our democratic system - the rule of law," Kerner continued.

White House deputy press secretary Steven Groves said in a statement that the OSC's actions are "deeply flawed."

“The Office of Special Counsel’s (OSC) unprecedented actions against Kellyanne Conway are deeply flawed and violate her constitutional rights to free speech and due process. Others, of all political views, have objected to the OSC’s unclear and unevenly applied rules which have a chilling effect on free speech for all federal employees. Its decisions seem to be influenced by media pressure and liberal organizations – and perhaps OSC should be mindful of its own mandate to act in a fair, impartial, non-political manner, and not misinterpret or weaponize the Hatch Act,” Groves said.

The Hatch Act was passed in 1939 and aims to ensure that federal programs are administered without partisan bias and to protect federal employees from political pressure. The president and vice president are exempted by the rule. The Merit Systems Protection Board is a judicial agency that adjudicates civil cases involving federal employees. The OSC report says the board has recommended removal of employees in other cases where they engaged in political activity even after being warned it could violate the Hatch Act.

House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings announced the committee will hold a hearing with the Office of Special Counsel on June 26 and will invite Conway to testify.

The Office of Special Counsel is not connected to the office of special counsel Robert Mueller.

Conway was also found to have violated ethics rules when she directed viewers to buy items from Ivanka Trump's clothing line in a 2017 interview. She has previously said that she discussed the incidents with the president.

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