Trump aide Kellyanne Conway defies order to testify before congress over 'repeated violations of law'

Chris Baynes

Senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway has defied a summons to appear at a congressional hearing about allegations she violated federal ethics law, prompting a Democratic threat to hold her in contempt of congress.

White House lawyers directed Ms Conway not to appear before the US House of Representatives Oversight Committee on Monday, arguing current and former officials were “absolutely immune” from requirement to testify.

Pat Cipollone, counsel to president Donald Trump, confirmed Ms Conway would be ignoring the summons in a letter made public by the committee.

Past presidential administrations from both parties have adopted similar arguments, but some legal experts have said such immunity claims would be rejected by a judge if challenged in court.

The committee authorised a subpoena for Ms Conway last month after she failed to show up voluntarily at an earlier hearing.

Representatives want to question the adviser over her alleged breaches of Hatch Act, a law that limits federal employees’ political activity. Henry Kerner, head of the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC), told the committee three weeks ago that Ms Conway should be sacked over “egregious, repeated, and very public” violations of the law.

The White House claimed in a statement that Monday's hearing was part of a "purely political campaign to harass the president and his close advisers."

House Oversight Committee chairman Elijah Cummings said at Monday's hearing it was "clear-cut" that Ms Conway was required to comply with the subpoena.

"We are not requiring her to testify about advice she gave the president or about the White House’s policy decisions," he added. "We are requiring her to testify before congress about her multiple violations of federal law, her waste of taxpayer funds, and her actions that compromise public confidence in the integrity of the federal government."

Mr Cummings said if Ms Conway did not reconsider, the committee would convene a meeting on 25 July to hold her in contempt, a move that could lead to a lawsuit seeking to force her compliance.

The OSC, a government watchdog agency, last month recommended Ms Conway be fired for repeatedly violating the Hatch Act by disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.

Mr Kerner, a longtime Republican Party lawyer, told last month's committee hearing that Ms Conway left him “no choice” but to recommend her dismissal because she had committed “at least 10 separate Hatch Act violations, expressed no remorse and continues to express disdain” for the law.

The White House has argued the OSC has adopted a legally dubious interpretation of the Hatch Act that chills the free-speech rights of government employees.

“No, I’m not going to fire her,” Mr Trump said of Ms Conway last month. "It looks to me like they’re trying to take away her right of free speech, and that’s just not fair.”

Ms Conway’s flouting of the summons is the latest stage of a growing confrontation between the House of Representatives and Mr Trump’s administration.

The president is stonewalling multiple congressional inquiries into him, his policies, family and business holdings, and has vowed to defy all subpoenas issued by the Democrat-controlled House.

Representatives are set to hold William Barr, the attorney general, and Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, in contempt this week for failing to comply with congressional subpoenas related to the addition of a question about citizenship to the 2020 census.