Kellyanne Conway's sales pitch for Ivanka Trump shows how this White House chooses money over morals

The clobbering of Conway could be heard far and wide – but she still has her job

David Usborne
New York
Friday 10 February 2017 16:01 GMT
Kellyanne Conway was interviewed in the White House Briefing Room when she urged viewers to ‘go buy Ivanka’s stuff’
Kellyanne Conway was interviewed in the White House Briefing Room when she urged viewers to ‘go buy Ivanka’s stuff’ (Fox News)

There were plenty of things to send Donald Trump into a tizzy this week, not least the shutting down of his immigration travel ban by those fools who call themselves judges. Yet, somehow he found time also to aim his Twitter barrels at Nordstrom, a department store chain. I ask you.

Even before it booted the fashion and jewellery line that bears the name Ivanka Trump from all its locations, Nordstrom was probably struggling in the President’s books. It is based in Seattle. Bad. That’s where the federal judge who first put the kibosh on the travel ban sits. It calls itself a luxury shopping destination. Bad too. Trump is for the people, not the elite. Unless they are the ones paying the $200,000 he now charges for them to join his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

The real sin of Nordstrom was not just to announce that it would no longer stock Ivanka’s products, but to dare say that it was ditching them because they weren’t selling. Not selling?

This is the religion that gets Mr Trump out of bed in the morning. Trump sells bigly, for Pete’s sake. In the latter half of his career especially, he discovered the easiest money was to be made not in building and operating things like casinos and resorts himself but just allowing others to slap his name on their projects. And on ties made in China. And steaks.

His name, Trump, is a selling elixir, in his mind. (Let’s not dwell on the flops, like the not-so-lamented Trump airline shuttling folk between Boston, New York and Washington with faux-marble basins in the toilets. It literally flopped in three years.) It’s why he is where he is now. He stitched those five letters to a presidential candidacy and, hey presto, King of the World.

Now he has merchandising power beyond even his wildest dreams. Pictures of him sitting atop Trump Tower sent a pretty compelling message to shoppers. The big desk and pudgy smugness shouts success. But now the images are of him sitting at a desk in the Oval Office no less. Nothing says ribeye more powerfully than a man with his finger on the nuclear button.

Everyone in the family gets this. Melania Trump, the missing-in-action first lady, last week sued Mail Media, the owner of the Daily Mail, for publishing an article about her which, it alleged, not only damaged her reputation but also her “unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to “launch a broad-based commercial brand” at the time of her husband’s political ascent.

It doesn’t get more blatant than that, does it? Statements from the first lady’s office the following day said she “has no intention” of using her public position for personal gain. Is that so? What’s Slovenian for ka-ching? “The Trumps are using the White House like the Kardashians used reality TV, to build and vastly expand their overall business enterprises,” said Norman Eisen, President Barack Obama’s chief ethics counsellor.

Actually, it does. (You knew that was coming.) Come Wednesday, the President had taken to Twitter to berate Nordstrom for dumping Ivanka. The company had treated his daughter “so unfairly,” he blustered. So unfairly. If he has to rely on Twitter to get his message out, maybe he could talk about the unfair treatment of Palestinians. Of Syrian refugees by his administration.

A president has the bully pulpit, but it’s meant for political cajoling, not commercial terrorising. In another age, the notion of a sitting president singling out a private corporation for his ire, delivered from the White House, would be unthinkable. But this is not another age. Fortunately for Nordstrom, the dip in its share price that followed his Tweet didn’t last long.

But then on Thursday, matters really got out of hand when Kellyanne Conway appeared on a breakfast television programme – on Fox News, as it happens – and proceeded to urge America to regather its senses and go buy all things Ivanka at once. “This is just a wonderful line,” she offered. “I own some of it.” 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the new home of the Shopping Channel.

Understand, she was taping the interview from the White House Briefing Room. “Go buy Ivanka’s stuff is what I would say,” Ms. Conway rattled on blithely. “I’m going to give a free commercial here: go buy it today, everybody; you can find it online.” It’s a wonder there weren’t screens behind her counting sales as viewers phoned in their orders. Never mind the NSC. These days its QVC that matters most in the corridors of the West Wing.

The subsequent clobbering of Conway was heard far and wide. It is among the the most basic ethics rules out there: those employed in the executive branch may not use their positions to help friends or family to financial gain. Ever. Well, she had clearly broken that one and possibly several other conflict-of-interest rules. “Jaw-dropping,” said Don Fox, former acting director of the Office of Government Ethics. Even Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, couldn’t quite contain himself, declaring that her comments were “wrong, wrong, wrong, and there’s no excuse for it”.

For a second the White House sounded almost chastised. “Kellyanne has been counseled and that’s all we are going with. She has been counseled on that subject and that’s… that’s it,” Sean Spicer, the President’s spokesman, stuttered. But no loss of job or temporary suspension, it appears, which experts of such matters said would be the proper response to what she did.

But proper is not an adjective that attaches easily to this presidency. Rather we have whole compendiums of conflict-of-interest problems. Yes, the President has ceased running the Trump Organisation, handing it to his two adult sons. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still enriching him.

Did you see who’s looking to rent office space in Trump Tower? The Department of Defence. Where is the Red Cross to hold its annual ball? At Mar-a-Lago. In all kinds of other ways, the fact of his being President and the pursuit of profit by the Trump Organisation collide in eyebrow-raising ways. For instance: the new Trump International Hotel near the White House used to be the main Post Office and is leased from the General Services Administration. The head of that government body is appointed by him, the President. How convenient.

Or how about this? Mr Trump still hasn’t released his tax returns. They, in fact, could tells us a lot about his web of business interests and how his being President may be impacting them, especially those involving investments or partnerships in foreign countries. He says he can’t release them because the Internal Revenue Service has them under audit. He is now the ultimate boss of that agency, so he has that well under control.

Mr Trump only has one thing to worry about. The idea of anything with his name on it not selling. So here’s further bad news, Mr President. TJ Maxx and Marshalls – not luxury chains – have announced plans to “de-emphasise” Ivanka’s products. Because, you know, no one wants them.

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