STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have a clearer picture this morning of how President Trump's White House views government ethics rules. In the view of a White House lawyer, ethics rules do not apply to the president's staff. By now, we've heard exceptions to some ethics rules for the president himself, but in a document reviewed by NPR, the White House goes much further, saying that presidential aides aren't covered either. NPR's political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben is here. Hi, Danielle.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hi.
INSKEEP: What was the case that caused the White House lawyer to weigh in?
KURTZLEBEN: Right, so this was the big kerfuffle over the last few weeks where Kellyanne Conway went on "Fox & Friends" and promoted Ivanka Trump's fashion line at Nordstrom.
KURTZLEBEN: So the Office of Government Ethics told the White House what it thought of it, the White House responded, saying, you know, we really don't think Kellyanne Conway acted - nefariously was the word they used.
INSKEEP: So they didn't think that she had intended to violate the rules. But did they admit that there at least were rules?
KURTZLEBEN: Well, yes, but here's the thing - in that letter, there was a portion that everybody focused on - right? - the bit about Kellyanne Conway. But there was a bit that was very easy to miss. And here's what it said. It said, many regulations promulgated by the Office of Government Ethics do not apply to employees of the executive office of the president. And the executive office of the president, I should add, this is not just the president's aides or his inner circle. This is a really, really big entity. It includes things like the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget and a bunch of other things.
INSKEEP: I'm thinking that next to the White House, which is itself a pretty large building, there's another huge office building, the old executive office building. It's pretty much everybody who works there you're talking about.
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. I mean, you have a - you have hundreds of people that this could involve.
INSKEEP: OK. Did previous White Houses say that ethics rules don't apply to anybody on the - in the executive office of the president?
KURTZLEBEN: No, no, no, no. So I called up - I emailed out to Richard Painter, who worked at the Bush White House - the George W. Bush White House - and Norm Eisen, who worked at the Obama White House. So they both said we did not at all work like this. We instructed all of these employees to follow all of the rules. Now, this letter says many of the rules do not apply. So the question is, which rules are they talking about?
INSKEEP: We should, I guess, point out that they also said that even though many rules don't apply, we're going to try to follow the spirit of them. Is that the meaning of this letter?
KURTZLEBEN: Well, this is the question, right? The letter doesn't spell it out. Now, Painter and Eisen, when I asked them, said what may be at stake here, what very likely could be, is the definition of the word agency. Now, a lot of these ethics rules say that they apply to employees of agencies except, the question is, is the executive office of the president - or various offices within it - is it an agency? And that could, depending on the definition, really change how these ethics rules apply.
INSKEEP: OK. So what does the White House say when you raise these questions to them?
KURTZLEBEN: I reached out to them. I did not get an answer. I should also add I reached out to the Office of Government Ethics to see what they asked and what they heard back, and they simply said that they are reviewing the letter. So not much of a response.
INSKEEP: The Office of Government Ethics, that's the office that's supposed to be looking into this stuff and giving advice that you would presume the White House would take.
INSKEEP: So we just don't know at this point what the White House believes it has to follow in terms of ethics rules.
KURTZLEBEN: That's correct, yes.
INSKEEP: Danielle, thanks very much.
KURTZLEBEN: Absolutely, thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben this morning.
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