I would like to know what the consequences are for ethics violations by the US President and White House staff. Are there no ethics laws? Are there only toothless guidelines?

EDIT: Please note that I have not mentioned any specific incident under any specific President. So I am not looking for answers commenting on any specific transgression. Thanks.

  • 1
    As @david-grinberg notes in his comment below, it's not enough to point out that a law is being broken: someone actually has to enforce the law. Since President Trump can pardon anyone he chooses, and since he literally runs the enforcement branch of our government, it's highly unlikely that these laws will be enforced. Short of impeachment, not even Congress can compel the President to enforce specific laws (I believe Santorum tried to force Obama to enforce anti-marijuana laws and the Supreme Court ruled in Obama's favor).
    – user2565
    Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 16:20
  • Not sure why I got 2 down votes.
    – user12267
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 20:57
  • @Ajoy Bhatia Perhaps because your question is very broad and you are objecting when people try to apply the rules to specific examples.
    – jalynn2
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 13:58
  • Consequence - a congratulatory tweet of praise from POTUS. Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 16:00

3 Answers 3


The Justice Department could prosecute Kellyanne Conway. Or they can use their discretion not to do so. Jeff Sessions is the one who ultimately controls that decision, although Donald Trump does have the ability to fire him if he doesn't like the decision.

The only practical way to punish a president is to impeach him. That's a difficult step and seems unlikely for trivial offenses like saying that a store is foolish for removing his daughter's clothing line.

Note for example that Bill Clinton was guilty of perjury but his impeachment failed. We know that he was legally guilty, as he was disbarred for it. But he wasn't removed from office and never faced criminal prosecution for it. While technically illegal, most people felt that lying about one's mistress was not an impeachable offense--even under oath.

In order to punish Trump, the offense will have to be serious enough that enough of his supporters will peel away and allow Republican politicians to impeach him. As is, his supporters continue to like him and view these charges as just sour grapes by the people who lost the election.

Sending men to break into your opponents' headquarters to look for files was serious. People could point to that as a real crime. Saying that it was unfair for a store to remove a clothing line? Not a real crime. Making a big deal about it hurts your cause, because if people are used to tuning out when a big deal is made, the serious crimes will be ignored too.

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    Both answers - this and the one by @BradFord below - have latched on to Kellyanne Conway's plug for Ivanka Trump's fashion line. My question does not even mention that. Both of these are straw man arguments, and do not have much to do with my question.
    – user12267
    Commented Feb 13, 2017 at 18:47
  • "We know that he was legally guilty, as he was disbarred for it." Does this necessarily follow? Can't you be disbarred for something that wasn't a crime (e.g. unethical behavior)?
    – Andrew
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 20:50
  • Yes, but you still have to be guilty of the unethical behavior. So you're essentially arguing that he was guilt of perjury, but it wasn't illegal, only unethical behavior. But perjury is illegal. There's no legal but unethical version of it.
    – Brythan
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 1:37
  • About hurting my cause by making a big deal out of "it", where "it" is the plug of Ivanka Trump's product line by Ms. Conway - that is putting words in my mouth. That "it" I couldn't care less about. How about being in a tangled web of conflicts of interest due to personal business dealings all over the world? How about being in constant contact with Russian intelligence agents during your campaign while they are meddling in the US election process? There has been no consequence until now because the wolves are in control of the henhouse. But, mark my words, there WILL be a reckoning.
    – user12267
    Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 16:46
  • If my above comment is a "partisan opinion", then I am OK with leaving this group. When the opposition adopts falsehoods as "alternative facts", then truth becomes a "partisan opinion".
    – user12267
    Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 16:50

The rule being broken is 18 US Code 227 which reads:

(a) Whoever, being a covered government person, with the intent to influence, solely on the basis of partisan political affiliation, an employment decision or employment practice of any private entity—

(1) takes or withholds, or offers or threatens to take or withhold, an official act, or

(2) influences, or offers or threatens to influence, the official act of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than 15 years, or both, and may be disqualified from holding any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.

(b) In this section, the term “covered government person” means—

(1) a Senator or Representative in, or a Delegate or Resident Commissioner to, the Congress;

(2) an employee of either House of Congress; or

(3) the President, Vice President, an employee of the United States Postal Service or the Postal Regulatory Commission, or any other executive branch employee (as such term is defined under section 2105 of title 5, United States Code).

Looks like it's no more than 15 years but can be as little as a fine. I'm guessing Conway's plug was on the less severe end and won't incur more than a fine and even that seems unlikely.

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    Remember also that there is prosecutorial discretion, so prosecutors will likely just decline to prosecute. She already got her slap on the wrist from the WH council. Commented Feb 11, 2017 at 0:53

There a no consequences for ethics violations by White House Staff.

There are several examples during Obama's reign:

  • IRS targeting Tea Party organizations. None were indicted, a few people retired with full benefits.

  • Democrats trying to incite violence during Republican events. Two men lost their job, but neither was indicted.

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