The Democratic Coalition, an anti-Trump Super PAC, has filed an ethics complaint against White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders with the Office of Government Ethics after she essentially called for ESPN host Jemele Hill to be fired.
Hill had referred to President Donald Trump as a "white supremacist" in a series of tweets, which she later deleted:
In response, Sanders said Hill’s criticism of the president was a “fireable offense by ESPN.” The network considered removing Hill from that evening's program, but her co-host, Michael Smith, threatened to refuse to appear without her.
Coalition Chairman Jon Cooper condemned Sanders' words in a statement:
“When Sarah Huckabee Sanders called for Jemele Hill to be fired by ESPN, she crossed the line and put herself in dubious legal territory. For Sanders to publicly call for the dismissal of a Trump critic is bizarre and disturbing, to say the least. If anyone is to be fired, it should be her.”
Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics cited a federal law which bars certain government employees (including those employed within the executive branch) from influencing the employment decisions or practices of a private entity (such as ESPN) "solely on the basis of partisan political affiliation." Breaking the law is punishable by a fine or up to 15 years in prison, or both, and could disqualify lawbreakers from "holding any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States."
Shaub noted that while Sanders' comment wasn't "solely" related to partisan political affiliation, it "certainly highlights the inappropriateness of using federal authority to influence private employment decisions." He added: "Another important norm down the drain."
But that might not be the only legal gaffe Sanders committed this week.
On Wednesday, Sanders said it was “pretty clean and clear” that former FBI director James Comey broke federal law by leaking his own memos to the press and giving testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee which raised the president's ire.
Speaking to reporters at that afternoon's press briefing, Sanders said:
The memos that Comey leaked were created on an FBI computer while he was the director. He claims they were private property, but they clearly followed the protocol of an official FBI document. Leaking FBI memos on a sensitive case regardless of classification violates federal laws including the Privacy Act, standard FBI employment agreement and nondisclosure agreement all personnel must sign. I think that's pretty clean and clear that that would be a violation.
Sanders' claims were repeated by Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow...
Will the Department of Justice prosecute fired FBI Director #JamesComey? We discuss on #JayLive. https://t.co/73roS3jSQJ— Jay Sekulow (@Jay Sekulow) 1505318867.0
...and did not go unnoticed by Preet Bharara, the "crusader prosecutor" who made headlines in March after he was fired for refusing to follow Attorney General Jeff Sessions' request for all remaining 46 U.S. Attorneys appointed during President Obama's administration to resign.
One day after POTUS spox says Sessions should investigate Comey, Trump's TV lawyer sends same signal. Hey Sessions!… https://t.co/aDJoEwnqLU— Preet Bharara (@Preet Bharara) 1505319681.0
Sanders' and Sekulow's actions point to "possible witness intimidation and obstruction" writes Frank Vyan Walton, a contributing editor for Daily Kos, who cites a conversation he had with Stephen Kohn, a partner at a law firm which specializes in whistleblower protection.
"Here is my position on that: Frivolous grandstanding,” Kohn notes. “First of all, I don’t believe the inspector general would have jurisdiction over Comey any more, because he’s no longer a federal employee. But, second, “initiating an investigation because you don’t like somebody’s testimony could be considered obstruction. And in the whistleblower context, it’s both evidence of retaliation and, under some laws, could be an adverse retaliatory act itself.”
Sanders appeared to walk back on her claim when a reporter followed up and asked if she believed leaking the memos was illegal.
“The Department of Justice has to look into any allegations of whether or not something's illegal or not. That's not up to me to decide,” she said. “What I've said and what I'm talking about are facts," she continued. "James Comey, leaking of information, questionable statements under oath, politicizing investigation, those are real reasons for why he was fired. And the president's decision was 100 percent right, which we've said multiple times over and over. And in fact I think the more and more we learn the more and more that's been vindicated.”
Trump fired Comey on May 9, an action which, many legal experts say, constitutes grounds for an investigation of Trump for possible obstruction of justice. A New York Times report the following Monday revealed that Trump asked Comey to halt the criminal investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who provided false information about his communications with the Russian government. Flynn resigned in disgrace after the news of his conversations with Sergey Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador to the United States, became public.