WASHINGTON — A Democratic group that opposes President Donald Trump has filed an ethics complaint against White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders alleging that her criticism of an anti-Trump sportscaster violated federal law.
But at Friday’s press briefing, Sanders stood by her previous comments, saying it was a “fireable offense” for ESPN anchor Jemele Hill to call Trump a “white supremacist.”
She also denied that she was calling on the sports channel to fire Hill, telling reporters, “That’s something for ESPN to decide.”
Hill now recognizes that she acted inappropriately, ESPN said in a written statement Tuesday.
In an interview Friday, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said the attack on his daughter is baseless.
The Democratic Coalition Against Trump, affiliated with a Democratic Super PAC called Keep America Great, said it lodged its complaint Thursday with the Office of Government Ethics.
By targeting Hill, Sanders “crossed the line and put herself in dubious legal territory,” said Jon Cooper, the coalition’s chairman.
*The organization alleged that Sanders may have violated 18 U.S. Code § 227, a law passed in 2007 that makes it illegal for a government official to “wrongfully [influence] a private entity’s employment decisions.”
The aim of the provision, when it passed, was to prevent sweetheart deals between government officials and lobbyists.
Lawmakers who pushed for the provision said they didn’t want private employers to be hiring or promoting people “in exchange for political access or favors,” the Congressional Record noted at the time.
But lawmakers made clear that they weren’t attempting to prohibit any speech that was protected by the First Amendment. The law they passed states that explicitly.
The coalition’s co-founder, Nate Lerner, said it was “absurd” for Sanders to single out Hill for criticism and accused the administration of attempting to stifle dissent.
“They absolutely were pressuring or attempting to influence ESPN to get rid of her,” he said.
Reached by telephone, Huckabee said it’s the sportscaster, not the White House, that was “totally out of bounds.”
“The press secretary to the president has every right to defend the president against some of the most outrageous, racist comments that he’s been subjected to, and the comments that were made by the so-called reporter were racist,” he said.
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