The emails, online requests and phone calls poured in to the tiny Office of Government Ethics (OGE) on Thursday, overwhelming the agency’s website and causing it to crash.
The OGE, an independent branch dedicated to advising and aiding the executive branch in avoiding potential conflicts on interest and ethical violations, did not attribute the surge in contacts to any particular event beyond “recent events.” However, many observers have speculated that the increase is related to White House aide Kellyanne Conway appearing to use her position to promote the business brand of first daughter Ivanka Trump.
Conway’s comments drew sharp condemnation from oversight officials, with House Oversight Committee Chair and Republican Jason Chaffetz calling them “wrong, wrong, wrong, clearly over the line, unacceptable,” per the Associated Press. The Oversight Committee has since asked the OGE to review the comments.
When asked about them at Thursday’s press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Conway had been “counseled” but provided no further details.
The Hill reports that a prominent liberal watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed a complaint with the OGE soon after comments were made. Not long after, the agency’s website crashed. On Thursday evening, it went live again after several hours offline. Other media reports indicate that the office’s phone lines are all going straight to voicemail.
Politico reported that the outage is not related to any malicious activity against the website but is simply a matter of heavy traffic. Citing OGE administrators, Politico also reported that the website already has had five million page requests in 2017, compared to 300,000 throughout all of 2016. According to the most recent data available, the office has a staff of 65 people.
However, the high volume of traffic does not mean any investigation will be opened into President Donald Trump, as the agency clarified in subsequent tweets.
Still, Thursday’s events mark another twist in the Trump administration’s relationship with the OGE. Back in November, when Trump had just been elected, the office sent a series of tweets praising Trump’s stated committment to divesting from his extensive business holdings, saying things such as “"Bravo! Only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest . Good call!” and “we told your counsel we’d sing your praises if you divested, we meant it.” After speculation that the account had been hacked, the OGE confirmed that the tweets were genuine, per NPR.
A month later, it was revealed that the office’s director had personally ordered the tweets to be posted, approving the exact wording himself, per The Daily Dot.
However, when Trump later backed away from his commitment to completely divest from his businesses, the OGE raised questions about potential conflicts on interest and the lack of extensive ethics reviews of Trump’s Cabinet picks, per NPR. Again, the office’s website crashed in mid January.