U.S. President Donald Trump has freely blended his campaign with the federal government during this week’s Republican convention, staging a series of events pushing the limits of laws prohibiting government employees from engaging in politics.
On Tuesday, Trump held a naturalization ceremony for new citizens, recorded at the White House and aired hours later as part of the Republican convention programming. Vice President Mike Pence delivered his keynote address Wednesday from another piece of federal property, Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. The party’s festivities return to the White House on Thursday for Trump’s address.
The scenes provoked outrage from Trump’s critics, who say the convention has violated a law called the Hatch Act. But White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Wednesday that average Americans don’t care, calling the concerns “hooplah.”
“Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares. They expect that Donald Trump is going to promote Republican values,” said Meadows, a former congressman. “This is a lot of hooplah that’s being made about things.”
The party also broadcast Trump issuing a presidential pardon to a convicted bank robber, and sought and received a permit to stage a fireworks show from the Washington monument. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later delivered a convention speech during an official trip to Jerusalem, bucking both decades of precedent and his own recent admonition that State Department employees should steer clear of the campaign.
Meanwhile, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf presided over Tuesday’s naturalization ceremony, and first lady Melania Trump gave her convention speech on Tuesday from the White House Rose Garden.
Donald Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, called the naturalization ceremony and pardon “the grossest abuse of the Hatch Act that I have seen.”
“This is an intentional strategy to bend and break the law because it is politically expedient for the president,” he said.
White House employees
A White House spokesman, Judd Deere, said that the convention events were within the confines of the law. “Any government employees who have or may participate are doing so in compliance with the Hatch Act,” Deere said.
The Hatch Act generally is intended to prevent the use of government power for partisan political purposes. Violations can be punished with both civil penalties — like fines or suspension from work — and criminal penalties. The president and vice president are exempt from the civil provisions of the law but not from the criminal provisions.
White House employees, however, are not exempt. That includes anyone on the federal payroll that works on the president’s speech or its broadcast from the South Lawn.
“There are certain areas of the White House where the Hatch Act does not prohibit federal employees from engaging in political activity. The West Lawn and Rose Garden are two such areas,” the U.S. Office of Special Counsel — an independent agency that administers the Hatch Act — said in a statement. “Therefore, covered federal employees would not necessarily violate the Hatch Act merely by attending political events in those areas.”
But any cameras, teleprompters, podiums, wiring, cabling or platforms used for the remarks will need to have been hired externally, according to Larry Noble, an adjunct professor of campaign finance at American University.
“What is frightening about this is that with no restrictions, the president could mobilize the government to help his campaign,” Noble said in an interview. “That’s really unfortunate for employees at the lower levels who perceive they have no choice.”
Delaney Marsco, legal counsel for ethics at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, said that “it would be very difficult for them to pull off something like this kind of grandiose type of political speech on White House grounds without utilizing at least some White House staff to facilitate it.”
“This is such a blurring of the political and the official, and it’s unprecedented,” she said in an interview.
However, even if employees violate the Hatch Act, Trump would be the one who would have to penalize them. Trump has not acted on previous allegations of Hatch Act violations, including after the OSC recommended he fire senior adviser Kellyanne Conway for repeatedly breaking it.
The Republican National Committee said in a statement that it is paying “applicable” costs related to convention events at the White House.
A White House official said the naturalization ceremony and pardon did not violate the law because the White House posted video of the events on its official website before the convention programming began. The official asked not to be identified discussing the matter because of its sensitivity.
“The fact that they posted it to the White House website a few hours beforehand doesn’t change what the event was, which was the use of official authority for partisan politics,” Sherman said.
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, agreed that both the naturalization ceremony and pardon were apparent violations of the law. “It begs credulity that this just happened by chance — that they happened to have a pardon that day and just used footage from it,” she said.
Trump’s participation in the naturalization ceremony could violate the criminal provisions of the Hatch Act he’s not exempt from, she said. Wolf could be liable under both the civil and criminal provisions, she said. She disputed Meadows’ assertion that Americans don’t care.
“I believe that people do care about whether government power is being used for private gain,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the case that these are just little persnickety technical issues. This is about the abuse of federal power.”
She said the OSC “should initiate an investigation, absolutely.” The OSC said in a statement that it “will continue to vigorously and even-handedly enforce the Hatch Act, consistent with its statutory authorities” but did not say specifically if it was opening any investigation.
The Department of Justice would have to enforce the criminal provisions of the law. A spokesman for Attorney General William Barr didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Pompeo’s appearance in Israel is being investigated by House Democrats. Secretaries of State in particular, as America’s top diplomats, have historically steered clear of overtly partisan appearances like a convention speech.
“The Trump administration and Secretary Pompeo have shown a gross disregard not only of basic ethics, but also a blatant willingness to violate federal law for political gain,” Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro said Tuesday.
Pompeo’s appearance, while on a taxpayer-funded trip abroad, raised new questions about how he’s mixed partisan politics with his role. It also appears to violate guidance from his own State Department, which prohibits participation in political conventions and politicking while on official travel.
Pompeo himself sent a routine cable to U.S. diplomats last month cautioning that president and political appointees “may not engage in any partisan political activity in concert with a partisan campaign, political party, or partisan political group, even on personal time and outside of the federal workplace.”
Sherman said Pompeo’s speech violates State Department guidelines and could violate the Hatch Act if any funds used to produce the video of his remarks aren’t reimbursed by the Republican party.