The GOP crime spree continues with yet another night of illegally coopting the powers of the presidency as part of the Republican National Convention.
Here’s Donald Trump issuing a pardon! Here’s the First Lady giving her speech from the Rose Garden! Here’s Donald Trump swearing in new American citizens! Here’s the Secretary of State taping a convention speech while on a junket to Jerusalem after explicitly warning his staff that politicking while abroad on official missions was against the law.
The Hatch Act makes it illegal for a federal employee to “use his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.” While the president and vice president are exempt, federal employees who help them set up speeches at the White House or, say, Fort McHenry, are not.
As the Office of Special Counsel wrote in a letter to congress this month, “White House employees are covered by the Hatch Act, so there may be Hatch Act implications for those employees, depending on their level of involvement with the event and their position in the White House,” adding later that “all White House employees, including White House Commissioned Officers, are subject to the prohibition against using their official authority or influence to affect an election. Accordingly, Hatch Act concerns could arise if White House employees who are supervisors were to task subordinate staff with work in support of the political event.”
This would seem to specifically preclude the naturalization ceremony at which Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf gushed, “Mr. President, I want to again commend you for your dedication to the rule of law and for restoring integrity to our immigration system.” But the administration assures us that no, this is totally kosher because they taped it in advance.
“The White House publicized the content of the event on a public website this afternoon and the campaign decided to use the publicly available content for campaign purposes,” a White House official emailed Talking Points Memo. “There was no violation of law.”
But White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows took a different approach, insisting that actually everyone violates the Hatch Act. It’s like speeding — NBD, LOL.
“What it’s really designed to do is to make sure people like myself and others do not use their political position to try to convince other employees other federal employees that they need to vote one way, need to register one way or need to campaign in one way. We take it on well beyond the original intent of the Hatch Act,” he told Politico.
“Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares. They expect that Donald Trump is going to promote Republican values and they would expect that Barack Obama, when he was in office, that he would do the same for Democrats,” Meadows insisted.
The Obama administration largely refrained from criticizing Trump and Mitt Romney, and it certainly didn’t use the White House to host campaign speeches. In 2012 after Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius veered off of prepared remarks in an official speech for a couple of sentences endorsing Obama’s re-election, she apologized profusely and reimbursed the Treasury for the entire cost of the trip. HUD Secretary Joaquin Castro was also found to have violated the Hatch Act in 2016 when he answered a direct question by Katie Couric, saying, “taking off my HUD hat for a second and just speaking individually … Clinton is the most experienced, thoughtful, and prepared candidate for president that we have this year.”
Compared to the naked political campaigning taking place at the White House podium every day, these two isolated incidents seem almost quaint. But at the time Republicans screamed bloody murder, with the National Review calling for Sebelius’s head and likening her to “a bank robber (who) is not exonerated merely because he returns the money to the bank.”
In contrast, this White House has scoffed at the law, with Kellyanne Conway laughing off a memo finding that she’d violated the law multiple times, saying “Blah, blah, blah. If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”
Which would be shameless enough if it weren’t coming from a member of the bar! But if you’ve so thoroughly coopted the justice system that you know you’ll never be prosecuted — and you don’t care at all about the rule of law — why not break the rules wholesale?
As UC Berkley Berkley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky notes in the LA Times this morning, the administration has quietly crippled the agency responsible for enforcing the Hatch Act, as the Merit Systems Protection Board currently has zero members. And if Bill Barr was going to twist himself into a pretzel to say that it was perfectly fine for Michael Flynn to lie to the FBI, he’s certainly not going to go after Trump’s staff for violating the Hatch Act.
So the wheels are well and truly off the national car. The question is, does anyone in America care?
Meadows dismisses Hatch Act concerns at RNC: ‘Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares’ (Politico)
Elizabeth Dye lives in Baltimore where she writes about law and politics.