Trump bills himself as the law and order president. Really? If so, why were major parts of this week’s Republican Convention held or filmed at the White House? Isn’t that in violation of the Hatch Act? Enacted in 1939 and amended in 2012, the Hatch Act’s purpose is to prevent “pernicious political activities.” It prohibits Federal employees from taking part in partisan political activities and ensures that the Federal workforce is free from partisan political influence or coercion. Violations of the Hatch Act can result in the loss of a job, a fine, or a combination of both.
The Act specifies that some Federal employees are “more restricted” and some are “less restricted” than others. With some exceptions, “further restricted” employees are intelligence and enforcement type agencies such as the FBI, the CIA, and the Federal Election Commission and includes senior executives and political appointees in the executive branch (SES) wherever they are located. The President and Vice President are technically exempt from these restrictions apart from intimidating, threatening or coercing Federal employees. However, the law does apply to executive branch employees. These employees are prohibited from spending official time planning or executing political events held in Federal office buildings including the White House.
The Office of Special Counsel has the task of determining whether the Hatch Act has been violated. The Merit Systems Protection Board is responsible for enforcing the Hatch Act, as well as enforcing civil service protections for Federal workers, including whistleblowing safeguards—a Board that currently has no Members. Trump is responsible for appointing these members.
Potential violations over the last week include the following: Trump’s naturalization ceremony at the White House which was filmed during business hours. Press were not informed of the event (meaning it was not an official event), DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf officiated, and Marines opened the door for the President to enter the room for this photo opportunity. The taping of this ceremony was strictly for use at the Republican Convention. (It was later disclosed that two of the participants in the White House naturalization ceremony were not aware that the taping would be shown at the Republican convention.)
Mike Pompeo’s prerecorded speech was taped during a “taxpayer paid” official trip to Jerusalem. State Department employees and diplomats must follow stringent requirements to avoid violating the Hatch Act. (Pompeo also has been accused of violating laws by using the Secretary’s dining room at the State Department building for political dinners.)
Melania Trump’s convention speech from the White House Rose Garden had an audience of several White House employees. While arguably not a clear violation of the Hatch Act, it was completely inconsistent with the intention of the law. Many refer to the White House as the “people’s house” which again implies that it should not be used for political campaigning.
Mike Pence gave his speech at Fort McHenry, a national monument in Baltimore Harbor, which is managed by the National Park Service. Once again Federal employees were being asked to facilitate a violation of the Hatch Act because the Convention speech is considered a political activity.
Trump’s closing speech for the Republican Convention was held on the White House lawn with more than 1,000 non-socially-distanced attendees. His daughter Ivanka introduced him. Kathleen Clark, an ethics lawyer and professor at Washington University Law School in St. Louis, said in an interview with ABC News that the convention amounts to a “four-day extravaganza of unethical conduct in exploiting the backdrop of the White House for partisan purposes.”
Over the last four years, many Trump officials have been accused of violating the Hatch Act–Nikki Haley, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Kellyanne Conway among them. In fact, Conway has been accused of violating the Hatch Act more than 60 times. Most of these violations involve making disparaging remarks about Democrats while speaking in an official capacity. Conway’s response: “If you are trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it is not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts.” The Office of Special Counsel has recommended Conway’s removal. Conway’s response: “Sue me.”
Recently Ivanka Trump touted Goya Beans because the CEO of Goya endorsed the President. The President himself, hawked Goya Beans in the Oval Office. Last week, Trump tweeted that Americans should boycott Goodyear Tire since the company banned its employees from wearing MAGA hats and other political apparel. To some, these violations may seem like nitpicking, but it is not. Once again, the violators show a flagrant disregard for the law.
Most government employees, including those working for the House of Representatives and Senate, follow these regulations to the letter. They go overboard to avoid showing favoritism or capitalizing on their positions. It is not uncommon for a Senator or Congressperson to leave the Capitol building to take a call related to campaigning or fundraising. They consciously track all activities to ensure they are not in violation of the law. They don’t accept free lunches or dinners—even books from Federal contractors.
As Thomas Edison once said, “There are rules here. We are trying to accomplish something.” One of the things that is supposed to be different about the United States is that our rules—our laws–apply to everyone. Our democracy only works if that is the case. One of the many reasons there has been so much racial unrest in recent months, is that laws are not being enforced equally for everyone. If the President and his administration blatantly violate the law of the land with no consequences, I fear our democracy is indeed in peril.
Maria Grant served as Principal-in-Charge of the Federal Human Capital practice of Deloitte Consulting. Since her retirement from Deloitte, she has focused on writing, music, reading, travel, gardening and nature.