The Republican National Convention, with its planned use of the White House as backdrop and speeches from administration officials, is breaking norms and bringing admonitions from ethics experts, with some suggesting President Donald Trump himself could potentially violate provisions of federal laws meant to ensure official authority is used for public good.
Trump administration officials have been repeatedly cited over the years for violating federal laws concerning government ethics. On Sunday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington accused Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, of violating the Hatch Act when he criticized Democratic nominee Joe Biden during an interview on Fox News in his official capacity.
But some experts say plans for the convention, which began Monday in Charlotte, North Carolina, are unlike any past breaches.
“Obviously this administration has bent and broken the law on repeated occasions to boost the president’s reelection prospects,” said Donald Sherman, deputy director of CREW. “I think these are new, unprecedented steps.”
CREW has filed numerous complaints against Trump officials and says transgressions have gone unpunished. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is a “repeat offender,” the Office of Special Counsel wrote in a June 2019 letter. The Trump-appointed special counsel, who investigates complaints of ethics violations, recommended Conway be fired, but the White House declined.
Conway, White House senior adviser Ivanka Trump, social media director Dan Scavino and other administration officials are scheduled to speak at the four-day convention, raising questions about federal employees participating in partisan politicking.
Michael R. Pompeo plans to speak to the RNC while he is in Israel on an official mission, breaking the long-held tradition of secretaries of state avoiding partisan politics. Sherman said Pompeo’s appearance was “perhaps worse because it’s obvious he’s on official government business.”
First lady Melania Trump is scheduled to speak Tuesday from the White House Rose Garden, and the president will give his main convention speech Thursday from the South Lawn.
“Trump giving his convention speech on the South Lawn is the clearest conceivable violation of the Hatch Act,” Richard Stengel, a former Obama administration official, wrote on Twitter. “(Hundreds) of White House staffers would be violating it, not to mention charges of criminal appropriation of Congressional funds for political purposes.”
The Hatch Act is a 1939 federal law that restricts federal employees from participating in certain political activities. Although the law’s civil provisions do not apply to the president and vice president, they are not exempt from the law’s criminal provisions, Sherman said. Trump’s daughter and the other senior officials are subject to the Hatch Act’s civil statues, but the White House has defended their participation.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has said that the White House worked with the Office of Special Counsel, the independent federal and prosecutorial agency, to make sure Ivanka Trump was in compliance.
“Ivanka Trump’s appearance at the Republican National Convention is in her personal capacity, as the president’s daughter,” she said. “Like all government employees, she is free to engage in political activity in her personal capacity.”
Deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in an email that convention events “will be planned and executed, at whatever the venue, by the Trump Campaign and RNC. Any government employees who may participate will do so in compliance with the Hatch Act.”
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said “it’s necessary, but not sufficient” that they appear in their own capacity at the convention. It’s important that they don’t use their official authority or influence in their speech, she said.
Trump’s speech on the South Lawn avoids the part of the law’s provision that prohibits partisan activities in federal buildings, and the Justice Department has interpreted the South Lawn to be part of Trump’s residence, Clark said.
But “if the plan is to have the image of the White House as the backdrop, I think that is a violation of the Hatch Act,” she said. “The underlying idea is, government authority shouldn’t be used for political gain. That’s not complicated.”
Other presidents have used the White House as backdrop for campaign announcements. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan spoke, from the East Room and the Oval Office, respectively, when they announced they would run for reelection.
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