The Hatch Act is in the news this week due to uproar about potential violations at the Republican National Convention.
The accusations involve three critical RNC moments: Secretary of State Pompeo's speech from Jerusalem, Trump and Melania using the White House as a backdrop, and the inclusion of a naturalization ceremony conducted by acting Homeland Security Secretary, Chad Wolf. However, most Americans have never heard of the Hatch Act, and Trump's Chief of Staff believes that "Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares." So what actually is the Hatch Act, did the Trump administration violate it, and should we care?
What Is the Hatch Act?
By ART CHANCE
The Hatch Act of 1939, "An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities," limits certain political activities of federal employees, as well as some state, D.C., and local government employees who work in connection with federally funded programs. Specifically, those in the executive branch, with the exception of the President and Vice President, must abstain from taking "any active part" in political campaigns while on duty. They may not use their official titles or positions while engaged in political activity or participate in any activity directed at the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group while on duty, in any federal room or building, or wearing a uniform or official insignia.
Summarily, the Hatch Act was created to ensure that government resources don't subsidize re-election campaigns, that government aides aren't pressured into campaigning for their superiors, and that government officials don't use the influence of their position to affect election outcomes. It ensures that campaigning and governing remain separate activities.
The Trump administration has a history of violating the Hatch Act. The Office of Special Council, which is responsible for evaluating Hatch Act complaints, has issued members of the Trump administration 13 official citations, and 12 more investigations are underway, not including the potential violations during the Republican National Convention. This is despite the fact that Henry Kerner, the head of the Office of Special Council, is a Trump appointee and model conservative.
The most notable offender is Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, who has been accused of violating the Hatch Act over 60 times by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). She's violated the Hatch Act so many times that even the Trump-friendly OSC recommended she be fired, referring to her actions as "egregious, notorious and ongoing." Her response to the recommendation? "blah blah blah...let me know when the jail sentence starts."
Conway is not the only one.The New York Times reported that Trump officials "privately scoff" at the Hatch Act and "take pride" in violating it, and the Daily Beast reported that staffers flaunt violations because they "love the anger it produces." In contrast, during Obama's eight years as president, only two cabinet officials received official citations, and both publicly apologized for their misconduct.
So now that we understand what the Hatch Act is, let's talk about the specific violations that took place during the RNC.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Speech
Watch Mike Pompeo's Full Speech At The 2020 RNC | NBC News www.youtube.com
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered his Republican National Convention speech from a rooftop in Israel. Pompeo filmed the speech on an official overseas trip, but the State Department said he delivered it "in his personal capacity." He never mentioned his position as Secretary of State, but he did speak to foreign policy in general and Trump's "America First" vision.
Does it break tradition? Yes, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is the first acting Secretary of State in living memory to give a speech at a partisan convention. Other cabinet members have made speeches to national conventions in the past, but the Secretary of State's role in foreign policy has deemed their participation inappropriate. As Susan Hennessey and Scott R. Anderson wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, "Diplomats are supposed to represent all Americans to the rest of the world, and limiting their political activities ensures that they are able to serve this role effectively."
So does Pompeo's speech break department policy? Yes, According to a 2019 memorandum from the department's Legal Adviser, "Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event." The memorandum explains that the State Department specifically has a "long-standing policy of limiting participation in partisan campaigns by its political appointees in recognition of the need for the U.S. Government to speak with one voice on foreign policy matters."
Does it violate the Hatch Act? Maybe. The State Department has stated that he delivered the speech "in his personal capacity," which, under the Hatch Act, he is allowed to do. However, because the speech was delivered from Israel on a diplomatic visit, it can be argued that he was on duty, and it is impossible to separate him from his official capacity; therefore, he was violating the Hatch Act.
The Use of the White House Grounds for Campaign Speeches
Melania Trump delivers speech at 2020 RNC www.youtube.com
Melania Trump delivered her speech on the second night of the convention from an unconventional location: the White House Rose Garden. And as his grand finale, Donald Trump delivered his speech accepting his nomination from the south lawn of the White House. Trump has stated that the choice to do the speeches from the White House is simply a matter of convenience since it would be "easiest from the standpoint of security." However, many officials have criticized this action for being a Hatch Act violation waiting to happen.
Does it break tradition? Yes, use of the White House grounds as a platform for a re-election speech is highly unusual and represents a blurred line between taxpayer-supported government activity and political campaigning. The "Rose Garden strategy," a term used by political strategists for an incumbent president's use of official events to gain publicity in an election year, is fairly common. But, using the official events to get media attention is not the same as literally using the Rose Garden for televised campaign events.
Does it violate the Hatch Act? Maybe. The President himself is exempt from the Hatch Act. But any other White House employees assisting in the setup/preparation for RNC speeches are in violation. The OSC has stated that federal employees attending the event are not in violation because the Rose Garden and the South Lawn are not considered part of the White House.
Use of Naturalization Ceremony Footage
Naturalization Ceremony shown at RNC
During the second night of the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump presided over a pre-recorded naturalization ceremony for five new American citizens. The ceremony was performed by acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, and was filmed inside the White House. The video began with Trump striding up to the lectern while "Hail to the Chief" played in the background.
Does it break tradition? Yes. Using a legally binding ceremony as part of a partisan campaign event has never been done before.
Does it violate the Hatch Act? Probably. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, was acting in his official capacity, clearly on-duty, performing a legally binding ceremony in the White House. Because this was used during a political convention in support of the re-election of Donald Trump, it is a seemingly clear violation of the Hatch Act. White House officials have defended the action in a statement, "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." The argument seems to be that because the original intent of the ceremony was not to use it for the campaign, it was not a violation.
All three of the questionable actions mentioned above effectively blur the line between the Executive Branch's role in governing and their role in getting Trump reelected. Even though it is unclear whether these actions were technically violations of the Hatch Act, they certainly violate the spirit of the act. Free and fair elections are the foundational principle of Democracy, but Trump and his administration don't seem to care about the rules in place to keep things fair. Americans deserve a federal government that works for everyone, not one that can't seem to tell the difference between campaigning and governing.