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White House staging and Trump aides’ roles at RNC may violate ethics laws, experts say

President Trump speaks in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday, the first day of the Republican National Convention.
President Trump speaks in Charlotte, N.C., on Monday, the first day of the Republican National Convention.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

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 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, N.C., 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.”

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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 advisor 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.

“Pompeo’s decision to speak at the Republican National Convention while on official U.S. travel blurs the line between politics and government service,” Corey Goldstone, communications manager for the nonpartisan advocacy group Campaign Legal Center, said in an email. “Steering clear of public political endorsements has worked to keep secretaries of State above the political fray in the past, so it feels like an important ethics precedent is being broken.”

On Monday, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) posted on Twitter a State Department memo signed by Pompeo in July that reminded employees to refrain from political activities and to adhere to the Hatch Act. Certain restrictions applied to all State Department employees, the memo said, barring them from using their official position for partisan political purposes or engaging in partisan political activity while on duty or in the federal workplace.

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.

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Trump and his aides have long ignored ethics norms, and the president is escalating his use of official events to attack Joe Biden and Democrats.

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.”

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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.”

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Other presidents have used the White House as backdrop for campaign announcements. Presidents Carter and Reagan spoke, from the East Room and the Oval Office, respectively, when they announced they would run for reelection. Although the comparison is not dissimilar, Sherman said, the Trump administration’s continued disregard for basic government ethics will frame his eventual speech.

“This is an escalation of that. This is not an announcement statement,” he said. “This is a campaign speech, and it comes after 3½ years of egregious violations of the Hatch Act.”


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