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O’Brien’s travels to swing states days before election raise ethics concerns

National security adviser Robert C. O'Brien made official visits to Minnesota and Wisconsin.
National security adviser Robert C. O'Brien made official visits to Minnesota and Wisconsin. (Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post)
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White House national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien visited two swing states days before the Nov. 3 election, raising concerns about the use of taxpayer-funded official trips for what critics say are thinly veiled activities designed to boost President Trump in political battleground areas.

O’Brien on Monday made official visits to Minnesota and Wisconsin — two states where Trump has held rallies in recent weeks and hopes to make inroads against his Democratic opponent, former vice president Joe Biden.

In Minnesota, O’Brien attended a roundtable on mining hosted by a Republican congressman in Hermantown. Both Trump and Vice President Pence have visited the area to underscore their support for copper-nickel mining, which Republicans see as a way of motivating voters in the state’s Iron Range to support the president and down-ballot candidates.

In Wisconsin, O’Brien visited the Fincantieri Marinette Marine shipyard to tour the facility and meet employees. Trump and Pence have both visited the shipyard in Wisconsin’s Great Lakes region. O’Brien praised the shipbuilders for helping rebuild the U.S. military, a key talking point for Trump on the campaign trail.

O’Brien’s trip comes as officials across the Trump administration travel to swing states to deliver messages at events and in local media interviews, helping shore up support for the president.

In recent weeks, for example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to a Texas megachurch, addressed the Wisconsin legislature and made virtual remarks to a Florida conservative antiabortion group. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt have all visited key swing states on official trips.

As Trump appointees flout the Hatch Act, civil servants who get caught get punished

The White House defended O’Brien’s pre-election trip to the battleground areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota — outside the typical circuit of travel for a national security adviser — as necessary to protect the critical U.S. mineral industry and defense supply chains.

“There is no greater priority than maintaining our national security industrial base and its highly skilled workers who deliver top quality products that help our servicemen and women keep our country safe,” National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot said. “The important work of protecting our national security continues regardless of domestic political events.”

But government ethics experts and watchdogs see O’Brien’s trip as yet another example of how the Trump administration is willing to challenge regulations designed to prevent the use of government resources to aid a candidate’s reelection.

“It’s an awfully large coincidence for him to talk about an issue that is tangential to his job and central to the campaign, especially when you look at it in the context of this administration’s clear pattern of using every piece of the federal government to advance the president politically,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a government accountability nonprofit. “It seems pretty clear what is happening here.”

University of Minnesota Law School professor Richard W. Painter, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration and has opposed copper and nickel mining, said it was no accident O’Brien was addressing miners in Minnesota.

“We know what he is doing. It’s just obvious,” Painter said. “This is obviously about the election. He is coming out there to shill for the mining.”

Whether O’Brien’s trip violated the Hatch Act — which prohibits executive branch employees from engaging in political activities while on the job — depends on whether he made statements that could be seen as supporting Trump’s reelection during his appearances and meetings. The Washington Post was unable to review a full transcript of his remarks at both stops.

Earlier this month, the Office of Special Counsel, the independent federal watchdog that investigates Hatch Act violations, determined that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue violated the law in August by advocating for Trump’s reelection during an official trip to North Carolina. The office said Perdue must reimburse the government for the costs of his trip.

Perdue’s violation came as the latest in a string of activities by the Trump administration that have flouted rules designed to prohibit the use of taxpayer funds and official U.S. government influence on a candidate’s reelection.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s criticism of Biden during a September interview prompted accusations that she also violated the Hatch Act.

Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump regularly tweets messages urging people to vote for her father, despite holding an official advisory position in the White House that makes her subject to the Hatch Act. In 2019, the Office of Special Counsel found that Kellyanne Conway repeatedly violated the Hatch Act while serving as White House counselor and recommended that she be removed from her position. Trump left her in place.

Members of the Trump administration have acted with impunity when it comes to the Hatch Act.

“If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work,” Conway said in a 2019 appearance when asked about violating the law. “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.”

In early October, Trump held a campaign rally on the South Lawn that he deemed an official White House event, calling it a “Peaceful Protest for Law and Order” and instructing the U.S. Marine Band to serenade guests.

The rally came after the president and his advisers used White House grounds to host the Republican National Committee convention in August. Acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf participated in a naturalization ceremony that was broadcast during the convention, prompting criticism that he had violated the Hatch Act. Trump also broke norms by issuing a pardon and airing it during the convention.

Addressing criticism that activities at the convention had broken the law, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said in an interview with Politico that “nobody outside of the Beltway really cares” about the Hatch Act. Meadows said it was “a lot of hoopla that’s being made about things mainly because the convention has been so unbelievably successful.”

Pompeo also gave a speech during the convention while on official diplomatic travel to Jerusalem, leading to similar criticism.

Pompeo accused of mixing politics and diplomacy as election nears

On Tuesday, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the Appropriation Committee, said in a statement that the Office of Special Counsel had launched a probe into whether Pompeo’s speech at the convention violated the Hatch Act. They noted that the office was also looking into “Pompeo’s stated commitment to rush out more of Hillary Clinton’s emails by Election Day.”

“As we get closer to both this year’s election and his own inevitable return to electoral politics, Mike Pompeo has grown even more brazen in misusing the State Department and the taxpayer dollars that fund it as vehicles for the Administration’s, and his own, political ambitions,” Engel and Lowey said in the joint statement.

Pompeo has dismissed allegations that he has violated the Hatch Act, saying this month that “releasing emails for the sake of transparency” couldn’t possibly be a violation and denying political motivations behind his domestic travel. He has said his job duties include explaining foreign policy issues to American audiences.

By law, the president and vice president are exempt from civil provisions of the Hatch Act but do fall under criminal provisions that prohibit the coercion of federal government employees to engage in political activities.

Along with University of Pennsylvania law professor Claire O. Finkelstein, Painter recently filed a complaint with the Justice Department asking that Trump be investigated for violating the criminal provision of the act.

They argued that Trump has pressured federal employees, including Attorney General William P. Barr, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, to use their official positions to advance his campaign’s prospects and has admitted to doing so in public media interviews.

Speaking to The Post, Painter said the Hatch Act should be overhauled to encourage proper enforcement. “There need to be additional statutes and regulations to prevent what are obviously attempts to circumvent the Hatch Act,” Painter said.

Carol Morello contributed to this report.