None of this has ever happened before. The individuals who previously held these positions of public trust have traditionally tried to separate their official role from their political acts. Now, Trump and his allies are uniting government office and partisan politics in dangerous ways.
Congressional Democrats have responded to the Republican plans by pointing to federal laws and regulations that prohibit the use of government titles and resources for political activities, accusing the Trump administration of once more breaking the rules. The administration has, yet again, responded that rules are for other people, not them. This time, they’ve presented legal theories as to why specific statutes or guidelines do not apply to the president and secretary of state. Some of these arguments have technical merit, others do not. But to quibble over the minute legalities misses the real point: that the Trump administration is flagrantly betraying the values of fairness and good government that animate these rules in the first place.
Every U.S. citizen who enters government service agrees to give up some of their rights to engage in politics. The Hatch Act prohibits civil servants from running for partisan office or using their title, office or any sort of government resource while engaging in political activities, and the law imposes even tighter restrictions on those who work on national security matters. Diplomats, meanwhile, face an added set of restrictions that prohibit them and their families from engaging in any partisan political activity while serving overseas, even in their personal capacities.
These policies come with real costs for the people involved — as we both have experienced firsthand. While working as a lawyer for the intelligence community, one of us spent years prohibited by heightened Hatch Act restrictions from engaging in any partisan political activity whatsoever; intelligence community employees are warned against so much as sharing a link to a campaign website on private social media. The other of us spent an earlier presidential election cycle as the legal adviser for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where he was responsible for reminding colleagues that they could not raise money, make calls or otherwise support their preferred political candidates, even when off-duty and in the privacy of their own residences.
At times, these restrictions go too far, and they can unduly restrict the speech rights of federal employees. But at their core, they serve an important purpose: 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. The Hatch Act, meanwhile, is meant to avoid even the appearance that a civil servant might use their authority to punish or reward another citizen for their political behavior. These principles are considered so basic, so essential, that even unpaid government interns have to abide by them.
So how can it be appropriate for officials as powerful as the president and secretary of state to ignore them?
Prior presidential administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, felt compelled to observe these rules, regardless of the legalities. For example, while several members of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, they did so in their personal capacities, without using titles or any other indications of office. Importantly, Cabinet officials who worked on national security matters were absent entirely, including the attorney general and secretaries of defense and state. The latter, of course, was former first lady and once-and-future presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who by that point had been a fixture of Democratic conventions for decades — yet she recognized that the traditional division between politics and policy required that she abstain, as had her predecessors from both parties.
Pompeo, for his part, seems to have gone out of his way to disregard these norms. There are very few benefits to hosting a convention during a global pandemic, but the simplicity of recording a message from home is one. Instead, Pompeo selected the politically and ethically complicated venue of a Jerusalem rooftop. While the State Department issued a statement that he was appearing only in his personal capacity, the contrary message is clear.
The same is true for Trump himself, who is taking pains to seek and accept his party’s nomination while visibly clothed in the trappings of the presidency. Most presidents have maintained a careful divide between their public and political functions, to the point that reelection campaigns painstakingly separate campaign stops from official visits and reimburse taxpayers for any portion of official travel that supports partisan activities. But after years of promoting his private businesses in office, at the one moment when using the Trump International Hotel ballroom would actually reduce the ethics and accounting problems, Trump instead stays at the White House for his campaign.
These transgressions are perhaps unsurprising in an administration so habitually norm-breaking that some White House staffers reportedly view Hatch Act violations as a thing of pride. But abandoning these core principles in such public fashion at an event as unmistakably and unequivocally partisan as a national convention in many ways sets a new low. This is not another example of Trump and his allies cynically pushing the bounds in areas of ethical complexity that have challenged even scrupulous prior administrations; it is instead a bold and bright-line declaration that the values themselves don’t matter. And by celebrating the Trump administration as it does so, the rest of the Republican National Convention is making itself a willing accomplice.
The deeper irony, however, is that Trump and his supporters have spent much of the past four years railing against “the swamp” and “the deep state” — myths that paint public servants as villains who use the authority of government to pursue their own narrow interests. Yet this week, Trump is undermining the very principles that usually stand against the sort of abuse he so often decries, all so he can do exactly what those principles seek to prevent: signal to his supporters that, if reelected, he will be their president and use the powers of the presidency in their interest, not those of the broader nation. Trump and Pompeo, who paint themselves as outsiders who disdain government and the trappings of Washington power, are now doing everything they can to wrap themselves in it while asking for another four years.
In response to the controversy over Trump’s use of federal property for the politics purposes, White House spokesman Judd Deere claimed that the president “is free to engage in political activity wherever he chooses.” The lawyers can argue over whether that’s right as a matter of law. This fall, however, voters will have a chance to decide what they think of it, too.
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