The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A year later, an obviously illegal campaign stunt is determined to have been illegal

At a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump steps back to yield the lectern to Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, at the White House in Washington on April 1, 2020. (Alex Brandon/AP)

You have to imagine that it isn’t cheap to maintain the White House. It’s a large mansion, with countless historical items and a large staff. It is a manifestation of the power of the presidency, so it is well-tended and (generally) well-kept. Although it constitutes only a small part of the federal government’s overall spending, its upkeep is nonetheless covered by American taxpayers.

That’s why there are rules meant to keep politicians from using the White House for political purposes. As is the case with federal officials and other government offices and resources, it is a violation of the Hatch Act to leverage the White House or, say, a Cabinet position, in service of a political campaign. Earlier this year, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was justifiably criticized for promoting the gubernatorial candidacy of Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe from the White House. She was contrite, but the damage was done: Government resources — Psaki’s time on the job, the White House’s system for news briefings — had been used to aid a candidate.

If Psaki’s apparent violation was the equivalent of shoplifting, violations under the Trump administration were a veritable crime spree, culminating in one last job during last year’s Republican National Convention.

Donald Trump and his team were never dissuaded by the Hatch Act. Numerous officials were cited for violating its rules during his presidency, but since punishment came down to Trump, they skated. The effectiveness of the Hatch Act depends on people recognizing that there is a rule in place and why it is in place, and it depends on people holding one another accountable for following that rule. Trump and his staff paid no heed to either.

That was very obvious during last year’s national party convention. Far from avoiding the politicization of the White House, Trump worked hard to leverage it. It wasn’t simply using the White House as a backdrop for campaign events or commercials, either; he tried to frame his residency in the building as being something that Democrats were trying unfairly to take away from him, not as a time-limited rental under the bounds of American law.

The apex of this effort to leverage his position and government resources to aid his campaign was a remarkable segment that aired during the convention. In it, Trump participated in a naturalization ceremony at the White House for a group of immigrants to the United States. The recorded segment was as subtle as the interior design at Trump Tower, allowing Trump to extend graciousness to new Americans with the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, playing emcee.

It was instantly obvious that the stunt was a violation of the Hatch Act, although Trump’s team tried hard to spin it. They claimed that the ceremony was simply a part of Trump’s public business as usual, something that they just happened to record and then decided to air during the convention. Wolf was later asked whether he was aware that the ceremony was going to be part of the convention; he tried his best to talk around the issue.

There was no reason to grant Trump and Wolf the benefit of the doubt on the matter. Trump had already displayed zero interest in avoiding use of government resources to aid his reelection bid (as evidenced most obviously in the interactions with Ukraine that led to his first impeachment). What’s more, the naturalization event was obviously staged for political purposes, something that Trump had done once previously during his term in office.

On Tuesday, the verdict of the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) came in: Wolf and Trump had, in fact, violated the Hatch Act.

Well, no kidding. The OSC report did make clear just how obviously the violation occurred. While the Trump White House tried at first to claim that the ceremony’s inclusion in the convention was last-minute and independent of politics, the OSC obtained emails indicating that more than a week before, the White House had asked Homeland Security to schedule a ceremony during the convention, later acknowledging that it would be “pretaped” for the convention itself. Over and over, the OSC warned Trump’s team that it would be violating the law if it moved forward as planned.

“OSC repeatedly warned both DHS and the Trump White House that, because the ceremony was designed to produce content for the RNC, the proposed naturalization ceremony would violate the Hatch Act even if it was later characterized as an official event,” the report reads. “OSC first advised a DHS ethics official of this on August 20, prior to the event being reclassified as an official event, and again on August 25, the morning of the event, after learning that it had been reclassified. OSC similarly advised the White House on August 20 and 24. As late as 10 a.m. on the morning of the ceremony — just 45 minutes prior to the event — the DHS ethics official emailed DHS leadership, including the [general counsel], stating that Acting Secretary Wolf should not participate in the ceremony.”

Wolf participated in the ceremony anyway. When the OSC asked the White House attorney for more information, the attorney claimed that discussions were privileged, a very familiar excuse. Although the OSC could not prove that Wolf knew the ceremony would be part of the convention, it makes very clear that Wolf would have been hard-pressed not to know that.

In the news release announcing its findings — findings that extend beyond this one incident to include more than a dozen Trump administration officials — the OSC notes that it is pretty much powerless at this point.

“Though discipline is no longer possible once subjects leave government service,” it reads, “OSC is issuing this report to fully document the violations, highlight the enforcement challenges that OSC confronted in investigating the violations, and to deter similar violations in the future.”

In the future, that will continue to depend on whether officials care about reprimands from the OSC and whether presidents care to punish members of their staffs. It took only hours to be obvious that the naturalization ceremony violated the Hatch Act, but it took more than a year for the OSC to conclude affirmatively that it had. This is probably in part because there was no recourse for correction, so there was little urgency in issuing isolated analyses of the administration’s behavior.

A prohibition that neither serves to prohibit actions nor to hold to account those who violate it is not a prohibition at all. It’s just a request, one that people like Trump are free to ignore. Now, 15 months later, we can say: Yes, the stunt was a violation of the law. But we then also have to ask: So what?