The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Focus on Trump’s official White House actions as part of Republican convention programming raises Hatch Act concerns

President Trump repeatedly flouted norms and raised legal questions on Aug. 25 as official duties were performed during a political convention. (Video: The Washington Post)

This story was featured in Drop Me The Link, our one-story election newsletter. Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

The decision by the Republican National Convention to feature President Trump conducting official business inside the White House underscores how he is leveraging the powers of his office for political gain, raising questions about whether an event featured Tuesday night violated federal law.

In a remarkable pretaped scene packaged as part of the convention’s prime-time programming, Trump took part in a naturalization ceremony for five new citizens as acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf administered the Oath of Allegiance.

“On behalf of everyone here today, I’d like to express my gratitude to you, Mr. President, for hosting this naturalization ceremony here at the White House,” Wolf said.

Kathleen Clark, a legal and government ethics professor at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, said that the event appeared to be designed as part of the convention, an action that would violate a criminal provision derived from the Hatch Act, which bars executive branch employees from participating in politics in their official capacity.

That provision prohibits federal employees from using their authority to influence the election of a presidential candidate, she said, calling Trump and Wolf “breathtaking in their contempt for the law.”

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows rejected that charge, telling Politico on Wednesday that the law was being applied “beyond the original intent,” adding, “Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares.”

A White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the legal basis of the naturalization event, said it was part of the president’s official schedule and that it was publicized on a public website. The ceremony was streamed on the White House’s YouTube channel before it aired during the convention.

“The campaign decided to use the publicly available content for campaign purposes,” the official said. “There was no violation of law.”

The White House press corps was not informed about the naturalization ceremony, which was not listed on the president’s public schedule. While the event was organized by the White House, the primary purpose of the ceremony was for it to be aired as part of the convention, according to two aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the plans.

The Hatch Act, a civil administrative law, does not apply to the president and the vice president. But the law applies to executive branch employees who are involved in planning or executing any political events staged at the White House, including video segments filmed there, experts said.

And while the president and vice president are exempt from the law, they are subject to two criminal provisions derived from the Hatch Act, Clark said.

What is the Hatch Act, and why did Kellyanne Conway get accused of violating it so egregiously?

The naturalization ceremony — as well as a video of Trump granting a pardon inside the White House that aired earlier in the night — comes after numerous Hatch Act violations by administration officials in the past several years.

“This is so obviously, blatantly, insultingly a Hatch Act violation that it’s starting to seem like the Trump administration is going out of its way to find new ways to violate the law,” said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.We’ll be filing a complaint.”

According to the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which enforces the act, White House employees must be off-duty to participate in or attend a convention event. The law prohibits federal employees from taking part in political activity while in a government building or while wearing an official uniform or insignia.

In a statement Wednesday, special counsel Henry Kerner said that the OSC “will continue to vigorously and even-handedly enforce the Hatch Act, consistent with its statutory authorities.”

During the naturalization ceremony, two Marines in dress uniforms opened the door for the president as he entered the room.

According to the Defense Department, “military service members and federal employees acting in their official capacity may not engage in activities that associate the DOD with any partisan political campaign or elections, candidate, cause or issue,” according to an agency directive and the Hatch Act.

The Marine Corps said Wednesday that the two Marines were performing official duties in their official capacities, referring additional questions to the White House.

Mark Hertling, a retired Army lieutenant general, said in a tweet Wednesday that the Marines work full-time at the White House and were doing their jobs. But he said that it was “VERY wrong for [president] to use the WH for a campaign event” and that the Marines were “placed in a bad position because of the event being held there.”

The White House is figuring as a central backdrop for this week’s GOP convention. On Monday, Trump appeared in two prerecorded videos shot inside the building, one in the East Room and another in the Diplomatic Reception Room.

On Tuesday night, first lady Melania Trump spoke from the Rose Garden. Numerous administration officials appeared to be in attendance, according to video feeds of her speech.

On Thursday, Trump is expected to deliver his official acceptance speech from the South Lawn, which is set to host hundreds of guests.

White House officials were working nonstop Wednesday to prepare for the president’s speech. While administration employees were told to use personal time for the event, two officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal logistics said the lines were blurred this week because it was difficult to differentiate between official and political activities.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement that convention events were being planned and executed by the campaign and the Republican National Committee.

“Any government employees who have or may participate are doing so in compliance with the Hatch Act,” he said.

The OSC noted in a statement Wednesday that because the Rose Garden and White House lawn are not considered government buildings, federal employees would not necessarily violate the Hatch Act by attending political events there.

However, the involvement of White House employees in helping produce convention events could raise Hatch Act concerns, as the office told House Democrats in a letter this month.

White House employees covered by the Hatch Act are barred from assisting with the event while at work or while in a federal building or room, and from attending the event while on duty, Erica S. Hamrick, deputy chief of the office’s Hatch Act unit, wrote in an Aug. 12 letter in response to an inquiry from Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee.

And all White House employees are barred from using their authority to ask subordinates to do work to support a political event, Hamrick noted.

Roughly a dozen Trump administration officials have been found in violation of the Hatch Act in recent years.

After Kerner recommended the removal of White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway last year for numerous violations, she brushed off the concerns.

“Blah, blah, blah,” she told reporters. “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.”

Trump has occasionally joked with aides that he would pardon them for Hatch Act violations, former administration officials said.

The White House, Trump campaign and Republican National Convention host committee did not provide specific details about how they would ensure executive branch employees acted within federal restrictions in relation to this week’s convention.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) is paying for the catering at Trump’s speech Thursday night at the White House, according to a person familiar with the event who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the planning process. The RNC is also expected to pay for logistics, transportation and other related costs for the event.

Party officials have begun estimating how much it will cost to reimburse the government but do not yet have specific figures, according to the person, who added that it will be cheaper to hold Trump’s Thursday speech at the White House than at another venue.

Privately, RNC officials have been dismissive of Hatch Act concerns, saying they attempted to hold Trump’s convention speech in other places but were criticized for drawing a crowd amid the coronavirus pandemic.

While Washington currently restricts mass gatherings of more than 50 people, that rule does not apply to property owned by the federal government.

Trump was initially annoyed by scrutiny about whether he was using the White House backdrop for political gain during the convention and considered delivering his speech at a Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa., but that was “never really going to happen” because of logistical concerns, according to a campaign official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the discussions.

Pompeo stirs up outrage among some diplomats over convention speech

The Hatch Act, also known as the Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, was signed into law in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Sen. Carl Hatch (D-N.M.) introduced the bill amid allegations that Democratic politicians gained an unfair advantage in the 1938 midterms through employees at the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal employment agency.

Trump and Vice President Pence are still subject to restrictions under two other provisions derived from the 1939 law that are enforced by the Justice Department, Clark said.

One is a prohibition on any person from intimidating, commanding or coercing any federal employee to participate in political activity on behalf of any candidate, she said. The other is a ban on any employee of the administration from affecting the nomination or the election of any presidential or vice-presidential candidate, Clark said.

“One of the main purposes of the Hatch Act is to ensure that government authority, including the service of the government employees, are not used for political gain,” she said. “Even though the president isn’t bound by the civil provisions of the Hatch Act, the concern is whether he is improperly exploiting the White House, essentially, as his backdrop for his reelection campaign.”

A number of top White House aides have worked on the convention — including Conway, Meadows and senior adviser Jared Kushner — but officials say they have planned the White House portion of the event in their personal time and will attend in their personal capacities. Ivanka Trump, Trump’s daughter and a senior adviser to the president, is expected to introduce her father at the event.

Making sure that there is a bright line between work done for the convention and official White House duties may be tricky, experts said.

And Jonathan Ladd, associate professor of public policy and government at Georgetown University, said that Trump is breaking with tradition by delivering his convention speech at the White House.

“Presidents and administrations are always trying to get reelected, always trying to get more popular,” Ladd said. “But they’ve always tried to follow the Hatch Act by not having explicit campaign events on government property, including the White House.”

In the past, Trump has privately dismissed concerns about the Hatch Act, sympathizing with aides found to have violated it, according to current and former White House officials.

When asked about the use of the White House for his upcoming acceptance speech, Trump noted the Hatch Act does not apply to him.

“It is legal. There is no Hatch Act because it doesn’t pertain to the president,” Trump told reporters this month.

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.