The administration’s action, they argue, warrants the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the improper use of government employees and property to promote the president’s reelection campaign. That would be a criminal violation of the Hatch Act.
Checks to individuals and organizations from the $2 trillion relief effort are meant to combat the calamitous economic impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic. It is the first time a president’s name has been on an IRS disbursement check, my colleague Lisa Rein reported.
“President Trump is actively seeking re-election. The signature of President Trump on United States Treasury checks is superfluous to their value, legality, or authenticity. The signature serves no official government purpose,” reads the letter to Attorney General William P. Barr. “It does serve Mr. Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign by making it appear that he is responsible for a monetary windfall to tens of millions of voters.”
The letter was signed by Ralph Nader, a progressive icon; Louis Fisher, a constitutional scholar who served both parties for four decades with the Library of Congress and who now is with the College of William & Mary; and Bruce Fein, an attorney who worked in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department and for congressional Republicans. The Justice Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
After Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNN it was his idea to put Trump’s name on the checks, Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, asked in a letter to Mnuchin whether “the decision to gratuitously affix the president’s name . . . provides any benefit to Americans struggling to pay rent or buy food.”
Politico reported that Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), plans to introduce the No PR Act, short for No Politics in Pandemic Recovery Act, to prohibit using tax money for any publicity or promotional activity that includes the names or pictures of the president or vice president.
“President Trump unfortunately appears to see the pandemic as just another opportunity to promote his own political interests,” Schumer said in a statement. “The No PR Act puts an end to the president’s exploitation of taxpayer money for promotional material that only benefits his re-election campaign.”
Nader, Fisher and Fein requested a special counsel to investigate Trump’s name on the checks because it would be a conflict for Barr’s staff to investigate his boss.
Trump should be investigated, their letter said, “for allegedly commanding a federal employee to engage in political activity, the unprecedented, gratuitous placement of Mr. Trump’s signature on the memo line of tens of millions of United States Treasury checks disbursed to eligible citizens under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES).”
Trump’s name, not his signature, is printed on the lower left side of the checks. Be it his printed name or his distinctive scrawl is of no matter, the three said in separate interviews. The impact is the same.
Directing a “Treasury employee to place [Trump’s name] on Cares checks for the purpose of affecting the 2020 presidential election,” Fein said, is a violation of federal law that prohibits the “use of official authority or influence for the purpose . . . of affecting the result of an election.”
Rein reported that “Trump had privately suggested to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who oversees the IRS, that he allow the president to formally sign the checks. . . . But the president is not an authorized signer for legal disbursements by the U.S. Treasury.” Furthermore, to ensure against partisan use of government funds, it is standard practice for civil servants to sign Treasury checks.
Trump’s printed name or his signature “on the CARES checks in the middle of his 2020 presidential campaign,” the lawyers wrote, “is a prominent symbol that benefits his re-election by making it appear that he has alleviated the financial plight of tens of millions of voters.”
There have been no prosecutions, however, under “this section of this little-known part of the criminal code,” said Nick Schwellenbach, an Obama administration staffer with the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates civil Hatch Act violations.
“But just because it hasn’t been previously enforced doesn’t mean it should not be when the facts warrant it,” added Schwellenbach, now a senior investigator with the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight. “There’s enough smoke to warrant an investigation, such as the reportedly unprecedented nature of having a president’s signature on Treasury checks. And it is an election year.”