His top aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien, have found pressing official business in a number of swing states, traveling there on taxpayer money.
And Trump is considering shifting his election night viewing party from the Trump International Hotel to the White House — a move that could help him skirt the local D.C. government’s coronavirus restrictions while also overriding long-standing norms from both political parties to refrain from overt campaigning at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
For months, Trump has obliterated the lines between campaigning and governing, and he and his aides have accelerated their drive to leverage the power of the presidency to shore up his election chances with days left before Tuesday’s vote. Trailing in the polls to Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Trump has employed an all-hands-on-deck approach to maintaining the office, dispatching aides to act as surrogates and using the government’s machinery to bolster his campaign.
The activities have drawn rebukes from government ethics watchdogs and Democrats who have charged that Trump’s team is trampling over the Hatch Act, which prohibits most senior officials, outside of the president and vice president, from engaging in electioneering activities while on the job.
A report released Thursday by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination, said that 14 Trump administration officials had been found to have violated the law a total of 54 times. At least an additional 22 officials are under investigation for nearly 100 more violations, the report said.
“What we are seeing now is totally unprecedented,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “There have certainly been cases where Cabinet officials or other senior officials happen to have meetings in battleground states. . . . But the wholesale co-opting of the federal government to keep a president in power — which I think is an accurate way of describing what is going on now — is something that we have never even approached before.”
Trump aides defended the approach. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who has been touted by the campaign as an adviser, is offering that advice on her own time, White House officials said. She has tweeted in support of Trump’s campaign from her personal Twitter account, which has 1.2 million followers.
McEnany did not respond to a request for comment. Her White House deputy, Judd Deere, issued a blanket statement to a series of questions about the activities of the president’s aides: “Both the official activity of Administration officials, as well as any political activity undertaken by members of the Administration, are conducted in compliance with the Hatch Act.”
All presidents running for reelection have been bolstered by the trappings of office — traveling with a large media contingent, a government plane and a megaphone amplified by the ability to turn White House events into de facto campaign advertisements.
Like Trump, Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush used Air Force One as a dramatic background at campaign rallies held on airport tarmacs. But as he has barnstormed through swing states during the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has upped the ante — staging the vast majority of his rallies at airports with the majestic presidential jet as a set piece. He also has used Marine One to make theatrical low flyovers at some rallies, thrilling supporters.
Past White Houses have carefully sought to wall off their West Wing staff from the campaigns. But on Thursday, Trump called McEnany onstage at a rally in Tampa, then played a video clip of her acting as a campaign surrogate in a television interview earlier in the day.
In the clip, she attacks Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey over the social media company’s decision to limit the spread of unverified information circulated by Trump allies in an effort to tar Biden. She also defends Trump’s management of the pandemic, which has killed more than 229,000 Americans, with infection rates spiking again through the country.
“Who’s going to say it better than Kayleigh?” Trump said, as the crowd cheered. Her husband, Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Sean Gilmartin, had joined them, holding their infant daughter.
Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a nonprofit group that advocates for political reform, said that laws such as the Hatch Act are intended to preserve a functioning democracy.
“The norms are what differentiate a functional democratic republic from all the other banana republics around the world,” McGehee said. “The danger of throwing out the norms is that the machinery of government begins to seize up and the American people don’t have faith” in the system.
Trump has used the pandemic as cover to make decisions that, in the past, would be unthinkable for a sitting president. For instance, after the Republican National Convention was canceled in Charlotte in August, Trump delivered his renomination acceptance speech before 1,500 guests on the South Lawn of the White House.
Earlier this year, the Treasury Department ordered that Trump’s name be signed on federal stimulus checks sent in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Agriculture Department included letters signed by Trump in the emergency food boxes it sent to food banks across the nation.
Meanwhile, Cabinet members have stumped for Trump while appearing in their official capacity. In October, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was cited by the Office of Special Counsel, a federal watchdog agency, for violating the Hatch Act by advocating for the president during an official trip to North Carolina. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is being investigated by the same office for taking aim at Biden during a Fox News interview.
O’Brien recently traveled to battleground areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin to talk up the Trump administration’s support for local mining and defense contractors. Pompeo spoke to a Texas megachurch, addressed the Wisconsin legislature and made virtual remarks to a Florida conservative antiabortion group.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler spent 40 days this year on trips to swing states on government business, compared with just 10 days visiting non-swing states, according to a report from E & E News.
Acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf and acting deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli have traveled to swing states on official visits to reinforce Trump’s immigration policies. The watchdog group American Oversight filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel requesting an investigation into whether their events were aimed at affecting the outcome of the election.
“What we’re seeing now would have been inconceivable to the previous administration,” said a former Obama White House aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person’s new job did not authorize on-the-record comments. “It’s not simply the Hatch Act violations. Those are the symptoms. The broader disease at play here is the intermingling of political interests and the national interest.”
Federal agencies have also been producing content using taxpayer money that borders on campaign materials. This past week, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt released a campaign-style video on the Interior Department’s official Twitter account in which Trump praised his work preserving “the awesome majesty of God’s creations.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement also launched a billboard campaign last month in Pennsylvania featuring “criminal aliens” wanted for federal crimes. The signs dovetailed with Trump’s campaign message, saying, “Sanctuary Policies are a REAL DANGER.”
In recent weeks, Trump has made executive decisions that appear aimed at shoring up his reelection prospects. In September, he announced $13 billion in aid to Puerto Rico, despite previously describing the U.S. territory as a burden, as his campaign looked to court Latino voters in Florida. He signed an executive order the same month protecting “critical minerals” to support domestic mining in Minnesota and Wisconsin, both swing states in the election.
In early October, Trump held a de facto campaign rally on the South Lawn of the White House and ordered the U.S. Marine Band to play at the event. On Thursday, Trump met with troops at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, a swing state in the election, to present a special citation to Special Forces involved in last year’s mission to kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Trump also has urged aides to use the U.S. government’s intelligence and criminal justice apparatus to damage his Democratic opponents. Pompeo, for example, promised to release more of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s emails ahead of the election.
Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and his predecessor in an acting role, Richard Grenell, selectively declassified U.S. intelligence that Republicans believed could be helpful to Trump and damaging to Democrats. And Attorney General William P. Barr has made erroneous statements to inflate the threat of voting fraud.
“It’s really a key feature of a democracy that you have fair elections where the people can make their decisions unencumbered,” Bookbinder said. “When the government itself is using its powers to push to keep a leader in place, that starts to look like a totalitarian system.”
Brady Dennis, Juliet Eilperin and Darryl Fears contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf had received a warning from the Office of Special Counsel for taking part in a naturalization ceremony televised during the Republican National Convention in August. Wolf did not receive a warning.