In recent weeks, Trump has acknowledged he was opposed to funding for the U.S. Postal Service because he does not want the money used for universal mail-in voting. He sent Homeland Security authorities to quell social justice protests in what he termed “Democrat cities.” He signed a stream of executive orders that circumvented Congress and delivered overtly partisan speeches at official White House functions, including a 54-minute Rose Garden monologue blasting Democratic rival Joe Biden last month.
Trump also has used federal resources and personnel to re-create the enthusiasm of his campaign rallies that were curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. He invited patrons at his private golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., to attend news conferences there, with many of them heckling reporters. And he held a campaign rally in Yuma, Ariz., last week with 200 off-duty Border Patrol union members, many wearing masks emblazoned with “TRUMP” and “MAGA.”
This week, he is set to cap his renomination at the Republican National Convention with an acceptance speech at the White House. First lady Melania Trump will make her own address from the Rose Garden, which she recently renovated. Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and Ja’Ron Smith, both White House aides, are also featured convention speakers, as is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, violating long-standing tradition that the nation’s top diplomat remain removed from partisan politics.
Presidents of both parties, including Trump’s recent predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, have mixed a measure of campaigning with official White House business, especially in election years. But Trump has trampled over norms once respected by both parties and challenged legal boundaries that limit political activity by federal officials, ethics lawyers said.
Beyond the legal questions, Trump’s speech at the White House this week would send “a very strong message to the federal workforce that if you are in a high-level position, the government is there to serve you,” said Walter Shaub, who served as the director of the Office of Government Ethics in the Obama administration. “It turns the idea of public service on its head.”
Shaub pointed to Trump’s decision not to divest control of his sprawling real estate business upon becoming president as establishing a framework for a presidency that has been defined by “self-dealing.”
Trump, he said, “makes clear he sees no distinction between the government and himself.”
Democrats have raised objections to Trump’s use of the White House as an overt political backdrop. In response to congressional inquiries, the Office of Special Counsel stated in a letter this month that Trump and Vice President Pence are exempt from civil regulations under the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from taking part in some forms of political activity. That office later clarified it had made no ruling on the criminal provisions in the law.
In a statement, White House spokesman Judd Deere said, “The President, like all of those who served before him, has every right to address the American people on any subject at any time from any location.”
Trump has defended his choice to speak from the White House as a cost-saving measure for taxpayers. Republicans had planned to gather in Charlotte before, like Democrats, canceling the public portions of their convention.
Using the White House, Trump suggested, would save public funds by making security more manageable, although most of the other expenses of an off-site event would presumably have been borne by his campaign or the Republican National Committee.
The president said he also considered speaking at a historical site in Gettysburg, Pa., but he told the New York Post last week that he chose the White House because it “makes me feel good. It makes the country feel good.”
Trump already has turned many of his remarks at official events into political attacks. On Friday, he delivered a sustained assault on Biden during lengthy remarks to the conservative Council for National Policy.
“I’m the only thing standing between the American Dream and total anarchy, madness and chaos,” Trump said. A White House official said presidents of both parties routinely point out contrasts with the opposition, especially in an election year.
Critics point to Trump’s use of his private resorts for summits with foreign leaders and other government business, his appointment of Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner as senior White House advisers, and his use of a personal Twitter account to both attack rivals and announce policy as examples of his willingness to tangle up his public and personal interests.
“His entire world is like his Twitter feed,” said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the liberal NDN think tank. “The official is subsumed by the political.”
In a tweet last week, Trump called for a boycott of Goodyear over the company’s decision to prohibit employees from wearing political paraphernalia, including “Make America Great Again” hats. He later said he would support removing Goodyear tires from the presidential limousine, prompting a reporter to ask whether he was making a political statement or a policy directive for the government.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Goodyear was employing a double standard by allowing expressions of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Trump’s MAGA campaign slogan, she asserted, has become synonymous with “blue lives matter,” or support for law enforcement agencies.
“I will stand at this podium and say ‘blue lives matter’ is an equity issue, and Goodyear needs to acknowledge it,” McEnany said at the White House.
Historians compared Trump’s approach with that of autocrats who focus on maintaining power and enriching themselves. Author Ruth Ben-Ghiat, who has written about authoritarians, said Trump has pursued “discrediting democratic institutions” and “making it hard for Americans to exert their rights, which is what his war on mail-in voting and the post office is about.”
Trump’s attack on Goodyear, she added, was about “prevailing against his enemies and silencing any contest to his election.”
Since embarking on his first campaign, Trump has transgressed guardrails in the election system, potentially putting national security at risk, according to members of both parties.
An exhaustive report from the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee released last week portrayed his 2016 campaign as posing counterintelligence risks through numerous contacts with Russia, eager to exploit assistance from the Kremlin.
The Democratic-led House impeached Trump this year over a private phone call in July 2019 during which he pressured Ukraine’s leader to open an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter.
“This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win,” Obama warned during a lacerating critique of Trump’s presidency during the Democratic National Convention last week.
As Biden has taken a lead in national polling, Trump has fanned a culture war over the racial justice protests in American cities. During a July 4 celebration at the White House, the president decried the “radical left, the Marxists, the anarchists, the agitators” in a heavily partisan address on the South Lawn.
Since then, his administration has dispatched federal authorities — including a tactical Border Patrol division and secret police from the Department of Homeland Security — to Portland, Seattle and other cities to tamp down protests and make arrests. Trump has blamed Democratic mayors and governors for failing to quell the mostly peaceful demonstrations, which have included some violence, looting and arson.
Last week, Trump once again took aim at a favorite political target — California. He threatened to withhold wildfire aid from the state because its Democratic leaders did not take his advice to “clean your forests” of leaves and other debris even though much of that land is controlled by the federal government.
“Maybe we’re just going to have to make them pay for it because they don’t listen to us,” he said during an event in Pennsylvania.
In Yuma, Trump held a rally in an airport hangar with 200 off-duty union members of the National Border Patrol Council and hundreds of family members. The union’s president, Brandon Judd, a Trump ally and frequent Fox News guest, warmed up the crowd by echoing Trump’s warnings of the “lawlessness that will happen” if Biden is elected.
“Right from the beginning, we had that chemistry,” Trump told Judd, gushing that the Border Patrol are “great friends of mine.”
Last week, Trump raised the possibility of dispatching law enforcement authorities to monitor polling places, raising alarms that the move echoed tactics historically used to intimidate voters of color.
Miles Taylor, who served as chief of staff to former DHS secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, said in an interview that Trump has viewed the sprawling 250,000-person agency as “a political prop.” He recalled a visit with Trump to the Texas border with Mexico during the partial government shutdown in January 2019 when the president told aides he wanted the event, during which he posed with tactical vehicles and packages of seized narcotics, to look like a “Hollywood setup.”
Morale in parts of DHS fell because “the rank and file of the department think their job is to prevent another 9/11, not to reelect the president,” said Taylor, who recently endorsed Biden after leaving the Trump administration last year.
The National Border Patrol Council had never endorsed a presidential candidate before backing Trump in 2016, Judd said. Yet he disputed the suggestion that the union’s close political ties to Trump could color public perception that it would not enforce policies under a Biden administration.
“We performed at the highest level under Obama,” Judd said.
“Unions endorse candidates all the time,” said Lawrence Noble, former general counsel to the Federal Election Commission. “The problem is when a law enforcement agency endorses a candidate strongly and talks about which candidate is better. They are on the front lines, and you don’t want to feel when you come up against a federal law enforcement agency that politics come into play. And if they’re also being used to control protests against the president, that’s really problematic.”