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Trump Shatters Ethics Norms By Making Official Acts Part Of GOP Convention

President Trump hosts a naturalization ceremony for new citizens in a prerecorded video that was broadcast during the GOP's virtual convention on Tuesday. Trump and other members of his administration are facing criticism for using official resources for a political event.
President Trump hosts a naturalization ceremony for new citizens in a prerecorded video that was broadcast during the GOP's virtual convention on Tuesday. Trump and other members of his administration are facing criticism for using official resources for a political event.

Updated at 2:47 p.m. ET

Even before the Republican National Convention began, government ethics experts warned that hosting campaign events from the White House South Lawn and the Rose Garden could violate federal ethics law.

But in the convention's first two days, Trump has gone even further — wielding the powers of his office and the federal government to promote his reelection campaign.

As part of Tuesday night's prime-time convention programming, Trump granted a presidential pardon from the White House. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared from Jerusalem, where he was on official state business, to make a campaign speech with the Old City as backdrop. First lady Melania Trump delivered a speech from the White House Rose Garden. And acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf performed a naturalization ceremony on television as Trump looked on.

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in most political activity inside federal buildings or while on duty. Though the president and vice president are exempt from the civil provisions of the Hatch Act, federal employees like Pompeo, Wolf and any executive branch employees who helped stage the events are not.

Ethics watchdogs harshly criticized Trump's merging of official and campaign acts during the Tuesday night telecast.

"The Hatch Act was the wall standing between the government's might and candidates. Tonight a candidate tore down that wall and wielded power for his own campaign," tweeted Walter Shaub, the former head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. Shaub left the office in 2017 after clashing with the Trump administration over the president's failure to divest from his businesses.

This summer, Pompeo and top State Department officials sent memos to employees reminding them they must be careful to adhere to the Hatch Act. Another memo said, "Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event." That description also applies to Pompeo.

Richard Haass, the longtime president of the Council on Foreign Relations who has served in several Republican administrations, said it's inappropriate for a secretary of state to appear at a political convention while serving as the nation's top diplomat.

"A presumption of continuity in US foreign policy is essential if allies are to trust us & adversaries respect us," he wrote on Twitter. "Politicizing foreign policy increases the chance of wild swings & undermining bipartisan support. @SecPompeo decision to speak at #RNC2020 ill-advised and then some."

On Tuesday, House Democrats opened an investigation ahead of Pompeo's speech, but it's unlikely that any Trump administration officials will face reprimand for using their office to promote the president's reelection.

The Office of Special Counsel can investigate allegations of Hatch Act violations and weigh in on them, but in many cases, it's up to the employee's supervisor to act on the advice.

"Ultimately, officials and employees choose whether to comply with the law," special counsel Henry J. Kerner wrote in a statement Wednesday. "Once they make that choice, it is OSC's statutory role to receive complaints, investigate alleged Hatch Act violations, and determine which ones warrant prosecution."

Last year, White House special adviser Kellyanne Conway was cited by the special counsel for Hatch Act violations and recommended she be fired. She remained in the job.

"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."

There are also criminal provisions of the Hatch Act, one of which bars intimidating, threatening or coercing federal employees to participate in political activity. Another provision prohibits federal employees from using their official authority for "the purpose of interfering with, or affecting" the election of the president and vice president, among other offices.

The president and vice president are bound by the criminal provisions, which the Department of Justice is charged with enforcing.

Delaney Marsco, legal counsel at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, says the Trump administration has frequently skirted ethics rules with the hope that they will avoid any repercussions, whether it's the Hatch Act or evading congressional oversight or inspectors general.

"It's really troubling," she said. "We give these people an insane amount of power and authority and they're supposed to use it to serve the public, and when things are politicized like this, it undermines that trust and flies in the face of the principles of what public office is supposed to be. It should be upsetting to every American."

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows brushed off criticism that the administration was flouting the law.

"Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares," he told Politico. "They expect that Donald Trump is going to promote Republican values and they would expect that Barack Obama, when he was in office, that he would do the same for Democrats. So listen, this is a lot of hoopla that's being made about things, mainly because the convention has been so unbelievably successful."

Cabinet members have spoken at conventions before. Several Obama administration officials addressed the Democratic National Convention in 2012, for example. But that convention was held in a sports arena, not in the White House, and did not feature Cabinet members conducting official business for the cameras.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 26, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story misstated the title of Walter Shaub. He was the head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.