A federal agency said Tuesday that 13 senior Trump administration officials violated the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that seeks to keep government functions nonpartisan.
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency tasked with enforcing the law, said in a report that 11 of those officials allegedly violated the Hatch Act by “campaigning on behalf of President (Donald) Trump’s reelection” during 18 official interviews or media appearances, and two of them committed violations related to the 2020 Republican National Convention.
The agency’s report represents its latest finding of wrongdoing by members of the Trump administration acting in their official capacity, with at least one former official — White House aide Kellyanne Conway — having violated the act so much during her government employment that the agency recommended in 2019 that she be removed from federal service for being a “repeat offender.” Conway is among the 13 officials named in Tuesday’s report.
But what exactly is the Hatch Act, and are the newly detailed violations out of the norm?
What the law does
The Office of Special Counsel — not to be confused with the long-concluded Justice Department special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller — is a unique government body charged with enforcing a handful of rules, including the Hatch Act.
The law is supposed to stop the federal government from affecting elections or going about its activities in a partisan manner. According to the OSC’s explanation of the rule, it applies to federal employees as well as state and local employees who work with federally funded programs. The rule is a workplace guideline, and violating it is not a crime. Responses can vary significantly after employees violate the rule, from a slap on the wrist to loss of a job.
The OSC has its own guidelines for those covered by the Hatch Act to avoid violations, and more recently it posted specific guidelines for social media. Some federal entities, like the Justice Department, have their own guidelines around political speech that go beyond the broad outlines of the Hatch Act.
Complaints are somewhat routine, and the debate over high-profile violations can be sharp, with interest groups and legal experts regularly weighing in and accusing government officials of violations.
Former FBI Director James Comey was at the center of a heated Hatch Act debate in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign. His decision to update Congress on the status of the Hillary Clinton email investigation received widespread criticism, although Comey was not ultimately found in violation.
While the debate over Comey’s actions and cases like Conway’s receive the lion’s share of attention, the act is a routine boundary for rank-and-file government employees, who must follow specific protocols to keep political beliefs from being perceived to affect the performance of the government.
In March 2018, the OSC, citing the Hatch Act, told employees to leave their “Make America Great Again” hats at home after Trump began officially running for reelection.
Who has violated the Hatch Act?
The 11 former senior officials who allegedly committed media-related violations are: Conway, Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, White House adviser Stephen Miller, White House deputy press secretary Brian Morgenstern, then-Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short, White House communications director Alyssa Farah and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was found in violation of the Hatch Act when he addressed the 2020 Republican convention in a prerecorded video, a move where he used “his official authority while giving that speech to promote President Trump’s candidacy,” according to the report.
The agency said former acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf’s violation stemmed from a naturalization ceremony that aired during the RNC, where he issued an oath to five people. He previously said he was unaware footage of the ceremony would be aired during the convention, and the OSC also said in the report he told the agency he had no knowledge that it would be played at the convention.
But the 13 officials named in Tuesday’s report are far from the first people in high-profile roles to violate the Hatch Act. In 2017, White House social media director Dan Scavino and then-US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley both received official warnings over tweets that the OSC said broke the rules.
Likewise, two Obama administration Cabinet heads faced Hatch Act reprimands. The OSC cited Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for political comments in 2012, and Sebelius said afterward that she regretted her comments but took issue with the degree of the OSC’s response.
Obama-era Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro tried to avoid violating the law during a 2016 interview by saying he was taking off his “HUD hat for a second and just speaking individually,” before boosting Clinton.
That didn’t work. In its statement announcing Castro had violated the Hatch Act, the OSC noted he was there in his official capacity and had the department seal behind him.
More recently, the OSC said in May that Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge violated the Hatch Act when she commented on Ohio politics from the White House podium earlier this year.
And last month, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a Hatch Act complaint against White House press secretary Jen Psaki, alleging that she appeared to have endorsed Terry McAuliffe for the Virginia governor’s race during a White House press briefing.
Psaki told CNN following the complaint that she’ll “be more careful with my words next time,” adding: “Words certainly matter.”
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