As President Donald Trump makes a hurried final push for reelection, he is relying not only on his campaign staff but on government officials to transmit his message to voters, a breach of longstanding norms that have mostly been erased over his four-year tenure.
This week alone, his White House press secretary has appeared on television from campaign headquarters, identified as a campaign adviser. His top White House immigration adviser convened a campaign-organized briefing to assail Joe Biden. And the head of the White House National Economic Council, a regular talker on the White House North Lawn, dialed into a campaign call to decry coronavirus lockdowns.
It isn’t only White House staffers entering the political realm. Seldom does a day go by in a battleground state where a Cabinet member from the Trump administration is not paying a visit – often with a government announcement in tow.
One Cabinet official has already run afoul of the rules, according to an independent government watchdog agency; another, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is now under investigation for the speech he delivered from Jerusalem to the Republican National Convention.
Suffering an absence of establishment Republicans to voice support for his reelection, Trump is hoping officials on the government payroll can help fill the void. Though his own disdain for government is well-known, Trump is using the full weight of his own administration in the final stretch to aid in winning a second term.
The efforts have not just been limited to travel. Trump has pressed administration officials to finalize announcements in the weeks leading up to the election that could woo key voters, including a plan that would cover the cost of a potential coronavirus vaccine for Medicare and Medicaid recipients or an initiative that would help lower the prices of prescription drugs. He has not shied away from taking credit, including when the Agriculture Department required millions of boxes of food for needy families come with a signed letter from the President.
In part that is the prerogative of the incumbent. President Barack Obama and his team worked amply to pull the levers of government in ways that would please key voting blocs. Obama often traveled on official trips to critical battlegrounds to make important announcements on trade or conservation that he hoped might sway voters. His Cabinet members made dozens of visits to electoral battlegrounds in 2012, often on taxpayer-funded official trips. While on the road, they touted his accomplishments and some even raised campaign cash in their personal capacity.
Trump’s efforts have differed in their explicitly political nature. While the White House and Trump’s campaign claim to be taking steps to avoid violating the 1939 Hatch Act, which requires a separation of political and official activities, the distinction between the two has never been less clear.
That is partly because Trump himself does not regularly distinguish between political and official events, using the same politically motivated speech in both settings and attacking his rival during nearly every public appearance. His decision to host the final night of the Republican National Convention on the White House South Lawn seemed both to encapsulate his disregard for separating the two and to permit more rampant politicking by his team.
Trump himself is not bound by the Hatch Act. But the example he sets has clearly been adopted by other members of his administration, whose salaries are funded by taxpayers but who have nonetheless engaged in explicitly political activity over the past weeks. Trump has joked in the past that those found in violation of the Hatch Act won’t face consequences, according to people who have heard the conversations.
While his campaign is headquartered in Virginia and has its own staff of hundreds, much of its strategizing has occurred at the White House, where Trump issues dictates from the Oval Office and where Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law who oversees the campaign, works as a senior adviser. Other White House officials, including chief of staff Mark Meadows, have also weighed in on political strategy.
So far this week, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has made several appearances from what appeared to be the Trump campaign headquarters studio in Arlington, Virginia, raising questions about her current role within the Trump campaign given her taxpayer-funded position.
McEnany appeared in front of an image of the White House overlaid with a Trump-Pence campaign logo during both appearances. She was introduced on Fox Business Network as “serving now as an adviser for the Trump campaign.” During the appearance, as she was pressed on whether the campaign would mandate mask usage, McEnany repeatedly referred to the campaign as “we.”
“We hand out masks, we encourage people to wear them, we temperature check, we provide hand sanitizer. That’s what the campaign does,” she said.
At the start of another appearance on Fox, she was introduced as both a campaign adviser and identified by her White House role.
“People like Kayleigh can volunteer for the campaign, but obviously not in their government capacity or using their government authority,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“If she does have a position with the campaign, even unpaid, that could raise some questions about when and where she’s worked on it, and whether she’s used government resources to do so,” Libowitz said. “I’ve never seen something like this before.”
A Trump campaign official said McEnany was appearing in a “personal capacity on a volunteer basis” and that news programs hosting her were “instructed not to refer to her with her White House title.” And White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews said McEnany “was appearing in her personal capacity as a private citizen.”
But she was not the only White House official to participate in campaign activities this week. Stephen Miller, who has orchestrated Trump’s hardline immigration policy, spoke in his “personal capacity” as a “Trump campaign adviser” during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, baselessly claiming that Biden would “incentivize child smuggling” if elected president.
Larry Kudlow, the National Economic Council leader, said a day later on another campaign-organized call that Biden would “raise taxes and re-regulate large sectors of the economy.” Two hours earlier he was standing in front of the White House, identified as a White House economic adviser, during an interview on Fox News.
And Ivanka Trump, ostensibly a White House senior adviser, has been on the campaign trail constantly in support of her father.
Members of Trump’s Cabinet have also flocked to critical battlegrounds in their official capacity. As Vice President Mike Pence rallied supporters in Des Moines on Thursday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was also in Iowa, touring the historic Surf Ballroom in the city of Clear Lake.
He talked about the prospect of making the legendary music hall a National Historic Landmark, paying tribute to the last venue Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson performed before their plane crashed. Their deaths became known as “The Day the Music Died,” as memorialized in Don McClean’s 1971 classic, “American Pie.”
Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette has jetted to states that closely hew to Trump’s political map, including Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Trump has made energy – and in particular fracking – a key element of his closing message against Biden.
Seema Verma, administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, visited North Carolina last week as the marquee speaker for a “Seniors for Trump” event in Raleigh, an officially-sanctioned campaign stop.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has traveled in her official capacity to promote school reopening across the country, another item Trump touts during his campaign rallies. On Thursday, DeVos participated in a “Moms for Trump” campaign event in Detroit.
In the run up to the election, Attorney General William Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf have been traveling around the country to underscore administration’s accomplishments as they relate to Trump’s core “law-and-order” message and his immigration policies.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has also been on a robust travel schedule to pivotal swing states, including Michigan and Wisconsin. He came under fire by the Office of the Special Counsel, an independent federal investigative agency, to reimburse the government for costs related to a North Carolina visit in August.
Cabinet officials are permitted by law to discuss the President’s actions and how they affect Americans, but they are prohibited from making direct pitches to support Trump’s reelection while acting in their official capacity.
Pompeo has been accused of doing just that during his remote address to the Republican National Convention, which he taped during a taxpayer-funded trip to Jerusalem from the roof of the King David Hotel. The Office of the Special Counsel has launched a probe into Pompeo’s speech, Democratic lawmakers said last week. The State Department waited almost 24 hours before saying in a statement that previous Hatch Act complaints into Pompeo have been “soundly rejected.”
Whatever the outcome of the investigation, it’s unlikely Pompeo would face serious repercussions. While civil service employees can face dismissal and fines up to $1,000 if they are found to violate the Hatch Act, it falls on the President to decide on the punishment for high-level political appointees.
So far, the several White House employees found to have violated the act haven’t faced repercussions.
“Blah, blah, blah,” then-White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said after being found in violation of the Hatch Act in 2019. “Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”