Ex-Trump officials illegally campaigned while in office: Report

Trump administration showed ‘willful disregard’ for law barring US officials from engaging in political activity, watchdog finds.

Donald Trump RNC speech at WH
Former US President Donald Trump delivered his acceptance speech as the 2020 Republican presidential nominee from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC [File: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

An independent US government investigation has found that at least 13 senior Trump administration officials repeatedly and willfully violated a United States law that prohibits overt political activities while holding federal office.

In a report on Tuesday, the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC) said the former officials violated the Hatch Act in connection with ex-President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and the controversial holding of the 2020 Republican National Convention on White House grounds.

It said government resources were repeatedly used to promote Trump’s 2020 political campaign in “what appeared to be a taxpayer-funded campaign apparatus within the upper echelons of the executive branch”.

“The administration’s willful disregard for the law was especially pernicious,” the office said in its 59-page report, which lays blame squarely at Trump’s feet. “The president’s refusal to require compliance with the law laid the foundation for the violations.”

The Hatch Act, first passed by Congress in 1939, is intended to prevent federal employees from engaging in political advocacy while performing official duties. It exempts the president and vice president and is difficult to enforce against political appointees, particularly once they leave office.

Former US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, senior adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany, senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows were among those identified in the OSC report as having violated the law.

The findings come as Miller, McEnany and other Trump associates were subpoenaed on Tuesday by a US House of Representatives panel investigating the deadly Capitol insurrection earlier this year.

For weeks, Trump had repeated false claims that widespread voter fraud had marred the 2020 election he lost to Joe Biden. After he delivered a fiery speech in Washington, DC, on January 6, a mob of his supporters stormed the Capitol building as Congress met to certify Biden’s victory.

The former Republican president has since tried to fight efforts by the House committee to obtain White House documents, calling the January 6 investigation politically motivated.

“We need to know precisely what role the former President and his aides played in efforts to stop the counting of the electoral votes and if they were in touch with anyone outside the White House attempting to overturn the outcome of the election,” Bennie Thompson, who chairs the House panel, said in a statement announcing the new subpoenas.

‘Flout the law’

In Tuesday’s report, the OSC said it had received hundreds of complaints of alleged Hatch Act violations by senior Trump administration officials during the 2020 election campaign.

The office found “pervasive” examples of a “decision by some in the Trump administration to flout the law” and “with the administration’s approval”, the report stated.

In August of last year, Trump hosted primetime segments of the Republican National Convention (RNC) from the White House as he was running for re-election.

He also used the White House itself as a stage for the convention, sparking outrage from Democrats who said at the time that doing so violated the Hatch Act but could not do anything to stop it.

Among the RNC programmes “orchestrated for the purpose of creating content for the convention” was a White House naturalisation ceremony for new citizens featuring Trump and then-acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, the report said.

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also delivered a recorded speech to the RNC from Jerusalem, breaking decades of precedent by sitting secretaries of state to avoid overt partisan political activity, particularly when overseas on government business.

Mike Pompeo speaks from Jerusalem
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke from Jerusalem on August 25, 2020, to the Republican National Convention [File: Republican National Convention/Handout via Reuters]

Pompeo is among a number of Republicans considered likely contenders for the party’s 2024 presidential nomination if Trump does not run.

In media interviews conducted from official positions, Trump political appointees – including senior adviser Kellyanne Conway – openly promoted Trump’s re-election and disparaged Biden, according to the report.

“This report confirms that there was nothing less than a systematic co-opting of the powers of the federal government to keep Donald Trump in office,” said Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a non-governmental watchdog.

Enforcement of the Hatch Act’s prohibitions against political activity by federal employees rests mainly with the president and through administrative disciplinary proceedings.

As a result, “there is currently no mechanism” to hold Trump administration officials who have already left office accountable, said the OSC, an independent investigative and prosecutorial agency that enforces rules within the 1.8 million-member US federal workforce.

Biden administration officials also have run afoul of the Hatch Act since he took office in January.

CREW last month filed a complaint against White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki for appearing during a White House press conference to endorse former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat. McAuliffe was running for re-election to his old post in Virginia’s November 2 polls.

The OSC also issued a warning in May to the Biden administration’s Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge for saying Democrats have “a good shot” at winning next year the US Senate seat in Ohio that is being vacated by Republican Rob Portman.

Source: Al Jazeera