Watchdog: 13 Trump officials violated Hatch Act during 2020 campaign

OSC stated that the disregard stemmed from the previous president and laid the foundation for "what appeared as a taxpayer-funded political apparatus in the upper echelons" of the executive branch.
The Hatch Act is named after a former senator from New Mexico. It prohibits federal employees, except for the president and vice-president, from engaging in certain political behaviors. This could include tweeting about candidates, talking about candidates, and diverting official travel to attend events or fundraising. After Democrats were accused of using workers from the Works Progress Administration to influence elections in the previous year, it was passed in 1939.

Former federal employees who have violated the Hatch Act could be barred from returning to the federal government. If they try to return, the Senate could block their confirmation. The oversight agency could also face additional penalties.

The Office of Special Counsel will often issue a warning letter to federal officials if they are still employed. Sometimes, it will work with the agency to negotiate disciplinary actions -- possibly with a suspension or fine -- or to send a case to Merit Systems Protection Board which hears federal workers' cases.

These findings result from more than 100 complaints to the OSC, a federal agency that investigates allegations federal employees use their platform for politics. They were also filed against senior officials of the former Trump administration. Many of these complaints were related to the staging of the final night at the White House of the 2020 Republican National Convention. However, OSC found that the event was not a violation the Hatch Act.

According to the report, some of the 13 named people in the report had violated the Hatch Act multiple times. Investigators believe that the majority of violations were caused by comments made about the election of Joe Biden, then-Democratic presidential nominee, while officials were being interviewed in their capacity of government officials.

OSC found Kellyanne Conway, the senior counselor to the president, to be incompetent after she was accused of repeatedly violating the Hatch Act. She also criticized Biden's selection Kamala Harris to run mate and Harris' qualifications to become vice president. Conway didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about the report's findings.

According to the OSC, McEnany, Director Strategic Communications Alyssa Fah, and Brian Morgenstern, a number of members of the White House's press shop also violated the Hatch Act when they discussed election-related topics in official capacity. The office found that Stephen Miller, a senior Trump adviser, and Jared Kushner (Trump's son-in-law) had committed similar violations during media appearances.

Meadows was cited on at least three occasions for violating Hatch Act, including while campaigning for Madison Cawthorn (Republican-Elect), who was running for Meadows’ former congressional seat. Also, in an Aug. 26 POLITICO Playbook interview.

Meadows claimed that the general public doesn't care about Hatch Act violations at one point during that interview.

Others Trump officials determinedly used the power of their offices to aid Trump's reelection campaign.

Chad Wolf, former acting Homeland Security Secretary, presided over naturalization ceremonies at the White House which were broadcast during the 2020 Republican National Convention.

According to the report, the event was planned to help Trump's reelection campaign despite numerous warnings by ethics officials to DHS staffers (including Wolf's chief-of-staff) that it would be against the Hatch Act. According to the OSC report, the incident was "an evocative of Trump's willful disregard for Hatch Act."

Wolf claimed that he did not know that video of the convention would be used, but OSC said it had no evidence to support this claim.

Pompeo, a potential 2024 presidential candidate was also found to have incorrectly altered State Department policy to allow him to speak at the White House RNC event. Pompeo recorded a speech while on official business in Jerusalem, which was later played at the convention. Although Pompeo didn't refer to himself during the taped speech as secretary of state, the report did note that he made frequent references to foreign policy issues during his remarks.

The report says that the timing, justification, and scope of this change indicate that it was solely intended to promote President Trump’s reelection campaign.

Representatives of Pompeo, Wolf and McEnany didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Some federal employees were shocked at Trump's disregard for Hatch Act requirements and asked OSC if they still had to follow its rules.

OSC's report notes that the Hatch Act for high-ranking officials is only as effective at ensuring a depoliticized federal workforce, as the president decides.

Investigating potential violations can take weeks, months or even years, even in simple cases. This weakness is further highlighted by the fact that the report was delivered more than one year after the 2020 election.

It states that this reality gives an opportunity for an administration to ignore Hatch Act during the last months of an election cycle knowing full well that any public reports or disciplinary actions would not likely take place until after the election.

The report recommends several legislative changes to the law that would improve OSC's ability enforce its limits on federal employees' political activities.

Throughout Trump's term, Hatch Act violations plagued Trump's administration. OSC rebuked Conway and former Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue as well as Peter Navarro, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro and Carla Sands, ambassador to Denmark, Lynne Patton, regional Housing and Urban Development administrator, and Lynne Patton for violating the Hatch Act.

Biden's administration was elected promising to adhere to the Hatch Act, and other ethics rules to differentiate itself from its predecessor. However, it has been tripped up sometimes by the law.

OSC found that Marcia Fudge of Housing and Urban Development, an ex-Ohio lawmaker, had violated the Hatch Act by participating in the 2022 Ohio Senate Election. Fudge later apologized for her comments at a White House press conference on March 18.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint last month against Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, for comments she made regarding Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial campaign in Virginia. McAuliffe lost the race to Republican Glenn Youngkin.