More than a dozen Trump administration officials, including Cabinet secretaries and top White House aides, overstepped the legal line meant to separate official government activities and campaigning in the leadup to the 2020 presidential election, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel found in a report released Tuesday.
The report names 13 senior officials, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, as having violated the Hatch Act, a law designed to prohibit politicking on behalf of government officials while acting in an official capacity.
While the president is exempt from the Hatch Act’s restrictions, the investigators said the president is responsible for disciplining staff who violate the law. The investigators accuse Mr. Trump of a pattern of willful disregard for the law throughout his administration, creating “what appeared to be a taxpayer-funded campaign apparatus within the upper echelons of the executive branch.”
“The cumulative effect of these repeated and public violations was to undermine public confidence in the nonpartisan operation of government,” the investigators wrote.
The investigation was spurred in large part by a rash of complaints about Mr. Trump’s decision to host the 2020 Republican National Convention at the White House because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though the special counsel found no violation of the Hatch Act in doing so.
Nonetheless, two of the violations detailed in the report were in connection with the August 2020 convention. Specifically, the investigators cited as violations of the law a recording of Mr. Wolf performing a naturalization ceremony and a recorded speech given by Mr. Pompeo from Israel, both of which were featured during the convention.
Investigators say the two officials disregarded warnings from attorneys that their appearances would violate the Hatch Act.
The report states that Mr. Pompeo approved a change to State Department policy barring State Department political appointees from engaging in partisan political activities just days before delivering the speech.
“The timing, justification and scope of the change suggest its sole purpose was to promote President Trump’s reelection campaign,” the investigators wrote.
Mr. Wolf told investigators in a written statement that he “did not know whether the video of the ceremony was going to be made publicly available or that it would be used at the Republican National Convention.”
The investigators state that Mr. Wolf and Mr. Pompeo “were asked to participate in RNC-related activities for the president” and suggest that the requests came directly from the White House.
“[The Office of Special Counsel] acknowledges that the source of the requests might have placed Secretary Pompeo and Acting Secretary Wolf in a difficult position but nevertheless concludes that each violated the Hatch Act by participating in RNC-related activities,” the investigators said.
The remaining 11 officials named in the report are accused of violations stemming from statements they made during media appearances in support of Mr. Trump’s reelection or in opposition to the Biden campaign.
In a June 25 appearance on “The Hugh Hewitt Show,” for example, the special counsel says Mr. O’Brien responded to a question about “how a Biden victory would impact policy towards China” by arguing for Mr. Trump’s reelection rather than focusing on policy matters.
“I expect the president to be reelected and reelected overwhelmingly. … I think the president’s going to come out on top. The American people see the leadership that he’s providing not just with respect to China, they saw him build the greatest economy in the history of the world,” the national security adviser said in the interview.
Despite the details levied in the complaint, the investigators say disciplinary proceedings are “no longer plausible once subjects leave government service.” The purpose of the report, they said, is “to highlight the enforcement challenges “that [the Office of Special Counsel] confronted in investigating the violations and to deter similar violations in the future.”
While the Biden administration has pledged to uphold the Hatch Act since coming into office, it has been the subject of multiple complaints.
In May, the Office of Special Counsel cited Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge for commenting on the 2022 Ohio Senate race during a White House press briefing. Ms. Fudge, who represented Ohio while in Congress, apologized for the comments the day after the briefing.
Last month, the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a Hatch Act complaint against White House press secretary Jen Psaki for comments supporting Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Terry McAuliffe.
“I take ethics seriously. So does the president, of course,” she told CNN in response to the complaint.
“As I understand it, if I had said ‘he’ instead of ‘we,’ that would not have been an issue at all, and I’ll be more careful with my words next time. Words certainly matter.”
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