On Thursday, the Office of the Special Counsel (no, not that one) decided that White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway had violated the Hatch Act and should be removed from her job.
The report, which was sent to President Donald Trump, said Conway had broken the rules by “disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.”
(The Hatch Act bars federal employees from engaging in partisan politics while serving in their official roles.)
Conway’s violations centered around two television appearances during the run-up to the Alabama Senate special election in 2018. On November 20, in an appearance on “Fox and Friends,” Conway said this about Democrat Doug Jones:
“Doug Jones in Alabama, folks, don’t be fooled. He will be a vote against tax cuts. He is weak on crime. Weak on borders. He is strong on raising your taxes. He is terrible for property owners. Doug Jones is a doctrinaire liberal, which is why he is not saying anything and why the media are trying to boost him.”
Weeks later, Conway was at it again – defending Republican Roy Moore during an appearance on CNN’s “New Day” from allegations that he had behaved inappropriately around several women. In that interview, Conway also addressed those who said she was being too political.
“Anytime I express a feeling about a candidate, people who want to make themselves relevant get air time and Twitter time, so I won’t go there,” she said. Chris Cuomo, one of the “New Day” anchors, warned Conway that she needed to “be careful about the Hatch Act.”
She didn’t seem to heed that advice. Which may not matter all that much, honestly.
Here’s why: Although the Office of Special Counsel is an independent federal agency overseen by a Trump appointee, it has zero enforcement power. (The OSC is different than the special counsel’s office, which sits under the Justice Department.) The OSC can make recommendations – like that Conway should be terminated – but it can’t make that firing happen. And there’s roughly a 0% chance Trump or his White House will do that. (White House spokesman Steven Groves called the OSC opinion “deeply flawed.”)
But just because Conway isn’t going anywhere doesn’t mean this ruling from the Office of Special Counsel isn’t revealing. Because it is. It’s a window into how all lines are blurred in Trump’s White House and how political calculation drives all the decisions that get made.
Let’s start with that second part first. To be clear: The Trump White House isn’t the first one to have political people – like Conway, a former pollster and his winning 2016 campaign manager – in it. Barack Obama had David Axelrod and David Plouffe – two leading campaign officials – in his administration. George W. Bush installed Karl Rove, his personal political Svengali, in the White House. And on and on it goes.
What’s different about Trump – and Conway – is that this is a President who has been running for a second term, openly and actively, since almost the second he was sworn in as president. (On the day Trump was inaugurated, he formed his 2020 reelection campaign.) Through March 2019, Trump had already raised $97 million for his 2020 race. He is expected to formally kick off his 2020 bid next week in Florida. And on and on it goes.
In short: Most presidents are political. They just have done their best to start the political part of the job as late as possible in their first term. Trump has always seemed to relish the purely political parts of the job, and so started doing them sooner than any president in modern history. That sets a tone for those who work for him – including Conway.
And that traditional separation of politics and official government work has been further blurred by the fact that Trump has destroyed all lines of “how things work” in official Washington since arriving here in early 2017. He has scolded the Justice Department openly for not investigating what he thinks should be investigated. He has asked the White House counsel to say publicly that Trump never instructed him to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. He has declared a national emergency at the border to get money to build a border wall that he was unable to secure through the normal legislative process.
Over and over and over again Trump has snapped the rules that political Washington holds so dear. Conway thumbing her nose at the Hatch Act is all of a piece with that broader theory that the old rules of Washington don’t mean anything in the new Trump order.