To one crowd, Vice President Joe Biden was a “low-IQ individual.”
To another, President Donald Trump wondered aloud whether his front-running rival could ever inspire high esteem: “People don’t respect him,” Trump scoffed, “even the people that he’s running against.”
To a third, he widened his sights: Sen. Bernie Sanders was “crazy,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren was “probably out,” former Rep. Beto O’Rourke “was made to fall like a rock” and mayor Pete Buttigieg – well, he just had a name that’s hard to pronounce.
Crowd-baiting patter at a rollicking campaign rally? Not quite.
Trump offered those assessments underneath crystal chandeliers at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, in front of a dry-mill grain processing facility in Iowa and amid a tangle of pipes transporting natural gas in Louisiana.
All were official events – not political ones – funded by taxpayers for the President to ostensibly advance his governing agenda.
As Trump prepares to wage re-election battle against one of the nearly two-dozen Democrats vying to replace him, the line dividing his official work as President and his electoral pursuits has largely been erased. Instead of keeping the two lanes separate, Trump has merged them into one political stream – a reflection, some aides said, of his interest in campaigning over nearly everything else.
This week, a federal watchdog agency determined one of Trump’s top aides – White House counselor Kellyanne Conway – had so blurred the lines between her official duties as a public servant and her role as a political operative that she should be removed from public office.
But in an indication of the dismissive view Trump has taken toward federal rules regulating the political activity of officeholders, the White House said the Office of Special Counsel findings were “deeply flawed.” And Trump said in an interview on Fox News he had no plans to dismiss his longtime aide.
“It looks to me like they’re trying to take away their right of free speech. And that’s just not fair,” Trump said. “She’s got to have the right of responding to questions.”
Striking a balance
All presidents vying for re-election are forced to strike a balance between administering the official duties of their office and battling to keep that office for a second term. Most are accused at some point of using their position for political gain – including, in 2016, by Trump himself, who tweeted it was a “total disgrace” taxpayers were paying “a fortune” for President Barack Obama’s use of Air Force One to campaign for Hillary Clinton.
Three years later, Trump has largely done away with attempts to separate his own official and political roles, freely using the office to demean Democratic rivals who are challenging him in 2020. Official speeches meant to promote administration priorities bear close resemblance to his campaign rallies. And presidential backdrops are used to harangue potential opponents.
In one instance, Trump used his office aboard Air Force One to tape a video blasting New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio after he announced his intention to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, a move that drew an inquiry from congressional Democrats.
Trump on Friday sought to dispel the notion he’s focused solely on campaigning.
“I love the job,” Trump said in his interview on Fox News. “I love it because I don’t think anybody accomplished so much in two years.”
But people who speak regularly with Trump say his focus is almost always on the political joust of the day rather than long-term policy goals. While he has identified certain areas of focus – such as immigration and trade – those matters are usually framed as ways to fulfill campaign promises rather than legacy-shaping matters.
The result, aides and advisers say, is a president overwhelmingly focused on re-election – with the governing aspect of his job viewed mainly through that prism.
“Trump is certainly not the first president to be blamed for making decisions and holding events where the lines between politics and policy are blurred,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University and CNN contributor, who noted the trend toward earlier presidential campaigns required more presidential time and energy.
“With President Trump, however, the question is whether he ever had the same kind of concern or interest about governance and policy as his predecessors,” Zelizer went on. “FDR and Reagan were both very political but had pretty substantive policy and governing agendas. The manner in which president Trump conducts himself, moreover, has shown continuous disregard for having much concern about the non-political role.”
To that end, the White House rarely schedules domestic travel outside of states Trump either won in 2016 or is hoping to win again next year. The venues for his official events are often filled with supporters, some of whom are asked to testify from the podium to the ways in which Trump’s policies have improved their lives.
Trump himself often takes the stage to the strains of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” – the same song that’s played as he arrives to his campaign rallies.
And he rarely makes it through a speech without fondly recalling election night 2016 – “one of the highest-rated days in the history of television,” he posited during his appearance at a liquified natural gas facility in Louisiana last month.
Even during more staid events, Trump has injected politics. He encouraged participants during a tax roundtable event in Minnesota in April to “elect Republicans.” The same month, he used an opioid abuse summit in Atlanta to recall his famous descent down the Trump Tower escalator to launch his 2016 campaign.
As president, Trump is not bound by the same law – the Hatch Act – that restricts his aides’ political activity, meaning he’s not committing any crimes when he slips into politicking during official events. But the example he sets from the top does trickle down.
“Blurring the line between governance and campaigning sets a terrible tone from the top,” said Adav Noti, senior director and chief of staff at the Campaign Legal Center and a former Federal Election Commission lawyer. “It’s no coincidence this administration, more than any other in recent memory, is continuously caught up in these clear violations.”
At least a dozen senior Trump administration officials have been reprimanded by the Office of Special Counsel for violating the Hatch Act, including White House Director of Social Media Dan Scavino, East Wing communications director Stephanie Grisham and former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
While Trump himself is exempt from the law, Federal Election Commission rules mandate reimbursement for travel costs like flying Air Force One when a president is campaigning – a prospect that’s complicated when official events turn political.
Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee are obliged to reimburse the government for some of the travel costs when Trump travels for political reasons. It’s a rule governed by the principle that American taxpayers – many of whom do not support the President and would rather he not be re-elected – should not shoulder the financial burden of his political pursuits.
“For trips involving both a political and official event, the White House or appropriate department or agency funds their portion of the President’s official travel for that trip; likewise, the appropriate political committee funds their portion of the President’s political travel for that trip,” said a White House spokesman, Judd Deere.
Quarterly FEC filings from April show Trump’s campaign has already paid the US Treasury more than $500,000 in travel expenses, with another nearly $400,000 listed as a debt for future estimated expenditures.
Oftentimes, political events are scheduled in combination with official ones to amortize the sums that will be repaid. That’s a practice both Democratic and Republican presidents have exercised for years. But the formula for calculating the repayment has always been a mystery, and it’s up to the White House to determine which events are official and which are political.
“The travel issue is a blurry legal line and it’s been blurry for a very long time,” Noti said. “There’s no clear rule as to how office holders – the President or otherwise – are supposed to allocate their expenses when it comes to mixed-purpose events.”
When official events begin taking on the characteristics of a campaign rally, the practice is clouded further. During last year’s midterm congressional elections, Democrats in Congress cried foul and demanded more information from the White House about how repayment decisions were made.
“The White House’s calculation of travel expenses can be especially challenging when the President travels to what is intended as an official event, but then engages in impromptu partisan activity,” Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote in a letter to the White House. “It is essential that taxpayer dollars are not used to subsidize partisan political activities.”
The White House never responded to Wyden’s letter.