President Donald Trump is slated to accept the 2020 Republican presidential nomination on Thursday with a speech from the White House lawn – an act ruled permissible by a federal agency. Yet even with the legal sign-off, the Republican convention’s use of the White House this week is as norm-busting as anything in the Trump presidency and has gone far beyond his predecessors’ actions.
First lady Melania Trump held her speech in a newly renovated Rose Garden. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a pre-recorded his speech from Jerusalem during an official foreign trip, though the administration maintains his remarks were made in a personal capacity.
And throughout this week, Trump himself has used the White House as a backdrop for other programming – including a surprise pardon and immigration naturalization ceremony.
All presidents, in some way, use the powers of their office when it comes time for reelection. That includes highlighting executive orders that benefit key voting blocs or touting foreign policy achievements available only to the sitting commander in chief.
But never have those moves been so blatantly staged for political gain – or have officials appeared so nonchalant about violating longstanding rules such as the Hatch Act, a law that is supposed to stop the federal government from affecting elections or going about its activities in a partisan manner.
There is a shrugging attitude toward the Hatch Act among many of Trump’s aides, people familiar with the West Wing dynamics say, after the President made clear early in his tenure he would not admonish advisers found to have violated the law restricting political activity by government officials.
“Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares. They expect that Donald Trump is going to promote Republican values,” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said Wednesday morning in an interview with Politico. “This is a lot of hoopla that’s being made about things.”
“What are the consequences?” another administration official asked. “No one gets punished.”
Trump has joked he would excuse anyone found to be violating the act on his behalf, one of the people said. The President himself decides what punishment to dole out.
That general relaxed attitude has pervaded among Trump’s staff, though they say they are still taking a bare minimum approach to avoid running afoul of the law.
For example, speechwriters who work on some of Trump’s political addresses have been given separate laptops to work on those remarks, a person familiar said. And aides who have worked on planning this week’s convention – including Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway – are doing so in their “personal time.”
Lawyers have been consulted on this week’s convention activities, White House officials said. But they have clearly weighed in favor of stretching ethical boundaries, as evidenced by Tuesday night’s proceedings.
A White House official said the production of the two videos this week of a pardon and naturalization ceremony was from “official events” that were published online and later used by the convention in its programming.
“The White House publicized the content of both events on a public website this afternoon and the campaign decided to use the publicly available content for campaign purposes. There was no violation of law,” the official said in an explanation that might be right in the technical sense but merely highlights the flouting of the appearance of impropriety.
The two videos aired Tuesday popped up on the official White House YouTube channel just before the RNC began – and were clearly taped for airing during the convention.
One video showed Trump holding a naturalization ceremony with Wolf and a handful of immigrants. In the second video, The President pardoned Jon Ponder, a former bank robber who’s the founder of a prison reintegration program – the same day Ponder was scheduled to speak at the convention.
In videos aired Monday, Trump met with different groups of Americans, including hostages who had been freed by his administration and individuals who had recovered from coronavirus.
By labeling the videos routine examples of “official events,” the White House seemed to excuse the use of government resources that went into them – including the participation of acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and a group of Marines who were seen at the start.
Other events this week will be harder to write off as “official,” including Trump’s speech Thursday from the South Lawn.
An administration official said the Republican National Committee was footing the bill for the staging, travel and food costs of the event, which is expected to draw 1,000 people.
Ethics experts weigh in
The President’s use of the White House as a convention speaking venue garnered criticism from ethics experts, but the US Office of Special Counsel – an independent agency tasked with enforcing the law – said Trump could deliver his Republican National Convention speech from the White House.
The office told members of Congress in a letter that because the President and vice president are exempt from the Hatch Act, they can deliver remarks for the RNC from the White House grounds.
“The President and Vice President are not covered by any of the provisions of the Hatch Act. Accordingly, the Hatch Act does not prohibit President Trump from delivering his RNC acceptance speech on White House grounds,” a letter explaining the determination said.
But the Office of Special Counsel also asserted that White House employees could be violating the Hatch Act – since the law generally forbids the use of government property for political activities – if they participate in convention-related events within the White House, depending on the circumstances.
“However, White House employees are covered by the Hatch Act, so there may be Hatch Act implications for those employees, depending on their level of involvement with the event and their position in the White House,” the letter said.
Some previous officeholders have sought to limit political activity in the White House, for instance, by holding political events elsewhere or in the residential spaces of the presidential mansion.
The use of the White House for blatant campaign events has surprised members of previous administrations, who worked to navigate the legal boundaries between official and political work.
An official who worked in President Barack Obama’s administration said they regularly consulted the White House counsel’s office before any event staged on the White House grounds – even those without obvious political connotations – to ensure they wouldn’t be challenged.
But Trump has taken a different approach.
The Trump White House has encountered Hatch Act violations before, and Trump