Yet when Vice President Pence visited Ireland in 2019, he wasted hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars by staying not in Dublin, the site of his meetings, but at Trump’s golf course 180 miles away, on the opposite coast of the island. Pence tried to make things right by paying for his own room, but that only added a direct personal payoff to Trump to the many other ethical breaches of the trip. Any other federal employee who wasted travel expenses in order to direct money to his supervisor would find himself in serious trouble: facing at least a firing, possibly prison time if the behavior was egregious enough. But not Pence. Not the Trump staffers who meet every Tuesday evening with lobbyists at the Trump hotel in Washington, D.C. In the George W. Bush White House, where I once worked, you showed you belonged by wearing cowboy boots; in the Trump White House, by repaying some of your salary back into the boss’s pockets.
Read: The president is winning his war on American institutions
It is illegal for government employees to use their positions to engage in certain political activities. They are especially forbidden to engage directly in election campaigns while on the government payroll. The presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway appeared to violate this law—the Hatch Act—so persistently and flagrantly that she triggered an internal investigation. In June 2019, the investigation reported that indeed she had broken the law repeatedly and intentionally.
If Conway had been a career government employee, she would have been dismissed from her position immediately. By courtesy, however, the enforcement of the Hatch Act upon political appointees is left to the president directly. The investigation, therefore, concluded with a recommendation to the president, rather than a direct order, that Conway be subject to “appropriate disciplinary action”: in other words, that she be fired.
Trump disregarded the recommendation. Conway mocked the finding to reporters. As one journalist read the recommendation to her, she replied: “Blah, blah, blah. If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”
At some point in the 2020 campaign, some federal worker will get excited about the election and post something intemperate on Facebook or do something else to infringe the 1939 law. She will be disciplined—fired if the offense is egregious or visible enough—and she will know that this law that applies to her was ignored in the much worse case of a higher-ranked person. Or perhaps in 2020, the law will be extra-scrupulously obeyed by federal workers, precisely because they already know that there is one law for Trump cronies and a different law for everybody else.
No other major democracy operates so political a system of law enforcement as the United States. The 93 U.S. attorneys are all political appointees. They report to an assistant attorney general for the criminal division, also a political appointee. The AAG reports to a deputy attorney general and finally the attorney general—all political. Ideally, while people are appointed to those posts for political reasons, they do not do their jobs in a political way. Americans can be proud that this ideal is so often voluntarily met. But when not voluntarily met, the ideal is difficult to enforce.