Incumbent presidents have two goals for their renomination convention: Show voters what they’ve achieved in their first four years, and tell them what they want to do with another four.
Donald Trump and his Republican Party have skipped the second part—the president has repeatedly whiffed on articulating a second-term agenda, and the Republican National Convention has decided not to bother with a platform. As for achievements, the administration has little to go on there, either. Most of Trump’s 2016 agenda remains incomplete, stalled, or never begun, while the economy is in a tailspin and nearly 180,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.
Yet Trump is using the RNC to show the nation what he has learned over the past four years: the power of impunity. Throughout the convention, Trump, his family, and his aides are using the backdrop of the federal government, in defiance of precedent, propriety, and likely federal law. The president is not so much showing the majesty of the federal government—this is not its finest hour—as reveling in the knowledge that no one can or will stop him. It is a flex for its own sake, and at heart, that is his message about what he will deliver in a second term, too.
On Tuesday, first lady Melania Trump spoke from the newly redesigned Rose Garden. Donald Trump used the convention to perform the functions of the presidency, taping videos at the White House in which he pardoned a convicted bank robber and took part in the naturalization of five new American citizens. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech to the convention from Jerusalem. On Thursday, the president will deliver his nomination acceptance speech from the South Lawn of the White House.
Each of these is potentially a violation of the Hatch Act, a federal law designed to prevent officeholders from using taxpayer money, and staffers working on the public tab, to further their own political campaigns. (The president and vice president are exempt.)
In theory, it’s possible that the administration crossed every t and dotted every i to follow the law. Perhaps no executive-branch staffers were involved in any of the work to set up the White House events. Perhaps Pompeo didn’t spend any government money in flying to Jerusalem to deliver an election speech trading on his position as secretary of state. Perhaps the naturalization ceremony was standard practice, and it just happened to be taped and broadcast at the RNC.
The Trump administration has shown over the past four years, though, that it isn’t especially careful about adhering to guidelines, laws, or regulations. An inspector general at the State Department was reportedly probing allegations that Pompeo used government aides to run personal errands for him, while other reports have focused on taxpayer-funded dinners that seem mostly designed to boost Pompeo’s own career. A range of legal experts told The Washington Post that the convention events likely violated the Hatch Act.
Nonlegal commentators agreed. “It’s a regulation of the State Department that nobody that’s in the State Department can attend a political event, let alone participate in it,” said Fox News’ Chris Wallace. “The State Department said, ‘Well, he’s operating in his personal capacity.’ But I don’t know what personal capacity a secretary of state has.”
The White House shrugs off these concerns. Asked about potential Hatch Act violations by Politico, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows replied, “Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares.” This is a peculiar explanation from the administration of a president running as the candidate of “law and order,” but this dismissive attitude about voters is also shared by savvier-than-thou journalists who reject complaints as just hand-wringing.
The past four years have suggested something different: Voters do care. It’s just that the president and his aides know that there are very few people who can stop them, and those who can usually won’t.
This is, of course, not the first time that Trump has used the federal government to enhance his election chances. In fact, compared with the offenses for which he was impeached last year, these Hatch Act violations do seem pretty minor. The impeachment came in response to the president’s effort to use federal funds appropriated by Congress to bully Ukraine into announcing an investigation into Vice President Joe Biden.
There’s no serious factual disagreement about what happened. The debatable question is whether what Trump did was appropriate or whether it merited impeachment and removal. The administration insisted that Trump was merely exercising presidential prerogatives, and that people didn’t care. But a solid majority of Americans supported impeachment proceedings, and a plurality believed he ought to be removed from office. The White House also insisted that no one cared about the Russia investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but in April 2019, roughly six in 10 Americans concluded that Trump lied to the public about the matters investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. A plurality believed he obstructed justice. Voters didn’t buy the administration’s excuse that these were mere “process” crimes.
Yet Trump has also learned that no matter how much the public disapproves, there’s little prospect of real punishment. His Department of Justice misrepresented the Mueller report and misled the public about its content. The Senate limply rejected the impeachment charges against him. Courts have blocked or slowed lawsuits complaining that Trump is violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause on matters of standing, rather than merit. When members of the administration such as Kellyanne Conway have broken the Hatch Act in the past, the president, the only person who can discipline them, has refused to enforce it.
Trump’s use of the White House grounds for the convention has followed a similar arc. When he first floated the idea earlier this month, even Republicans were aghast. “Is that even legal?” John Thune, the No. 2 Senate Republican, asked. “I assume that’s not something that you could do.” John Cornyn, another top GOP Senate leader, said, “I would think [that holding convention events] on government property would be problematic.”
Three weeks later, here we are—and there Trump is, on the South Lawn. He has fully embraced using the White House as a prop for the RNC, secure in the knowledge that no one who has any power over it will do anything to stop him. Oh, sure, some congressional Democrats will write angry letters demanding investigations, but the independent watchdogs don’t have any power to punish, and the Senate would never sanction the president.
He’ll get away with it, as he always does: That’s the real message Trump is sending this week. It isn’t about using the backdrop of the White House to show the awesome power of the presidency. The president has proved largely uninterested in using many of the powers available to him. Besides, there’s little to celebrate now: 80 percent of Americans said the country is on the wrong track in a recent poll.
As I have written, Trump has systematically knocked down the checks on the executive branch, leaving only the ballot box, in November, in place. He has tried to delegitimize and undermine that too, and his election strategy hinges not on winning a majority of votes but on cobbling together, as he did in 2016, an Electoral College victory. If he rides a minority to reelection, the next four years will deliver much more of the smug disregard for laws that his convention has promised.