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.
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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.”
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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.