Trump’s blatant disregard shows Hatch Act needs teeth

A new government report concludes that more than a dozen top members of the Trump administration violated the Hatch Act during Donald Trump’s tenure, thumbing their noses — with Trump’s support — at the legally mandated separation between governing and campaigning as the 2020 election approached. Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote that the violations amounted to “a taxpayer-funded campaign apparatus within the upper echelons of the executive branch.”

The report highlights the central problem with the 1939 law: Its enforcement depends entirely upon the sitting president. Pending legislation can and should change that.

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The act prohibits most executive branch government employees from engaging in political campaigning while on the job or on government property. The president and vice president are exempt, but most presidential underlings are required to leave their partisan activities at home.

That didn’t stop 13 ranking Trump officials from blatantly misusing their positions to politically promote their boss, generally in “willful disregard” of the law, says the report.

Violations included a Homeland Security naturalization ceremony conducted on the White House grounds as part of the 2020 Republican National Convention. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also violated the act with a speech to the convention during an official trip to Jerusalem. And multiple others, including senior counselor Kellyanne Conway, chief of staff Mark Meadows and senior adviser Stephen Miller, violated it by openly promoting Trump’s reelection and disparaging campaign opponent Joe Biden in their official capacities during media interviews.

Officials in other administrations have been sporadically called out by watchdog groups for Hatch Act violations, including Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, for what appeared to be an endorsement of Democratic Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe last month. But the new report makes clear the Trump administration’s violations weren’t occasional slip-ups by underlings; they were part of a culture of aggressively, systemically spurning the law, beginning with Trump’s “refusal to require compliance.”

The Hatch Act relies on the sitting president to prevent his underlings from violating the law, and to discipline those who do. The act didn’t anticipate a president who not only allowed his underlings to promote his reelection on the taxpayers’ dime but demanded it of them.

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The Hatch Act “is only as effective in ensuring a depoliticized federal workforce as the president decides it will be,” the report states. “Where, as happened in the Trump administration, the White House chooses to ignore the Hatch Act’s requirements, there is currently no mechanism for holding senior administration officials accountable for violating the law.”

The Protecting Our Democracy Act, pending in the House, would change that by giving the Office of Special Counsel the power to act against violators when the president refuses to. After more than 80 years, it took a president as lawless as Trump to demonstrate why Congress must give the Hatch Act a stronger set of teeth.

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