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RNC: Concerns about potential Hatch Act violations dismissed

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows dismissed complaints from Democrats and watchdog groups Wednesday about President Trump’s use of the White House for the Republican convention.

‘Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares,’ Meadows said of the complaints, which include a probe announced by House Democrats into a speech from Jerusalem by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that was featured at the convention Tuesday night.

‘They expect that Donald Trump is going to promote Republican values and they would expect that Barack Obama when he was [in] office that he would do the same for Democrats,’ Meadows said.

He spoke about the concerns in an interview with Politico Wednesday that was carried on C-Span. 

‘This is a lot of hoopla that is being made about things mainly because the convention has been so unbelievably successful,’ he said. 

He echoed what the State Department said about Pompeo’s speech – that it was done without government resources, although he spoke while on a government trip to the Middle East. 

‘He made it very clear that he was talking in his personal capacity he used no federal assets to do that,’ said Meadows.

He said the convention had taken adequate steps to make sure videos for the convention featuring the president did not violate the Hatch Act, which limits political actions that can take place on taxpayer-funded government property.  Trump appeared in a naturalization ceremony video from the White House as well as video where he issued a pardon. Both took place in the East Wing, which serves as the private residence.

‘When you look at official acts, whether it’s the naturalization process that went through … or the pardon, there are a couple of things that you can do to make sure that you’re in compliance with the Hatch act,’ said Meadows.

The former North Carolina House member expressed his own view of the law that: ‘We’ve taken it well beyond the original intent of the Hatch Act.’

‘What it’s really designed to do is to make sure that people like myself and others do not use their political position to try to convince other employees, other federal employees, that they need to vote one way, register one way or campaign another way,’ Meadows said.

Former Director of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub repeatedly blasted the convention on Twitter Tuesday night in between firing off Hatch Act citations.

‘The Hatch Act was the wall standing between the government’s might and candidates. Tonight a candidate tore down that wall and wielded power for his own campaign,’ he wrote. ‘Citizen Trump is no longer presenting himself as a candidate. Now your government is telling you who should rule you.’

He added that Trump ‘is covered by a criminal section of the Hatch Act that bars him from “command[ing]” any employee “to engage in . . . any political activity, including . . . working . . . on behalf of any candidate.”   

‘As an American it just made me sad. There are no limits that this administration [won’t] go to to try to keep power,’ said Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar on MSNBC Wednesday. She called them ‘clear ethical violations.’ 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was among those brushing off potential breaches, saying she was more concerned about the coronavirus and the impact on schools.

‘I care more about that, than about whether the refurbished Rose Garden is appropriately under the Hatch Act or not in terms of what the First Lady may say tonight,’ she said before Tuesday’s convention began. 

One of Trump’s videos, a naturalization ceremony, featured two Marines in uniform opening doors for Trump. The were ‘at their assigned place of duty’ during the event, the Marine Corps said in a statement, the Hill reported. Their official duty is to assist the president in office; those duties include opening doors for the president,’ said the statement.

The White House addressed the videos in a statement Tuesday, saying it ‘publicized the content of both events on a public website’ and that ‘the campaign decided to use the publicly available content for campaign purposes. There was no violation of law.’

Trump made use of the White House as the backdrop and soundstage for events at Tuesday night’s convention as he made the case for reelection, drawing howls from Democrats and watchdog groups that he was misusing government property.

Day Two of the convention featured a pre-taped presidential pardon, which showcased the president granting clemency to a reformed former bank robber who set up a nonprofit to help inmates make a fresh start. 

Another event had Trump oversee a naturalization ceremony, with military guards opening doors for him as ‘Hail to the Chief’ played. Acting Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf conducted the ceremony, which allowed Trump to focus on legal immigration even as a crackdown on illegal immigration is part of his campaign and governing push.

First Lady Melania Trump spoke from the newly renovated Rose Garden, with a made-for-TV address that featured multiple cameras. She explicitly called for her husband’s reelection in an area often used for official press conferences. 

‘We would be honored to serve this incredible country for four more years,’ said the first lady during her remarks, with cabinet officials and supporters lined up on folding chairs. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to the convention by video feed from the roof of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, praising Trump for his foreign policy achievements – while bucking decades of tradition that have kept his predecessors from speaking at party conventions. 

A subcommittee on the House Foreign Affairs Committee announced Tuesday it was investigating Pompeo’s speech, which Pompeo says he made without use of government resources, although he did it on an official trip. 

 ‘The Trump administration and Secretary Pompeo have shown a gross disregard not only of basic ethics, but also a blatant willingness to violate federal law for political gain,’ said Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), who chairs the subcommittee. ‘Congress has a responsibility to stand up for the rule of law and hold them accountable for this corrupt behavior.’ 

‘This speech by Secretary Pompeo is a major mistake. It politicizes his office, our relationship with Israel and does what he asked every State Department employee not to do—engage in partisan political activity in an election year,’ tweeted Nicholas Burns, a longtime top diplomat first appointed by President George W. Bush. 

During the immigration ceremony, immigrants from Bolivia, Sudan and other nations swore allegiance against ‘all enemies, foreign and domestic,’ in a ceremony that is identified with the American Dream.

When it was through, Wolf, who Trump announced Tuesday he was nominating to the post after watchdogs claimed his ‘acting’ status was improper, congratulated the president.

It appeared to take place in Cross Hall, and editing indicates it was filmed before the prime time convention. But the pool reporters who normally accompany the president to events was not there.  

Wolf thanked Trump for ‘dedication to the rule of law and for restoring integrity to our immigration system.’

Trump decided to hold the events in the White House after having to cancel most of the planned convention in Charlotte, and then abandon a planned move to Jacksonville, Florida, amid the coronavirus.

With the slate of events drawing on the majesty of the White House, the nearby Trump Hotel became a base of operations for post-convention party action.  

“What makes this particularly galling is that the president owns a hotel four blocks away from the White House that he´s shown no qualms about profiting from over the course of his presidency,” said Donald Sherman, deputy director of the nonprofit government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Now he feels compelled to use the White House grounds to deliver this political speech?” 

Over at the Trump Hotel, supporters, many in Trump-themed masks, were drinking in the spacious hotel lobby bar, as the convention played on the major cable networks in the background, though with no sound piping in. Near the end of first lady Melania Trump’s speech, a Trump fan showed off his sabering skills on a bottle of champagne, receiving polite applause from around the lobby.

Out of town guests were booking rooms and were chowing down on the $30 ‘Benjamin Big Burger.’ 

Throughout the course of the evening Donald Trump Jr., his girlfriend and fellow convention speaker Kimberly Guilfoyle, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani were all spotted in the hotel lobby. 

Rooms were going for upwards of $500 per night, and it was fully booked on Wednesday and Thursday – no small feat during a pandemic when hotel business has been hammered. 

Down in the polls and facing the headwinds of a coronavirus-battered economy, Trump made the case that the White House is the easiest location for the Secret Service and law enforcement to secure for his acceptance speech after Republicans were forced to scale back their convention because of the pandemic.

Left unsaid was that the Executive Mansion offers Trump a grand setting as he attempts to make his case that voters should stick with him in the midst of a health catastrophe that has touched nearly every aspect of American life.

IAgriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talked up Trump’s reelection during an “official” visit Monday to a North Carolina farm with the president.

And Trump himself appeared Tuesday night in two videos produced in part by the White House as he blended official acts and campaigning.

A video featuring Trump signing a pardon for Jon Ponder, an ex-convict who now runs an acclaimed prisoner reentry program, aired minutes into Tuesday night’s program. Later, ruffles and flourishes rang out ahead of “Hail to the Chief” as military aides opened the doors to the White House Cross Hall for Trump to preside over a naturalization ceremony for new Americans. Both events were taped in recent days as Trump and his re-election campaign looked to find ways to present a softer image to the American people.

Under a federal law known as the Hatch Act, civilian employees in the executive branch cannot use their titles when doing political work. They are also prohibited from taking part in any partisan activity while on the clock. The president and the vice president are exempt from the rules.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign criticized Pompeo’s speech, which is to air Tuesday evening. “Secretary Pompeo´s decision to address the Republican convention from Jerusalem isn´t just an abuse of taxpayer dollars, it undermines the critical work being done by the State Department,” said Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager.

The independent Office of Special Counsel advised lawmakers earlier this month that White House advisers would not be in violation of Hatch Act rules by taking part in the convention if the event was held on the lawn or in the residence and they attended while off-duty. But if the event were held in the West Wing or in another area of the White House that is regarded as a federal room, White House officials would be prohibited from attending even while off-duty.

In addition to Pompeo, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson as well as White House senior advisers Kellyanne Conway, Ivanka Trump and Ja´Ron Smith are all slated to address the convention. The administration officials are expected to not use their titles to avoid violations, and all – with the exception of Ivanka Trump – are slated to deliver their remarks live or pre-recorded from a location outside the White House complex.

Traditionally, the big four Cabinet members – the secretaries of state, defense, treasury and attorney general – have not attended the convention. Multiple officials involved in the planning process insisted that teams of lawyers from the White House, the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee reviewed convention plans to avoid any Hatch Act violations. The officials said the events on the White House grounds were consistent with previous presidents using the White House residence for political videos.

It’s only the second time that a president will deliver his acceptance speech at the White House. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his acceptance speech from the White House via radio to the Democratic convention that nominated him for an unprecedented third term.

“Any government employees who may participate will do so in compliance with the Hatch Act,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.

Ivanka Trump, who in addition to her White House role is the president´s daughter, is scheduled to introduce her father before his acceptance speech on Thursday.

Her office said in a statement that she will be participating outside of normal working hours and will be speaking in her personal capacity as the president’s daughter.

Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel in the President Barack Obama administration, however, said that while Ivanka Trump and others can take part in the convention while staying on the right side of the law, “it´s completely contrary to the norms.”

“People talk about the White House as the People´s House,” Eggleston said. “Political parties come and go, but it doesn´t belong to one political party or the other.”

The Trump administration is hardly the first to mix business with politics.

Obama, for instance, allowed five members of his Cabinet to address the party´s 2012 convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, as he sought reelection. Four years later, as his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, sought the White House, Obama decided to prohibit Cabinet members from taking part.

In 2012, Kathleen Sebelius, Obama´s health and human services secretary, was cited for violating federal law prohibiting Cabinet members from engaging in politics on the clock when she called for the president´s reelection and touted the candidacy of another Democrat at an event she was attending in her official capacity.

In 2011, a report by Office of Special Counsel found that during the George W. Bush administration, senior staff members at the Office of Political Affairs violated the Hatch Act by organizing dozens of political briefings from 2001 to 2007 for Republican appointees at top federal agencies in an effort to enlist them to help elect Republicans to Congress.

The Trump administration has repeatedly stepped over the line, ethics experts said.

Perdue stepped into politics on Monday during a visit with the president to Mills River, North Carolina, to spotlight a federal food distribution program to assist workers impacted by the virus. Perdue noted appreciatively the many Trump supporters who lined the motorcade route en route to the event.

“Those were part of those forgotten people that voted for you for 2016,” Perdue said. “And I´ve got better news for you: They and many others are going to vote for you for four more years in 2020.”

In November 2018, the Office of Special Counsel found six White House officials in violation for tweeting or retweeting the president´s 2016 campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” from their official Twitter accounts. Most notably, the office recommended in June 2019 that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway be fired.

Trump refused to take action against Conway, suggesting that the office was trying to take away her right to free speech. Conway, who announced this week she will be leaving the White House for personal reasons by the end of the month, is scheduled to deliver remarks to the convention on Wednesday.

Democrats have also pointed to other alleged abuses of power by Trump that had a political slant. In July, Attorney General William Barr deployed National Guard troops to clear the area outside the White House of demonstrators protesting police brutality minutes before Trump decided to stroll to a nearby historic church for a photo op.

The president acknowledged earlier this month – before altering his public position – that he´s starving the U.S. Postal Service of money to make it harder to process an expected surge of mail-in ballots, which he worries could cost him the election.

Richard Painter, who served as the White House chief ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, said it´s unlikely that Trump´s use of the White House backdrop to help his reelection effort will make a difference to the outcome of the election. But the deliberate thumbing of his nose at ethics rules and historic norms points to a “great danger.”

“It goes to the core problem that the government – including the State Department and Department of Justice – are being used as extensions of the Donald Trump campaign,” Painter said. “This is about a lot more than Kellyanne Conway or Ivanka Trump or someone else in the administration showing up to give a campaign speech on the White House lawn.”

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Madhani reported from Chicago. Associated Press writers Deb Riechmann and Jill Colvin contributed to this report.

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