WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump instantly ignited new controversy when he said recently that he may deliver his nomination acceptance speech during the Republican National Convention at the White House.
But using the Rose Garden, the Executive Mansion or even the Oval Office as the backdrop for his speech capping the Aug. 24-27 convention would mark an unprecedented use of federal property for partisan political purposes.
Critics allege it would violate ethics laws, such as the Hatch Act, which limits political activity by federal workers, although few have faced penalties.
Trump says the idea is well within the law. “It is legal. There is no Hatch Act because it doesn’t pertain to the president,” Trump said Wednesday.
While the president is exempt from the act, ethics experts said, presidential staffers working to pull off the event would be in jeopardy.
“The rule prohibiting political activity on government property still applies, regardless of the Hatch Act’s exception for the president,” according to Kedric Payne, ethics director at the Campaign Legal Center. “Any federal employee who helps facilitate the acceptance speech risks violating the Hatch Act.”
Here is an overview of the controversy:
WHY IS THE SPEECH VENUE AN ISSUE
Presidents typically hold their nominating conventions in large arenas in states critical to victory, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced candidates to change the way they campaign.
All four days of the Republican National Convention were planned for Charlotte, North Carolina, until Trump feuded with the state’s Democratic governor over coronavirus health restrictions. Trump then moved the speech and some other elements of the convention to Jacksonville, Florida, a decision welcomed by the state’s Republican governor. But the president later canceled those plans because of a resurgence of the coronavirus in Florida.
Trump says delivering the speech at the White House would save travel costs of flying the entire presidential entourage to the convention, though he hadn't made cost an issue until now.
“If I use the White House, we save tremendous amounts of money for the government in terms of security, traveling. ... I think it would be a very convenient location," Trump said.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden says he’d accept his party’s nomination in a speech delivered in his home state of Delaware instead of the planned convention in Milwaukee.
CRITICS POUNCE ON IDEA
Presidents historically have avoided using the White House for strictly political events, though Trump has shown disregard for traditional efforts to separate governing and campaigning. Trump turned a recent Rose Garden speech on China into a lengthy attack on Biden, saying his opponent's “entire career has been a gift to the Chinese Communist Party.”
The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, noted that even though Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are exempt from the Hatch Act, federal government employees must refrain from participating in partisan political activity.
“I think anything you do on federal property would seem to be problematic,” according to Thune.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former justice on the Texas Supreme Court, expressed similar concern.
“I would have to have somebody show me where it says he could do that. I would think on government property would be problematic,” Cornyn said.
WHAT IS THE HATCH ACT?
Congress approved the Hatch Act in 1939 to limit partisan activity by federal employees to ensure the government functions fairly and effectively.
The act prohibits: running for office in partisan elections, sending or forwarding a partisan political email while on duty or in a federal workplace, engaging in political activity while wearing an official uniform or while using a government vehicle, using official authority to interfere with or influence an election, soliciting or receiving political contributions, wearing or displaying partisan political buttons, T-shirts or signs.
It applies to all civilian employees in the executive branch of the federal government, except the president and the vice president. There are some exceptions. Certain executive officials, such as presidential advisers or Cabinet officers, can engage in political activities during official working time as long as federal funds are not used. Any such official must reimburse the U.S. Treasury for federal resources used in campaign activities.
Career government officials found to have violated the Hatch Act can be fired, suspended or demoted, and fined up to $1,000 though few penalties are ever levied against federal employees.
FEW FACE PUNISHMENT
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent government watchdog, has cited the president’s top advisers on multiple occasions for violating the Hatch Act. In 2018, the watchdog 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.
On Thursday, the Washington-based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics sent a complaint to the Office of the Special Counsel against U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman, alleging that he violated the Hatch Act when he lobbied Brazilian officials for tariff agreements by arguing that it would help Trump get re-elected.
CREW has filed complaints against at least a dozen other Trump administration officials. After a complaint against White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, the OSC recommended last year that she be removed from federal service, although she never lost her job.
But the idea of the president turning the White House into the venue for a partisan celebration of his nomination, is even more overt. Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, said the White House is not a political convention hall.
“The White House is the people’s house — not the headquarters of the Republican Party or the office of the re-election campaign of Donald Trump," Weissman said, although he acknowledged that presidents and their top aides have long conducted political and partisan activities from the White House.
“The idea of denigrating the White House by turning it into a partisan backdrop for a party nomination acceptance speech should be anathema to all Americans,” he said.