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Federal employee claims bosses used government resources to push Trump campaign in Arizona battleground

Press conference was moved from CBP headquarters to Arizona at last minute, senior agency staffer tells The Independent 

Chantal da Silva
Tuesday 10 November 2020 17:09 GMT
Biden will form task force to reunite hundreds of separated immigrant children if he wins election

A worker believes bosses at the US Department of Homeland Security may have violated federal law by apparently using government resources to benefit President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign in key battleground states in the lead-up to Tuesday’s election. 

A senior staffer at the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) expressed fears that leaders within the DHS were violated the Hatch Act of 1939  — the law that bars executive branch employees from partisan political activities while acting in a professional capacity — by regularly speaking out in favour of Trump at press conferences arranged to discuss immigration policy. 

The CBP employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said alarm bells became deafening when senior immigration officials appeared to make a last-minute decision to switch the location of a press conference arranged for Monday, the day before the U.S. election, from CBP’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. to Tucson, Arizona, a key battleground state. 

The staffer said the decision to change the location would have been made sometime after Friday, when it had still been arranged to take place at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. 

Throughout the press conference, which was originally billed as a presser to address Twitter's decision to hide tweets it deemed to be factually inaccurate or misleading in the lead-up to the election, DHS Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli and CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan repeatedly lauded Trump for his efforts to enforce the hardline immigration agenda he promised in the 2016 election. 

 Cuccinelli praised “President Trump's diplomatic leadership” and championed his efforts to fulfil his 2016 campaign promises, while also admonishing “social medial platforms, so-called legacy newspapers and countless talking heads on television” for “having unfairly criticized this president for simply doing what he said he would do.”

Morgan, Morgan appeared to even address the possibility of comments made during the conference being in violation of the Hatch Act, asserting that they were “apolitical”.

“When I say that this president listened and this president delivered, that's just a fact,” Morgan said. 

With DHS officials repeatedly lauding Trump at the event in a key battleground state the day before the election, the senior CBP staffer said they felt the event likely constituted a Hatch Act violation that they feared risked undermining the public’s trust in the DHS and its federal agents. 

“It was unclear to me why the press conference needed to be moved from Washington, D.C.,” the senior employee said. 

Even if the decision had not been politically motivated, they said, from the outside, changing the location of the event to a key battleground state the day and then repeatedly celebrating Trump, they said, has “the perception of being political".

Such actions, the CBP employee said, risk “eroding the DHS’s ability to do its job and its perception of neutrality and being above politics.”

US President Donald Trump speaks on election night in the East Room of the White House in the early morning hours of 4 November, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty )

‘Detrimental to our democracy’

Speaking to The Independent, Donald Sherman, the deputy director of government watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said that determining what counts as a direct violation of the Hatch Act is not always clear-cut. 

However, Sherman said the rhetoric at Monday’s event “part of a pattern of practice of the administration using, really, every official event and the resources of the federal government to help the president’s campaign.”

“We can see what’s happening here as clearly as we can see that Mexico didn’t pay for the wall,” he added, referring to Trump’s vow to see at least 450 miles of border wall built between the US and Mexico before the end of 2020 and to make Mexico “pay for it”.  So far, it is largely US taxpayers who have covered the costs of construction.

To be clear, Sherman said, “there is nothing wrong with an administration citing its own policies.” Instead, he said, what is concerning is the pattern of Trump administration officials appearing to use government resources for the benefit of Trump’s campaign.

Maria Guadalupe Arvallo, a member of Pai-Pai indigenous group, looks through a section of the US-Mexico border fence at a construction bus from indigenous lands, east of Tecate, Baja California State, Mexico, on 7 October, 2020. ( Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)

So far, he noted, at least 14 senior Trump political appointees have been cited by the federal Office of Special Counsel (OSC) for Hatch Act violations, with some individuals being accused of repeatedly violating the act. Trump’s former political adviser Kellyanne Conway, for example, has been charged with around two dozen Hatch Act violations, according to CREW.

“That kind of abuse of federal law for partisan politics at the highest level of the government is unprecedented,” Sherman said. “It’s absolutely outrageous and it is detrimental to our democracy, but it is hardly surprising given this administration’s track record.

Former DHS and Pentagon spokesperson David Lapan, who now serves as vice president of communications at the Bipartisan Policy Center, shared in this sentiment, telling The Independent that senior officials might “deny it’s election-related, but the timing, location [and] content of the remarks demonstrate otherwise.”

‘They feel like they are above the law’

While the senior CBP staffer said Monday’s press conference “pushed me over the edge", it was not the first to raise alarm, with an event led by DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and Morgan in Texas, another battleground state also prompting concern. 

That event, the federal worker noted, had been arranged to celebrate the completion of 400 miles of Trump’s border wall before the milestone had even been reached. 

During the Thursday event, Wolf celebrated Trump for his “steadfast leadership” and asserted that “without the president’s leadership and vision, we would not be here today to celebrate the construction of nearly 400 miles of new state of the art border wall system.” 

“Today’s event is a testament to fulfilling the promises President Donald Trump made to the American people nearly four years ago,” he said.

The DHS chief also slammed media outlets that had doubted Trump’s ability to fulfill his 2016 election campaign promise, including The Washington Post for running an op-ed published on April 25, 2017 titled: “Sorry, Trump voters, you got scammed. You’re never going to get your wall.”

It was that event that prompted another CBP worker, an agent within the U.S. Border Patrol, to come forward, with the agent telling The Independent that the event felt like a clear violation of the Hatch Act. 

“Provision number one [of the Hatch Act] specifically says that federal employees … cannot interfere with the election of political candidates,” the agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said. “I’m just at the point where they feel like they are above the law and I think they get that from the rhetoric that’s coming from the White House, but it’s just wrong. It’s wrong.”

The Border Patrol agent said they had long held concerns over Wolf’s apparent focus on seeing Trump re-elected, with the agent going so far as to send a letter, which has been seen by The Independent, to GOP Sen. Ron Johnson and Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, who serve as chair and ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee respectively, warning them against pushing Wolf’s nomination forward days before a 30 September vote on the matter. 

In the letter, the agent said they had repeatedly tried to request meetings with Wolf to express their concerns over the department’s treatment of immigrants within the U.S. and at the border, but were rebuffed and told by their seniors that the DHS chief’s “priority was to get our President re-elected”.

Department of Homeland Security acting Secretary looks on prior to a confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on September 23, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Greg Nash-Pool/Getty)

Despite the agent’s letter, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced Wolf’s nomination in a 6-3 vote, with Johnson asserting ahead the vote: “We want to keep this pretty short and sweet. I obviously support the nomination."

The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said it was against the committee’s policy to comment on whistleblower matters. Asked for comment, CBP deferred to the DHS, while the department did not respond to requests for comment.

Both the Border Patrol agent and senior CBP employee said they believe they are not alone in fearing for the impacts DHS officials’ actions will have on the department’s reputation going forward, both externally and within the DHS.

“For me, as a federal employee, Chad Wolf and Mark Morgan are my bosses and they make me feel like if I don’t vote for who they are voting for, it’s kind of like I am not supporting the agency,” the CBP agent said. 

That feeling, Sherman said, is exactly what the Hatch Act was introduced to prevent against. 

“This is exactly why the Hatch Act exists," he said. 

Not only does the federal law seek to prevent government officials from “abusing taxpayer funds to help one party or candidate stay in power” and to protect “the kind of service that the public receives and the kind of message the public receives from the government,” but it was also established to ensure that federal employees would not feel “direct or indirect political pressure…from their superiors to engage in conduct that supports [a particular party or candidate].”

Even if Trump loses his re-election bid, Sherman said, the allegations of Hatch Act violations made against members of his administration should not be forgotten. 

“The public needs to understand the scope and scale of these abuses by the president and his cronies to help cheat in this election," he said. “I don’t know how else you describe someone breaking the law…and using federal government resources to try and help the president win the election other than cheating.”

For their part, the Border Patrol agent said: “I just think that they’re sending the wrong message to the American people. And especially to DHS employees and CBP employees."

“A lot of [DHS] agents did not come to the agency for this,” they said, adding: "I am tired. I am tired of violating the oath that I took.”

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