One of the US government’s top ethics watchdogs has found that 13 top Trump administration officials – including Kellyanne Conway and Mike Pompeo – violated federal laws prohibiting government employees from using federal resources to campaign for political candidates.
The report, issued by the Office of Special Counsel, found that the violations were committed by senior Trump administration figures who under current law could only have been disciplined by then-president Donald Trump, who refused to enforce the law (known as the Hatch Act) against his top lieutenants on multiple occasions.
“The cases described herein demonstrate both a willingness by some in the Trump administration to leverage the power of the executive branch to promote President Trump’s reelection and the limits of OSC’s enforcement power under the existing statutory scheme to prevent them from doing so,” Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote.
“While the specific facts of each case are different, they share this fundamental commonality – senior Trump administration officials chose to use their official authority not for the legitimate functions of the government, but to promote the reelection of President Trump in violation of the law.”
Mr Kerner, who was appointed to his position by the former president, determined that Trump officials “intentionally ignored the law’s requirements and tacitly or expressly approved of senior administration officials violating the law”.
The Hatch Act is a 1932 law which prohibits federal employees (with the exception of the president and vice president) from making statements in support of or opposition to political candidates while speaking in their official capacity. It was enacted during Franklin Roosevelt’s first term out of concern that his administration would pressure members of the expanding federal work force to vote for his re-election.
The Office of Special Counsel is an independent agency charged with enforcing the Hatch Act and the protection of federal whistleblowers. It is not part of the Justice Department and has nothing to do with prosecutors appointed as special counsels, such as former FBI director Robert Mueller or current special counsel John Durham.
According to the report, many of the Trump administration’s Hatch Act violations were committed during media interviews or televised events such as the 2020 Republican National Convention.
One major violation the OSC found was committed by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during a speech delivered from Jerusalem during the RNC in which Mr Pompeo “[used] his official authority by repeatedly referencing the work of the State Department”.
Another violation during the RNC came at the hands of then-Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, who OSC reports as having broken the law “by presiding over a naturalization ceremony that was orchestrated for the purpose of creating content for the convention”.
“Each took official acts in furtherance of President Trump’s reelection campaign,” Mr Kerner wrote, adding that both violations apparently “stemmed from requests that originated within the White House – or, in Mr Pompeo’s case, probably the Trump campaign or President Trump himself”.
Such requests reflected “the Trump administration’s willingness to manipulate government business for partisan political ends,” he concluded.
The report also found that the Trump administration “tacitly or expressly approved of senior officials violating the Hatch Act by campaigning for President Trump’s reelection” based on “the administration’s refusal to hold officials accountable for their violations, the frequency and similarity of the violations, and the fact that some administration officials repeatedly ignored the advice OSC provided to them”.
Mr Kerner singled out as an example ex-counselour to the president Kellyanne Conway, who in 2019 was the subject of an unprecedented OSC report recommending that she be fired for “multiple, flagrant violations” of the Hatch Act.
Noting that Mr Trump refused to take action on his previous recommendation, he wrote that it was “incumbent upon President Trump to discipline employees where appropriate” but Mr Trump “did not do so”.
“Instead, he defended and supported even the most egregious of the violators. In so doing, the administration sent a clear message to similarly situated officials – there will be no consequences for breaking the law by campaigning on behalf of President Trump and other Republican candidates at taxpayer expense,” he wrote.
“Based upon the Trump administration’s reaction to the violations, OSC concludes that the most logical inference is that the administration approved of these taxpayer-funded campaign activities. OSC further concludes that these violations likely would not have occurred had the Trump administration made clear to senior officials that they should act in accordance with the Hatch Act and that there would be consequences for violating it”.
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