NEW YORK (AP) — At least 13 former Trump administration officials violated the law by intermingling campaigning with their official government duties, according to a new federal investigation released Tuesday.
The report from the Office of Special Counsel says the officials broke the law without consequence and with the admiration’s approval as part of a “willfull disregard for the Hatch Act,” which prohibits government officials from using their official roles to influence elections, including supporting candidates while acting in their official capacities.
“The cumulative effect of these repeated and public violations was to undermine public confidence in the nonpartisan operation of government,” they wrote, adding that, “such flagrant and unpunished violations erode the principal foundation of our democratic system—the rule of law.”
The office investigated officials' comments in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, including the Republican National Convention, which was held at the White House in a major break from historical norms.
While the Office of Special Counsel concluded that hosting the event at the White House did not itself violate the Hatch Act, it found plenty of other instances where Trump officials did, mostly by promoting the former president's reelection in media interviews in which they appeared in their official capacity.
Among the officials cited are former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Jared Kushner, who served as senior adviser to the president, former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Kellyanne Conway, then counselor to the president, Stephen Miller, who served as Trump's senior policy adviser, and Robert O’Brien, the former national security adviser. Conway had been repeatedly cited by the office, which at one point went so far as to call for her removal.
“In each case, the subject official was identified by their official title, discussed administration policies and priorities related to their official duties, and/or spoke from the White House grounds,” the report reads.
The investigation also found that then-Secretary of State Michael Pompeo changed State Department policy to allow himself to speak at Trump's convention and then referenced official work in his speech. And it found then-acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf violated the Hatch Act by presiding over a naturalization ceremony that was orchestrated for convention programming.
“Both reflect the Trump administration’s willingness to manipulate government business for partisan political ends,” the report reads, adding that, “The administration’s willful disregard for the law was especially pernicious considering the timing of when many of these violations took place.”
The report notes the office repeatedly warned Trump White House officials about their violations, but that the former president who is responsible for enforcing the law for high-ranking officials never bothered to do that.
Given the limited power the office has to enforce violations, the report suggested potential changes to the law, including a statutory amendment that would allow it to fine Senate-confirmed presidential appointees and commissioned officers, as well as greater investigative power. They also recommended an amendment to clarify which areas of the White House should be off-limits to political activity.
“(T)he 2020 election revealed that, at least with respect to an administration’s senior most officials, the Hatch Act is only as effective as the White House decides it will be. Where, as happened here, the White House chooses to ignore the Hatch Act’s requirements, then the American public is left with no protection against senior administration officials using their official authority for partisan political gain in violation of the law,” it reads.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonprofit watchdog group, said the report underscored the need for better enforcement.
“This report confirms that there was nothing less than a systematic co-opting of the powers of the federal government to keep Donald Trump in office," said Noah Bookbinder, president of the group. "Congress must act now so that this never happens again.”
Jill Colvin, The Associated Press