The Republican National Convention is the long-standing tradition of the GOP during which they nominate their candidate for president. This year’s RNC has been decidedly bizarre, however, due to the unusual nature of the man in the White House. Donald Trump is a norm-breaking president, to put it lightly. The strangest aspect of the 2020 RNC so far, however, is the Trump Administration’s apparent obliviousness to the Hatch Act.
Since taking office, Trump seems to have treated US laws as more like suggestions. Until he was corrected by a unanimous Supreme Court decision, Trump claimed that the president had wide-ranging immunity to investigation and oversight. During the RNC, however, Trump has used federal property as a backdrop for political advertisements in a way that seemingly flaunts the Hatch Act.
The Hatch Act’s official name is the “Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities.” Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law in 1939 after Senator Charles Hatch wrote it. Hatch, a Republican, claimed that Democrats had improperly benefitted in the midterm elections by using Works Progress Administration employees in their political ads. The Act holds that civic employees can’t engage in most political acts while on federal property or while on duty in their official roles.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence, as president and vice president, are not bound by the Hatch Act. However, officials like Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, and Chad Wolf, the acting DHS Secretary, are. By appearing during the RNC performing official duties as government employees, Trump Administration officials might have violated federal laws.
Ethics watchdogs have issued numerous warnings about the Trump Administration. Trump and his cabinet have regularly flaunted ethics guidelines. But, the RNC has taken things to a new level. By conflating his political campaign with his officials’ capacities as government employees, Trump is sending a clear message.
Trump is not concerned about the optics of wielding his office to help his reelection campaign. As former White House ethics chief Walter Shaub tweeted Tuesday, “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. Citizen Trump is no longer presenting himself as a candidate. Now your government is telling you who should rule you.”
What can anyone do? It’s unclear who, exactly, could hold the administration accountable. Trump has shown a surprising disregard for oversight in the past. However, the administration’s disregard is not an excuse for simply breaking the law.