The 2020 Republican National Convention will be one long remembered for its unprecedented moments.
First lady Melania Trump spoke from the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday, believed to be the first time a first lady has delivered a speech at a political convention from the White House.
Then, Vice President Mike Pence spoke from Fort McHenry, which drew criticism from advocates that a National Park was being used as the backdrop for a political speech.
And on Thursday, President Donald Trump closed out the convention with a speech on the White House South Lawn, which drew criticism from both sides of the aisle.
Both Trump and Pence are exempt from the law known as the Hatch Act, which “prohibits Federal employees from engaging in political activities while on duty, in a Government room or building, while wearing an official uniform, or while using a Government vehicle."
However, other events from the 2020 RNC are drawing criticism for possible violations of the Hatch Act; namely, a naturalization ceremony and a presidential pardon that took place in previously recorded videos from the White House, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's speech while on a diplomatic trip.
In a statement, a State Department spokesperson said that Pompeo was addressing the RNC in a personal capacity: “No State Department resources will be used. Staff are not involved in preparing the remarks or in the arrangements for Secretary Pompeo’s appearance."
Additionally, White House spokesman Judd Deere stated that "any government employees who may participate will do so in compliance with the Hatch Act.”
Pompeo's speech also came after he reminded State Department employees a month earlier to “not improperly engage the Department of State in the political process,” according to a cable obtained by CNN.
This is not the first time the Trump administration, in the eyes of some, has run afoul of the Hatch Act. More than a dozen Trump administration officials have been cited for violating the Hatch Act, according to an analysis by ProPublica and NPR station WNYC.
Most notably, in June 2019, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel recommended that Trump fire Kellyanne Conway over the White House counselor’s repeated violations of the Hatch Act.
According to the Washington Post, White House lawyers rejected the request for Conway to appear in front of the House Oversight Committee, citing "long-standing, bipartisan precedent" that she "cannot be compelled to testify before Congress with respect to matters related to her service as a senior adviser to the President," according to a letter White House counsel Pat Cipollone sent to the panel.
Conway shrugged off the OSC recommendation, saying: “Blah, blah, blah. If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work.”
Long story short: Nothing came of it.
So as this week’s Republican National Convention has produced fresh complaints from Democrats and ethics watchdogs about Hatch Act violations, the question looms: Does the law actually have the teeth to hold those, Democrats or Republicans, who break it accountable?
While there are measures in place to discipline Hatch Act violators, many of those rely on Trump appointees — and the president himself — to enforce them, said experts Spectrum News spoke with.
The OSC is the agency tasked with enforcing the Hatch Act, while the president or the Merit Systems Protection Board are responsible for doing out discipline. The OSC generally refers high-level cases to the president.
As in the Conway case, Trump has apparently shown little interest in holding his aides accountable. And all three seats on the Merit Systems Protection Board have been vacant since 2019 as Trump's appointments to fill them await Senate confirmation, effectively nullifying the agency for the time being.
Also, the OSC itself is led by Henry Kerner, a Trump appointee, who critics say should be doing more to enforce the Hatch Act.
(In a statement Wednesday, Kerner insisted his agency will "continue to vigorously and even-handedly enforce the Hatch Act, consistent with its statutory authorities.")
Often when violating the Hatch Act, previous administrations have also ignored these citations. The Obama administration had a number of violations of the act, most notably when then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius was cited for making "extemporaneous partisan remarks" at a Human Rights Campaign Event.
Obama's Housing and Urban Development secretary, Julian Castro, was also investigated for expressing support for Hillary Clinton during an interview.
Castro's twin brother, Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, launched the investigation into Pompeo's speech at the RNC.
While the Hatch Act makes exceptions for the president and vice president, they are still prohibited from ordering other federal employees into political activity, said Norm Eisen, a senior fellow of government studies at the Brookings Institution who served as the special counsel for ethics and government reform under former President Barack Obama.
"That's criminally punishable. Now the problem is, at the moment, [Attorney General] Bill Barr would be in charge of those criminal prosecutions, and we know he's not going to do it. But that will not necessarily be true forever. This is a sufficiently outrageous pattern of conduct that should be evaluated by a future administration, whether criminal offenses happened here," said Eisen, who also served as special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during Trump’s impeachment.
Eisen added that recommendations alone from the OSC could be "powerful" in sending a message. But they won’t necessarily lead to disciplinary action.
Donald Sherman, deputy director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said the problem isn’t the Hatch Act, it’s the Trump’s administration’s flaunting of it. Sherman said the president "has time and again demonstrated not only his disdain for ethical rules, but now he seems to be affirmatively breaking the law in order to help boost his sagging polling numbers."
Sherman added that he believes the scope and scale of Hatch Act violations by the Trump administration is "glaring."
CREW is filing complaints with the OSC over Wolf’s role in the naturalization ceremony that was broadcast during the convention and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talking up Trump’s re-election during an “official” visit Monday to a North Carolina farm with the president. The organization says it will review the entirety of the RNC for other potential violations.
White House officials have insisted the RNC has not violated the Hatch Act. They argue that residential areas of the White House, such as the South Lawn and Rose Garden, are authorized for political use. They say all of the officials speaking are doing so in their personal capacities. They insist Pompeo’s speech did not use government resources. And they say the controversial naturalization ceremony was official presidential business and the campaign simply chose to use video footage available to the public.
Critics, however, believe that some of the White House’s explanations are flimsy. For example, they say it’s hard to imagine Pompeo did not, at the very least, require the presence of taxpayer-funded security when he recorded his speech from Jerusalem. And the naturalization ceremony was clearly done with plans to use it during RNC coverage, they argue.
Sherman concedes there are some gray areas, including with the use of some areas of the White House and the "personal capacity" designation. Regardless, he says both are problematic.
"When the president hosts a political party's nominating convention from the grounds that the people pay for, it says to them, 'This government only works for the Republican Party,'" Sherman said.
And the implication that the secretary of state could truly speak in his own personal capacity about the president’s foreign affairs record, at the very least, blurs the line between government and politics.
"This is why career foreign service officers are admonished not to engage in political events or political activity while they are abroad," Sherman said.
"This is why Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and Secretary [of State Colin] Powell declined to speak at DNC and the RNC, respectively, in 2012 and 2004 because it is a problem for the nation's top diplomat to toggle between speaking on behalf of the American people to foreign government leaders and being a shill for one party and a political candidate," he added.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Wednesday downplayed the criticism the RNC is drawing over the Hatch Act, saying the law is being interpreted “well beyond the original intent.”
"What it's really designed to do is to make sure people like myself and others do not use their political position to try to convince other employees, other federal employees, that they need to vote one way, need to register one way or need to campaign in one way," Meadows told Politico.
The New York Times reported this week that some of Trump’s aides "privately scoff at the Hatch Act and say they take pride in violating its regulations."
Meadows said, "Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares."
But Americans should care, Eisen said.
"The voters should care because the fundamental idea of America is the government should work for the people, not for the personal or political interest of this official," he said. "That is why we declared independence as a nation from King George III, because we should not be subject to his personal or political whims. Every time the president, Pompeo or others use government resources for their personal political interest, they're violating the core idea of America."