As Donald Trump prepares to give a norm-shattering acceptance speech on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday, government watchdogs are filing ethics complaints alleging that other moments from the Republican National Convention may have been in violation of a key ethics law.
On Thursday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics In Washington requested a investigation of Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for his participation in a convention moment on Tuesday, a naturalization ceremony at the White House.
The ceremony was pre-taped, but it was one of the surprise moments of the convention and one of a number of instances in which the White House was used to stage the reality TV-like reveal.
According to CREW, “By participating in this event that mixed official government business with support of a political party and a candidate for partisan political office, Mr. Wolf appears to have used his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election. His participation during this event constitutes political activity prohibited by law.” More specifically, the Hatch Act restricts political activity of federal employees when they are on the job, with the president and Vice President exempted.
A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security did not immediately return a request for comment.
The White House has claimed that it was an official government event because it was taped earlier in the day and made available on the White House website. White House chief of staff Mark Meadows told Politico that “there are a couple of things you can do to make sure that you’re in compliance with the Hatch Act.” He added, “Nobody outside the Beltway really cares.”
But CREW said that “it would blink reality to accept the White House’s contention that there was no connection between the [naturalization] ceremony and the convention.” They claimed that the White House and immigration officials began planning for the event a week before the convention “and sought a particular nationality of participants.”
“Mr. Meadows’ admission suggests that while the event was technically public and not held live during the Republican National Convention, it was designed and executed in such a way that it could be used at the convention.”
The CREW complaint was filed with the Office of Special Counsel, or OSC, which conducts investigations of complaints that the Hatch Act has been violated.
On Wednesday, in response to reporters’ queries about the scope of the Hatch Act, the OSC released a statement noting that there are areas of the White House where the law does not prohibit federal employees from engaging in political activity, including the South Lawn and the Rose Garden. But it did not address the legality of the naturalization ceremony.
The Campaign Legal Center, another government watchdog group, also issued guidance on the Hatch Act and said that the naturalization ceremony, as well as another event where Trump signed a presidential pardon, “raise questions about whether Chad Wolf and other federal employees who coordinated and took part in planning and filming the activities did so knowing it would be used or with the intent for it to be used for political purposes.”
“The disregard for keeping business out of politics is out of step with the norms established by previous administrations of both parties,” said Campaign Legal Center spokesman Corey Goldstone. “Whether or not the activity violates the Hatch Act or any other law, it clearly violates the principle that the law stands for: that public service is a public trust, and using public office for partisan political gain undermines the public’s trust in the government’s ability to conduct business impartially and without political influence.”
Another moment from the Republican convention also is drawing scrutiny: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to speak to the convention from Israel. Claire Finkelstein, a law professor from the University of Pennsylvania, and Richard Painter, law professor at the University of Minnesota, filed a complaint with the OSC, asking for an investigation of Pompeo, as well as other State Department officials who may have helped prepare for the speech.
“In our view, Secretary Pompeo’s choice of location for his speech, reinforced by the content of portions of the speech, made his purpose very clear: his remarks were designed to elicit the support of registered voters who are Jewish, are Evangelical Christian, or who support Israel for Donald Trump’s re-election campaign,” they wrote. “While history is rife with examples of political campaigns seeking to elicit the support of different segments of the voting public based on race, ethnicity, or religion, such conduct is unprecedented for a sitting secretary of state who is at the same time on a diplomatic mission overseas.”
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