The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) announced in a report released on November 9 that thirteen high-level officials within the administration of former President Donald Trump had violated the Hatch Act prior to the 2020 election.
The Hatch Act, a 1939 law that limits federal officials’ ability to participate in partisan politics as part of their normal job duties, has generally placed sharp restrictions on officials’ ability to campaign, or even to make public statements, on behalf of political candidates during their jobs. Democratic administrations are not innocent of these violations; during the Virginia gubernatorial race, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was criticized for publicly supporting former Governor Terry McAuliffe at a press briefing, despite her Hatch Act obligation to refrain from advocating for political candidates. That incident led to a formal complaint by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
However, in the aftermath of the allegations against Psaki, many observers and commentators expressed outrage at a perceived double standard between the Trump and Biden administrations, noting flagrant violations of the act during Trump’s tenure—most prominently by his use of the White House as the staging ground for political events, including his acceptance of the Republican Party’s nomination, in the summer of 2020.
The OSC report touches on those incidents, including a naturalization ceremony held at the White House and led by then-Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf as part of the Republican National Committee’s (RNC's) summer 2020 convention. Fending off accusations that the naturalization ceremony represented a Hatch Act violation, the Trump administration claimed that it had been a part of public business and that its timing was coincidental, but the report revealed that the OSC had obtained emails explicitly contradicting this position.
“OSC repeatedly warned both DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and the Trump White House that, because the ceremony was designed to produce content for the RNC, the proposed naturalization ceremony would violate the Hatch Act even if it was later characterized as an official event,” the report read, saying that it had repeatedly advised the administration that the event would violate the law in the days leading up to the ceremony. The Trump administration did not act on the OSC’s complaints and held the ceremony.
The report also highlighted the Hatch Act’s shortcomings, observing that none of the Trump administration officials were ever punished for their violations because prosecution of the incidents would have to have been conducted by the Trump administration, which declined to do so. The report noted that, when asked about the Hatch Act, Trump had dismissed it as a non-entity: “There is no Hatch Act because it doesn’t pertain to the president.”
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.