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RNC 2020: Did Trump administration breach the Hatch Act? A look at the decades-old federal law and its origin

The ongoing GOP convention has put the focus on the 1939 Act that tries to separate the administrative from the political
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It doesn’t take long before any action of President Donald Trump or his administrative aides or family members sparks outrage. The incumbent president, who is battling a number of challenges in the run-up to his re-election bid this November, has been nominated as the Republican Party’s official nominee at its ongoing national convention and the event has already caught eyes for a number of wrong reasons.

The second night of the virtual convention was marked by allegations that the decades-old Hatch Act was violated at will by the current administration. The 1939 Act bars federal employees from taking part in certain political activities but the presence of some of the Trump administration officials in the Republican National Convention (RNC) raised ethical questions. For example, the presence of Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf at a naturalization ceremony raised allegations that he breached the law. Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s address from Jerusalem where he is on an official tour has earned criticism. It has been said that while Pompeo did not do the right thing by involving himself in a political event despite being in the administration, his political engagement from abroad where he has gone on the tax-payers’ money has come under serious questioning.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Getty Images)

Even the president, who faced a backlash recently by suggesting that he could accept his nomination from the White House after the coronavirus pandemic jeopardized the GOP’s convention plans, was accused of misusing his presidential powers by using the White House as a prop on the second night of the RNC convention. He signed a full pardon for a convicted bank robber in Jon Ponder who founded a prisoner re-entry program besides overseeing the naturalization program.

What is the Hatch Act?

The Act, which was amended in July 1940, was enacted by the Congress to get rid of corrupt practices in national elections. It gets its name from Carl Hatch (1889-1963), a former New Mexico Democratic senator, who later became a district court judge in the same state. Hatch sponsored the Act after the revelations that Works Progress Administration (a work program for the unemployed that was created in 1935 under former President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal) officials were using their positions and influence to gain votes for the Democratic Party. The Act banned intimidation or bribery of voters and restricted political-campaign activities by federal workers. It also put restrictions on contributions by individuals to political campaigns and spending by committees engaged in campaigning. 

According to the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC):​​​​​​​​​​​​ “The Hatch Act, a federal law passed in 1939, limits certain political activities of federal employees, as well as some state, DC, and local government employees who work in connection with federally funded programs. ​The law’s purposes are to ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation."​ The OSC has also spoken about "permitted and prohibited activities for most federal employees".

During World War II, the Hatch Act shielded the government and its workers from manipulation in a time of political trouble and turbulence. Ellen Schrecker said in her 2002 book ‘The Age of McCarthyism’: “The 1939 Hatch Act barred Communists, Nazis, and other totalitarians from government employment” and it was seen as a positive that helped public trust remaining guarded against radical elements. Since its inception, the Act has been upheld by the Supreme Court and attempts to amend it has been vetoed two times. In 1993, then President Bill Clinton signed the Hatch Act Reform Amendments, making things less tight with regards to most federal and DC employees who are involved in political campaigns.

Accusations against Trump of breaching Hatch Act

The Trump administration has been accused of violating the said Act earlier as well. In September 2018, the OSC issued a warning to former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham for including the president’s campaign slogan in a post on her government Twitter account. In November the same year, six officials of the Trump administration were again accused by the OSC of violating the Act after they made posts to their government Twitter accounts. Though not disciplinary action was taken, the OSC let them off with a stern warning.

In June last year, the OSC wrote to the president recommending removal of White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway alleging she repeatedly violated the Act. This came following the March 2018 finding by the OSC that Conway was a “repeated offender” in attacking Democratic presidential candidates while serving in an official capacity on social media and television. Trump defended Conway saying it was the provision, which was restricting her right of free speech.