In a video shown at the Republican National Convention, President Trump and Chad Wolf, acting head of Homeland Security, welcomed five immigrants through a naturalization ceremony. The five held small U.S. flags, and on the lush red carpet of the White House, they became U.S. citizens.
The ceremonies are typically momentous and celebrated with family and close friends. But this one shocked government ethics experts, who said its use as part of a partisan political convention violated the Hatch Act. The federal law restricts federal employees from participating in certain political activities to safeguard federal programs from election and partisan influences.
“I have never seen an unethical abuse of public office like this one,” Walter Shaub, former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, said on Twitter. “This was absolutely shocking. Short of bribery or other serious criminality, I cannot recall anything remotely close to this.”
Donald Sherman, deputy director of the watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, agreed. His organization has filed numerous complaints against senior White House officials and intends to file one against Wolf, whose appointment as acting Homeland Security secretary has been deemed invalid by the federal Government Accountability Office.
“Amidst a cavalcade of Hatch Act and other ethics violations, somehow President Trump has found a new low. The White House and acting Secretary Wolf orchestrated an unprecedented and illegal political stunt by recording an immigration and naturalization ceremony for use at the Republican National Convention,” Sherman said in an email. “In many ways, last night crystallizes the twin vices that have defined the Trump presidency — President Trump's corruption is racist, and his racism is corrupt.”
The White House has defended the use of the video and said there was no violation. In an emailed statement, a White House official said the video was previously published on YouTube and the campaign decided to use the content. The video of the naturalization ceremony and of a pardon also shown at the convention appear to have been posted not long before the prime-time events. The official confirmed the events were filmed by the White House.
The Hatch Act is a 1939 federal law with civil and criminal provisions, and although the president and vice president are exempt from civil violations, they can still be held responsible for criminal violations, experts say. Even before the Republican convention kicked off, government ethics experts were pointing out potential violations of the Hatch Act and other ethics issues in the Trump administration.
They have questioned Trump's intention to continue using the White House as a backdrop, including for his acceptance speech Thursday. And they've decried the convention speech by Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, who praised Trump from a Jerusalem rooftop while on an official government trip.
In response to the outcry, Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner, a Trump appointee, said in a statement Wednesday that the office’s role is to investigate once it receives complaints, not "grandstand" about potential violations.
“Ultimately, officials and employees choose whether to comply with the law. Once they make that choice, it is the [Office of Special Counsel's] statutory role to receive complaints, investigate alleged Hatch Act violations, and determine which ones warrant prosecution,” he said.
Kerner said the office has grown its Hatch Act Unit staff to respond to the increase in complaints received, typical during an election year. “OSC will continue to vigorously and even-handedly enforce the Hatch Act, consistent with its statutory authorities,” he said.
On Wednesday, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) wrote to Kerner requesting he investigate whether Wolf violated the Hatch Act by holding the ceremony.
Here are some of the events that set off government ethics experts watching the Republican convention:
A pardon during a political convention
During the first few minutes of Tuesday night’s convention, Trump granted a full pardon to former convict Jon Ponder, who started an organization that helps former convicts with reentry into life outside prison. Ponder had already received a state pardon for previous domestic violence charges.
Although there is no issue in hosting the pardon event in the White House, Sherman said, using the event for partisan electoral politics to promote a candidate is a violation of the Hatch Act.
Corey Goldstone, Campaign Legal Center communications manager, said in an email that the event raises questions about whether federal employees who coordinated and filmed the event did so knowing it would be used for political purposes.
Delaney Marsco, ethics counsel at the nonpartisan organization, said the mixing of federal activities and partisan politics is “unprecedented and wildly inappropriate.”
"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,” Marsco said.
The naturalization ceremony
“Filming the naturalization ceremony at the White House for it to be screened at the RNC is an obvious attempt by Wolf to use his official authority with the aim of influencing an election to benefit a partisan candidate,” said Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator for the Project on Government Oversight.
To the White House's contention that the video of the ceremony was posted on the White House’s YouTube channel first, he said: “How many naturalization ceremonies are filmed at the White House on the same day of a major party convention where the video of the ceremony is screened?”
Trump participated in a naturalization ceremony in January 2019 in the Oval Office, during which he declared it was the first of its kind to be held there. But his administration's immigration policies have sought to curb legal immigration, making the ceremony featured at the Republican convention particularly jarring to critics.
"Trump has spent his entire political career demonizing immigrants," 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said Wednesday. "He’s caged migrant babies at the border. He’s used fear of 'caravans' as a political prop. Watching him preside over a naturalization ceremony last night was like watching a fox bless a henhouse."
Fewer issues with Melania Trump and Larry Kudlow speeches
At the end of the convention's second night, First Lady Melania Trump championed her husband in a speech from the recently renovated White House Rose Garden. The use of the site raised eyebrows.
“The Rose Garden is used for official government business, including press conferences. They had no business using that official area of the White House for a campaign event,” Shaub tweeted. “But they have cowed the head of @US_OSC, so anything goes.”
The Office of the Special Counsel said Wednesday that the Rose Garden is among "certain areas of the White House where the Hatch Act does not prohibit federal employees from engaging in political activity." The first lady is exempt from the Hatch Act’s civil provisions.
Larry Kudlow, a top economic advisor to the president, also spoke Tuesday night. But he was identified in his personal capacity and avoided calling for Trump’s reelection or opposition to Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Schwellenbach noted.
Pompeo, speaking during an official trip in Israel
Pompeo's appearance at the RNC, in a video "looking over the Old City" of Jerusalem, broke the long-standing tradition of secretaries of State avoiding partisan politics. A House oversight subcommittee is investigating to determine whether Pompeo’s RNC appearance broke the law.
“The State Department claimed that no federal resources were used, but he is in the Middle East on the government dime,” Sherman said.
The Trump campaign did not return a request for comment on who covered the expenses of Pompeo's speech or film crews used to record events.
On Wednesday, when asked about the controversy, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who has been accused of violating the Hatch Act multiple times by CREW, told Politico reporters in a virtual interview that concerns were overblown.
“He made it very clear he was talking in his personal capacity, used no federal assets to do that,” Meadows said of Pompeo. Meadows added that he did not think people outside of Washington are worried about the mixing of partisan politics and official federal duties.
“Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares,” he said.