Symposium | Trump Vs. Democracy

Electioneering at the White House

By Karen Finney

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The Hatch Act was created to protect America and our democracy from Donald J. Trump’s special brand of corruption and reckless disregard for truth, the law, and democratic values. The Hatch Act is meant to protect the line between the official and the political, safeguarding the official duties of governing from partisan political influence, including election interference, and ensuring that our tax dollars are used to benefit all Americans regardless of who they voted for, as well as to protect career federal employees from political coercion. All of which is at the heart of a strong democracy, free from corruption.

While the recent Republican Party convention showcased egregious violations of the Hatch Act, it was by no means the Administration’s first such offense. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which investigates and oversees the enforcement of the Hatch Act, has said that over a dozen senior Trump Administration officials had violated the act even prior to the RNC. In the case of former Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, the abuses were so severe the OSC went so far as to recommend she be fired. She was not, and the abuses continued, devolving into the spectacle we saw throughout the week of the Republican convention, most dramatically on the South Lawn of the White House. Obliterating the line between the political campaign and the official office of the presidency, which is meant to serve all the people, not just the ones who voted for the sitting President, Trump declared that it was okay to hold parts of his convention at the people’s house, a symbol of our democracy, because “We’re here and they’re not.”

The White House and the 18 acres around it are a national park maintained by non-political employees of the National Park Service. The house is a living museum run by non-political permanent residence staff including a White House curator, electricians, maintenance workers, cleaning staff, butlers, and ushers. While the President and vice president are exempt from the Hatch Act, executive branch employees (political and non-political) they may have directed to work on the RNC events are not. Consider the legal and ethical implications. The Hatch Act is in part meant to protect non-political staff from being forced or coerced by political appointees to engage in political activity, or work in support of a partisan political event for a political party.

The White House is a symbol of our democracy and history that includes the slaves who built it, the presidents, first ladies, and their families who have lived there, heroes who have been honored there, visits from leaders like President Nelson Mandela, and moments like the signing of peace accords and critical legislation. This was the backdrop Trump chose to defile with political banners and speeches, completely destroying any semblance of a separation of official and political, using the trappings of the presidency to influence the 2020 election. All of which could have been easily avoided—even in the COVID pandemic—by simply using the Ronald Reagan building instead, where many of the convention speeches were held.

The RNC illustrated that far beyond blurring the lines of the official and the political, Trump is a personalistic, not a democratic, leader. Images from the White House were carefully crafted to suggest that Trump himself is the source of power, not our laws or our Constitution, founded on the very idea that the presidency is bigger than one person.

Of the many Hatch Act violations during the RNC the most egregious came in the form of a video broadcast during the convention that was created by Lynne Patton, a Trump appointee overseeing Region II (New York and New Jersey) of the Housing and Urban Development Department. Patton exploited her official position to gain access to, and set up interviews with, public housing residents in what three of the four people believed was an official meeting. Instead they were lied to. The meeting wasn’t designed to have an official listening to their concerns about needed changes in public housing. Instead, the four hours of interviews were turned into a partisan political video used to attack New York’s Democratic mayor and praise Trump. These same three people featured in the video are falsely represented as Trump supporters. It’s unknown at this point if the residents’ actual concerns will ever be addressed. American taxpayers paid Patton to lie and conduct partisan business instead of her official job. The Hatch Act forbids the use of an official title when engaged in political activity or use of official conduct to affect an election. Not only is the creation of the video a violation of the Hatch Act, it is a violation of the public trust that further erodes trust in our democratic system of government.

While some dismiss the relevance of the Hatch Act, research I have recently been a part of indicates that Trump’s disregard for laws and norms meant to safeguard our values as laid out in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence contribute to many of the concerns former Trump voters raise about his ability to govern effectively. In one instance, a one-time Trump supporter decried Trump’s Hatch Act violations as going against her basic sense of right and wrong.

As a young Black staffer in the Clinton Administration, every day I arrived at the White House, I felt a deep sense of responsibility and service not only to the President and First Lady I served, but to the American people and to the ancestors who built it. As the Democratic National Committee’s communications director more than ten years later, it would never have occurred to me to use our political convention in a manner that so clearly violated these laws. Traditionally, great pains are taken in the planning of conventions to ensure that no one is at risk of violating the Hatch Act.

These abuses also come as America is at a historic inflection point of racial reckoning, again grappling with the ways our country hasn’t lived up to the beliefs and values it was founded on. We the people have the right and the imperative to push our leaders to do the work of moving us closer to those ideals and repairing these breaches, instead of allowing us to be pushed farther away from them

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Karen Finney is a democratic strategist, political commentator, and independent consultant specializing in crisis communications, communication strategy, public affairs, and polling. She is currently a Terker Fellow at George Washington’s School of Media and Public Affairs, and serves on the boards of several non-profit organizations focusing on social justice, protecting our democracy, and empowerment of Black women.

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