Nov 9, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Trump's taxpayer-funded political machine

A Trump-Pence campaign sign on the White House south lawn during the 2020 Republican National Convention.
Onlookers at the White House before President Trump spoke on the fourth and final night of the Republican National Convention. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Donald Trump and senior members of his administration turned the federal government into a sprawling, taxpayer-funded political machine in violation of U.S. law, a top watchdog says.

Why it matters: The Trump administration's flagrant disregard for checks on government-backed politicking dealt significant damage to federal ethics safeguards, the Office of Special Counsel warned in a report released Tuesday.

  • OSC's inability to effectively prosecute those violations — and its reliance on the very officials who allegedly permitted those violations — expose glaring weaknesses in federal ethics safeguards, experts say.
  • The office says significant reforms are needed to ensure the Trump administration's conduct is "an anomaly, not a precedent."

The big picture: OSC's report details "a taxpayer-funded campaign apparatus within the upper echelons of the executive branch."

  • At least 13 Trump officials, including multiple Cabinet-level officers, violated the Hatch Act, which bars the use of taxpayer resources for partisan politicking, OSC wrote.
  • Most of the violations occurred during or surrounding the 2020 Republican National Convention, which was held in large part on White House grounds.
  • The report singles out officials including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for particularly egregious offenses.
  • "The cumulative effect of these repeated and public violations was to undermine public confidence in the nonpartisan operation of government," OSC wrote.

Between the lines: OSC is the office charged with enforcing the Hatch Act, but it has no power to prosecute violations. Instead, it relies on the president to sanction officials under his purview when violations occur.

  • Trump had no interest in doing so, and in fact, actively encouraged his staff to violate federal law, OSC charged.
  • Violations by Pompeo and Wolf in particular "reflect the Trump administration’s willingness to manipulate government business for partisan political ends."

Trump himself was dismissive of the Hatch Act, which restricts political activity by federal employees but does not bind the president or vice president. His top aides were likewise blasé about the law.

  • After OSC recommended the removal of former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway over Hatch Act violations, a reporter asked her about the office's findings. "Blah, blah, blah," she said. "Let me know when the jail sentence starts."
  • Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows dismissed Hatch Act concerns because “nobody outside of the Beltway really cares” about the law.

What's next: OSC is asking Congress to step up the office's prosecutorial authority.

  • It wants the ability to levy "substantial" fines against Hatch Act violators to dissuade future offenses.
  • Due to a lack of "good faith cooperation" from the Trump administration during its investigation, OSC also proposes new subpoena powers.
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