Trump turns White House into backdrop for political events

President TrumpDonald John TrumpLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Pence: Chief Justice Roberts 'has been a disappointment to conservatives' Twitter bans Trump campaign until it deletes tweet with COVID-19 misinformation MORE walked onto the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday to applause from supporters as he prepared to tout his efforts to roll back regulations.

He was flanked on one side by a blue truck weighed down by “years of regulatory burden” and on the other by a red truck that had an empty bed to illustrate “regulatory freedom.” Overhead, an industrial sized crane had the words “Trump administration” printed in clear view.

The president proceeded to give a speech that offered no new policy announcements but was heavy on attacks on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP chairmen hit back at accusation they are spreading disinformation with Biden probe Trump outraises Biden in July, surpasses billion for the cycle Duckworth: Republican coronavirus package would 'gut' Americans With Disabilities Act MORE and his platform.

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The event was the latest example of how Trump has turned the White House into his preferred campaign backdrop for overtly political events as the coronavirus pandemic makes his trademark rallies impractical.

In the process, Trump is breaking with decades of practice by past presidents.

“To me what happened is he can’t go out to do the muck and mire politics that he does so well and that obviously his base loves, and so he’s brought the muck and mire into the Rose Garden,” said Barbara Perry, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. 

The White House sees the events as an opportunity for Trump to contrast his agenda with that of Biden as the 2020 election draws nearer. 

The event with the crane wasn’t Trump’s only political event at the White House this week.

On Tuesday, the White House announced a press conference that turned into an announcement on U.S. policy toward Hong Kong.

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It then morphed into a myriad of attacks on Biden, who is leading Trump nationally and in swing state polls. Republicans were among those criticizing the president on substance and political strategy.

Karl RoveKarl Christian RoveThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Gohmert tests positive; safety fears escalate on Capitol Hill Trump turns White House into backdrop for political events The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Justices rule Manhattan prosecutor, but not Congress, can have Trump tax records MORE, former chief of staff to former President George W. Bush, argued on Fox News that Trump should have delivered more focused remarks on China and Hong Kong and spent less time attacking his Democratic opponent. 

“Rule No. 1 if you’re an incumbent president running for reelection. Your most powerful presence is as the president of the United States,” Rove said Wednesday. 

“You have the biggest megaphone, the biggest platform and you have the greatest ability to control the quality and content and direction of your message if you act in that way. Don’t use presidential events as campaign events, try and turn campaign events into presidential events,” said Rove, who has been informally advising the Trump campaign.

Alex Conant, a GOP strategist and former spokesman in Bush’s White House, echoed those criticisms in an interview.  

“One of the advantages that a president running for reelection has is the trappings of the White House,” Conant said. “You don’t need to be overtly political to score political points when you are in the Rose Garden.” 

In addition to the Rose Garden speech, Trump went after Biden during an event this week in the East Room highlighting positive actions by law enforcement. His prepared remarks during the deregulation event on the South Lawn amounted to a campaign-rally style diatribe that warned Biden’s platform threatened “our entire economy and our very way of life.”

The White House has brushed off criticism of Trump’s use of White House backdrops for politically charged remarks.

“I don’t see anything inappropriate with the comments the president has made,” chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsNegotiators remain far apart on coronavirus deal as deadline looms Trump dismisses legal questions on GOP nomination speech at White House Overnight Defense: Esper says 'most believe' Beirut explosion was accident, contradicting Trump | Trump later says 'nobody knows yet' what happened in Lebanon | 61-year-old reservist ID'd as fourth military COVID-19 death MORE told reporters this week, arguing Trump was highlighting substantive policy differences with Biden.

Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany bristled at a question about one of Trump’s anti-Biden screeds, telling a reporter “your real problem was the fact that the president gave a very good, powerful speech from the Rose Garden.”

McEnany was quick to point out that the Hatch Act, which prohibits White House staffers from engaging in partisan political activities, does not apply to the president or vice president.

But experts say compliance with the Hatch Act is not the issue with Trump’s recent events. Instead, they argue Trump is using taxpayer dollars to fund attacks on his presumptive opponent and is flouting decades of precedent in how past presidents have drawn the line between governing and campaigning.

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“I think what has been demonstrated is that as the president continues to feel more and more vulnerable politically and electorally, he and his staff are stepping up their abuses of federal ethics laws to help pump up his poll numbers,” said Donald Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that has repeatedly criticized the Trump administration.

The Rose Garden in particular has traditionally been used by presidents to host foreign leaders, welcome championship sports teams, pardon turkeys and deliver major addresses. But Trump has been more brazen, using it to tout his accomplishments and veer off script.

“At least in practice, presidents are much more restrained in the White House setting,” said Julian Zelizer, a political history professor at Princeton University. “You try to create some kind of sense of separation between governing and campaigning and obviously everything any president says is intensely political, especially in an election year. But there is still an effort to separate them.”

“President Trump just lowers any kind of restraint and barrier and goes all out into campaigning and I think that’s what people react to,” Zelizer added. 

Trump has flouted ethics norms dating back to when he was campaigning for office in 2016 and declined to put his business interests in a blind trust. He regularly promotes books of allies on Twitter, travels to his own properties on the weekends and this week sparked fresh controversy by posing for a photo with Goya products after the company’s CEO, a Trump supporter, drew criticism for his support of Trump.

The president has shown no indication he intends to let up on using White House events to push his 2020 campaign messaging.

“So I want to thank everybody,” Trump said after speaking for more than an hour, “and we'll be having these conferences again.”