Trump officials blur lines on campaigning, governing
Multiple Trump administration officials have turned into surrogates for the president’s reelection campaign this week, further muddying the distinction between government work and politicking in a White House that has pushed those boundaries for four years.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has appeared on TV multiple times this week as a “Trump 2020 campaign adviser.” Senior White House adviser Stephen Miller and chairman of the National Economic Council Larry Kudlow both phoned into Trump campaign calls to tout Trump’s agenda on immigration and the economy, respectively, saying they were acting in their personal capacity.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien this week visited Wisconsin and Minnesota, two battleground states that Trump is spending significant resources targeting and could be critical to his reelection.
“Both the official activity of Administration officials, as well as any political activity undertaken by members of the Administration, are conducted in compliance with the Hatch Act,” deputy White House press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement.
Experts say government employees have a right to political speech and that past administrations have also had officials toe the line between governing and campaigning, especially in the final stretch of the campaign season.
But the Trump administration has gone much farther than any other in shattering traditions that have previously kept governing separate from campaigning, and done so in a blatant manner, they said.
“Traditionally, a lot of officials in administrations would do this subtly,” said Julian Zelizer, political history professor at Princeton University. “There was some kind of thin firewall that was used.”
“It’s just the Trump administration is just not at all about resisting totally politicizing everything. There is no subtlety in terms of what is happening,” Zelizer added.
In August, Trump delivered his Republican National Convention speech on the White House grounds. He has regularly given politically-charged remarks from the briefing room or Rose Garden, often turning official events into attacks on Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s record.
Multiple administration officials have been accused of violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits White House staff from engaging in campaign activity in their official government roles. And the president on Friday floated the idea of holding his election night party at the White House.
“It breaks some pretty fundamental norms of a separation of governments from campaigns. We are not used to seeing the American government using its own power to keep itself in power,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
The developments also underscore the degree to which Trump is relying on his officials to boost his election prospects.
Trump’s daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, has been on the campaign trail for several days now, tweeting from her personal account about stops in Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan as she seeks to boost her father’s standing among women voters in particular.
Perhaps no White House official has blurred the lines between campaign and government roles like press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Prior to serving in the White House, she worked as the national press secretary for the Trump campaign.
She appeared multiple times this week on Fox networks from Trump campaign headquarters under the title “Trump 2020 campaign adviser,” and she openly attacked Biden’s policies and commented on protocols at Trump rallies.
The president called McEnany on stage to speak at an Arizona rally last week. During a campaign rally on Thursday in Florida, Trump played a video of McEnany’s appearance on Fox News criticizing social media executives for their actions to suppress tweets sharing a New York Post story about Hunter Biden and describing the election as a choice between Biden’s “lock down” and Trump’s plan to “safely reopen this country.”
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday, McEnany reverted back to her press secretary role, telling reporters to ask the campaign for details on whether Trump planned to put his own money into his reelection bid.
The White House said McEnany “was appearing in her personal capacity as a private citizen.” A campaign official said McEnany appears “on a volunteer basis” for the reelection effort and that the shows have been instructed not to refer to her with her White House title in those situations.
The White House offered a similar explanation for why Miller and Kudlow, two of Trump’s top advisers, were appearing on Trump campaign calls with the press this week.
Other administration officials have been using official business and official channels to make the case for Trump’s reelection or visit areas that are key to his electoral college path.
O’Brien traveled to Minnesota and Wisconsin in recent days to tour a mining facility and a shipyard, respectively. Trump and Vice President Pence have campaigned aggressively in both states, but the National Security Council maintained O’Brien’s visits were intended to assess the country’s defense capabilities and supply chains.
“The important work of protecting our national security continues regardless of domestic political events, and often that involves leaving the White House to visit with the skilled workers and leaders who deliver top quality products that help our servicemen and women keep our country safe,” NSC spokesman John Ullyot said.
Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, used an event in Texas on Thursday meant to highlight progress on border wall construction to openly advocate for Trump’s policies.
“As a direct result of this president and this administration — this is not a political statement, this is just a matter of fact — we have a stronger relationship with the government of Mexico and our partner countries in the Northern Triangle country than we ever have before.”
Morgan, without naming Biden, went on to warn that a platform that supports sanctuary cities and other protections for immigrants in the country illegally “will drive an illegal invasion.”
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler made stops this week in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, all states Trump can ill afford to lose next week but where polls show a close race.
David Bernhardt, secretary of the Interior, tweeted out a video from his official government account this week touting Trump’s accomplishments and praising the administration’s “historic feats for conservation.”
When a former Obama administration staffer decried the tweet as a “propaganda video created with your tax dollars meant to bolster the President’s chances of being re-elected,” Bernhardt’s press secretary fired back.
“Our tweets are approved by career ethics attorneys and thankfully no longer overseen by you,” the agency’s press secretary tweeted.
William Howell, a political scientist and professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, said that the Trump administration officials’ behavior over the past week was not especially surprising given the way officials have pushed boundaries in the past. He also said it was not particularly unusual for government officials to engage in some degree of political activity in their personal capacity.
“In the constellation of examples of norm-breaking under this president, this doesn’t strike me as especially egregious,” Howell said.
But Howell argued that it underscored the degree to which Trump has needed to lean on government officials in the absence of a deeper pool of surrogates to rely on outside government.
“I don’t remember close advisers standing up on public stages with Obama in 2012, but I also don’t think he needed them there,” Howell said.