Today, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) issued a report outlining the investigative findings of its career Hatch Act Unit staff in response to Hatch Act complaints filed with OSC regarding senior Trump administration officials’ participation in the 2020 Republican National Convention (RNC) and their political activities leading up to the presidential election.
On August 25, 2020, President Trump and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf presided over a naturalization ceremony in the Cross Hall of the White House. Footage of that ceremony was then broadcast that evening as part of the RNC. The evidence that OSC gathered shows that this official U.S. government event was scheduled and conducted for the purpose of producing content to be used at the RNC. Although Acting Secretary Wolf was the person about whom OSC received complaints, the evidence shows that other officials at both DHS and within the Trump White House were instrumental in orchestrating the ceremony for the RNC. However, due to enforcement challenges, OSC was unable to identify which specific DHS and White House employees were most culpable. Accordingly, while OSC concluded that Acting Secretary Wolf violated the Hatch Act, others likely violated the law as well.
The Hatch Act prohibits government officials from holding purportedly official events for the purpose of promoting a candidate for partisan political office. With respect to the naturalization ceremony, the evidence shows that the ceremony was orchestrated to create content that would be shown during the RNC. The White House said as much to DHS, and a White House attorney directly involved said that only after Hatch Act concerns were raised was the ceremony “thereafter organized and executed as an official event.” OSC concludes that Acting Secretary Wolf violated the Hatch Act by presiding over a naturalization ceremony held for the purpose of creating content for the RNC.
Government functions cannot be scheduled, coordinated, or designed for the purpose of promoting a political party, campaign, or candidate for partisan political office. That the White House decided subsequently to classify the event as official, and thereby use even more government resources to stage an event intended for use as part of a political campaign, does not cure the Hatch Act problem. As of August 20, the White House and DHS understood that the August 25 ceremony was scheduled so that it could be featured as part of the RNC—i.e., to serve a partisan political purpose. Therefore, the Hatch Act prohibited federal employees from participating in the event in an official capacity.
OSC does not have direct evidence showing that Acting Secretary Wolf knew in advance that the White House intended to use the naturalization ceremony as content for the convention. And Acting Secretary Wolf claimed in a written statement to OSC that prior to the ceremony he “did not know whether video of the ceremony was going to be made publicly available or that it would be used at the Republican National Convention.” However, circumstantial evidence strongly supports the conclusion that he knew, or should have known, of its intended use by the White House. The ceremony was held on the second day of the RNC—a convention that Acting Secretary Wolf was himself scheduled to attend—and at the White House, which was the venue for the RNC. In addition, multiple senior DHS officials, including the GC, CoS, and senior agency ethics official, knew of the partisan political nature of the event as of Friday, August 21; OSC’s evidence indicates that at least one of them would have informed Acting Secretary Wolf of the White House’s intended purpose for scheduling and filming the naturalization ceremony during the RNC.
Furthermore, it is clear that the ceremony itself was problematic under the Hatch Act because this official event was orchestrated to be part of the RNC. And political appointees at both DHS and the White House moved ahead with the event despite being informed by a DHS career ethics attorney and OSC that doing so for the purpose of creating content for the RNC would violate the Hatch Act.