Multiple White House staffers reprimanded for violating the Hatch Act: report

Promoting Trump from official Twitter channels? That's a no-no, the Office of Special Counsel says

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published November 30, 2018 7:55PM (EST)

A federal oversight agency issued a press release today announcing that six White House employees had been scolded by investigators for violating the Hatch Act. Specifically, the federal employees in question were using official Twitter channels to promote or support President Trump.

The reprimanded employees all deleted the posts which were in violation, according to Office of Special Counsel Deputy Chief Erica S. Hamrick, who penned the press release. "Although we have concluded that these six EOP employees violated the Hatch Act, we have decided not to pursue disciplinary action and are closing their files without further action," Hamrick wrote. "They all have been advised that if in the future they engage in prohibited political activity while employed in a position covered by the Hatch Act, we will consider such activity to be a willful and knowing violation of the law, which could result in further action."

The act in question, The Hatch Act, was designed to insert a firewall between public employees and political campaigning. While public employees of course hold political opinions and can be politically involved as all normal citizens do, promoting (or decrying) a candidate or party while on-the-job poses an ethical quandary, as well as a clear conflict of interest — as such actions place a patina of governmental officiousness atop of a candidate.

The Hatch Act has been in headlines more frequently since Trump’s inauguration, perhaps because many members of Trump’s staff (and Trump himself) have never worked in government before, and thus may be unfamiliar with the legal nuances of being a federal employee. Previously, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway had been reprimanded for twice violating the Hatch Act, though she suffered no political or career consequences.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the permanent government oversight agency which investigated the officials, noted the specific tweets that had violated the Hatch Act, and gave each officials' name and posted the tweets in question. The officials who were issued warning letters include Madeleine Westerhout, Executive Assistant to the President; Alyssa Farah, Press Secretary for the Vice President; Jacob Wood, Deputy Communications Director for the Office of Management and Budget; Raj Shah, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary; Jessica Ditto, White House Deputy Director of Communications; and Helen Aguirre Ferré, previously Special Assistant to the President and Director of Media Affairs.

The violations generally involved instances where the aforementioned employees tweeted messages that included campaign slogans like "Make America Great Again" or its shorthand "MAGA", or in one case, complimented a report from the Republican National Committee.

The OSC simultaneously issued a brief on the types of social media posts that would constitute a violation of the Hatch Act. “Because of President Trump’s status as a candidate, OSC advised employees that, while on duty or in the federal workplace, they may not engage in activity directed toward the success or failure of President Trump’s reelection campaign,” the OSC wrote. “So, while on duty or in a federal workplace, employees are prohibited from wearing, displaying, or distributing items from President Trump’s 2016 or 2020 campaigns, like ‘Make America Great Again,’ ‘#MAGA,’ or, in the alternative, items directed at the failure of President Trump’s reelection campaign, such as those containing the slogan ‘#ResistTrump.’”

The latter brief is worth reading in full, as the nuances of the Hatch Act are intriguing; for instance, “Criticism or praise that is directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group is political activity,” and therefore violates the Hatch Act; however, “Absent evidence that the criticism or praise is so directed, criticism or praise of an administration’s policies and actions is not considered political activity,” the brief adds.

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a senior editor at Salon who edits Salon's science/health vertical. His book, "A People's History of Silicon Valley: How the Tech Industry Exploits Workers, Erodes Privacy and Undermines Democracy," was released in 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @keithspencer, or on Facebook here.

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