White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows told Politico on Wednesday that "nobody outside of the Beltway really cares" whether administration officials acted unlawfully during events used for the Republican National Convention, dismissing concerns about possible violations of the Hatch Act as "a lot of hoopla."
"Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares. They expect that Donald Trump is going to promote Republican values — and they would expect that Barack Obama — when he was in office, that he would do the same for Democrats," Meadows said. "So listen, this is a lot of hoopla that's being made about things, mainly because the convention has been so unbelievably successful."
Video of President Donald Trump carrying out official duties in the White House was featured during the Republican National Convention, prompting allegations that individuals who participated in the events violated the Hatch Act, a 1939 federal law intended to limit government employees from becoming an arm of a political campaign.
The second night of the convention included two pre-taped scenes from the White House, presented as part of the event's programming: an official presidential pardon, and a naturalization ceremony for five new American citizens, featuring acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf administering the Oath of Allegiance. (A recent report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office found that Wolf was serving at the Department of Homeland Security in violation of federal law.)
"On behalf of everyone here today, I'd like to express my gratitude to you, Mr. President, for hosting this naturalization ceremony here at the White House," Wolf said.
The Hatch Act bars government officials from participating in political activity in their official capacity. To date, Trump administration officials have been cited more than a dozen times for violating the law.
"What it's really designed to do is to make sure people like myself and others do not use their political position to try to convince other employees — other federal employees — that they need to vote one way, need to register one way or need to campaign in one way," Meadows said. "We take it on well beyond the original intent of the Hatch Act."
A White House official told The Washington Post that the video was fair game, because the naturalization ceremony was part of the president's official schedule and had been posted to a public website.
"The campaign decided to use the publicly available content for campaign purposes," the official said. "There was no violation of law."
The White House "publicized the content of the event on a public website this afternoon and the campaign decided to use the publically [sic] available content for campaign purposes," an administration official told The Wall Street Journal.
However, the White House press corps was not told about the naturalization ceremony, and it was not previously listed on Trump's public schedule.
Former White House lawyer in the Obama administration Daniel Jacobson tweeted, "As a lawyer who used to enforce the Hatch Act at the White House, this is absolutely not how it works. If they filmed it knowing and intending that it would be used at the convention (which they obviously did), it violates the law."
"The Hatch Act makes it illegal for a federal official to, among other things, 'use his official authority or influence for the purpose of ... affecting the result of an election.' 5 USC 7323(a)(1)," Jacobson added. "Note the phrase 'for the purpose of.'"
"This is so obviously, blatantly, insultingly a Hatch Act violation that it's starting to seem like the Trump administration is going out of its way to find new ways to violate the law," a spokesperson for the government ethics watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington told The Washington Post. "We'll be filing a complaint."
While the Hatch Act by and large does not apply to the president, it does extend to executive branch employees.
For example, the military personnel who open the door for Trump in the naturalization ceremony video are in full uniform and on duty in the White House. Wolf executed the ceremony in his official capacity as acting secretary.
A Department of Defense policy written in compliance with the Hatch Act says that "military service members and federal employees acting in their official capacity may not engage in activities that associate the DOD with any partisan political campaign or elections, candidate, cause or issue."
It was not immediately clear whether Wolf or the soldiers in the video were aware that the event would later be used at the convention.
"You followed the rules," Trump told the five new U.S. citizens in the video. "You obeyed the laws."
However, Trump has apparently only publicly participated in one other recorded naturalization ceremony. It took place at the White House on Jan. 19, 2019, as his presidential approval ratings tanked amid the government shutdown he triggered during negotiations to fund construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — a cornerstone campaign promise.
In an Aug. 17 Washington Post op-ed, Miles Taylor, former DHS chief of staff under Kirstjen Nielsen, alleged that Trump had essentially ran his presidency as if it were inextricable from the campaign.
"The president has tried to turn DHS, the nation's largest law enforcement agency, into a tool used for his political benefit," Taylor wrote. "He insisted on a near-total focus on issues that he said were central to his reelection — in particular building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico."
On Tuesday, Trump officially nominated Wolf, in a tweet around noon, to become the permanent secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. The naturalization ceremony over which Wolf presided was filmed that same afternoon.
In a statement earlier Tuesday, White House spokesman Judd Deere said that "RNC Convention events will be planned and executed, at whatever the venue, by the Trump Campaign and RNC. Any government employees who may participate will do so in compliance with the Hatch Act."
Other RNC events which have raised questions about Hatch Act violations include a video of the president issuing a pardon, Melania Trump's speech from the White House lawn and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Tuesday night endorsement, which was filmed in Israel while Pompeo was on official state business.