A familiar ploy: Cabinet secretaries sent to 2020 battlegrounds

In 2006, Karl Rove dispatched cabinet secretaries to battlegrounds as part of a dubious campaign ploy. In 2020, Team Trump seems to be doing the same thing
Image: U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Azar at the White House
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaks with members of the press at the White House on June 24, 2019.Erin Scott / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

As the nation's secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar has probably been quite busy in recent months. Indeed, by some accounts, the cabinet secretary has helped lead the White House's coronavirus taskforce, which has likely dominated Azar's schedule.

But as Politico reported last week, the HHS secretary has apparently also made time to get out of the nation's capital, visiting hospitals, announcing federal grants, and sharing the White House's message about Donald Trump's successes. Of particular interest is where Azar has gone.

Since late April, HHS Secretary Alex Azar has made 11 trips to states -- including nine to key battlegrounds in the 2020 campaign: Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Maine and North Carolina, as well as two trips apiece to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. One of the other two trips was a visit to Buffalo, N.Y., the hometown of a top aide who recently joined the department at Trump’s request and personally arranged Azar’s visit to the city. The other was to Boston, the media market for yet another battleground state, New Hampshire.

The article added that some of Azar’s trips "were conducted jointly with the White House or closely scheduled, like Azar’s visit to Wisconsin health facilities last week that preceded Trump’s visit to the swing state the next day."

The Health and Human Services secretary isn't alone. The Associated Press reported over the weekend that much of the president's cabinet has hit the road, heading to states expected to be competitive in the fall.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue tromped through a strawberry festival in central Florida, detailing the government’s new trade pact. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked about foreign policy at a roundtable in south Florida. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler toured parts of Michigan and Wisconsin, where he boasted of the Trump administration’s efforts to clean up the Great Lakes.

The AP report added that as cabinet secretaries push a pro-Trump line in pivotal states, "there are questions about whether these agency heads are running afoul of a law meant to bar overt campaigning by federal officials on the taxpayer tab."

Quite right. It's not unusual for cabinet secretaries to travel on official business, but it is unusual for a White House to use cabinet secretaries as pawns on an electoral chessboard, dispatching them to specific battleground states during a campaign season.

The AP found that cabinet-level officials have visited Florida, for example, more than 30 times in the last six months. The article added, "Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona have also seen visits from agency and administration chiefs discussing federal funding and initiatives for local interests -- and talking up Trump."

If this sounds at all familiar, it's because we saw an eerily similar dynamic in the Bush/Cheney era. Ahead of the 2006 midterm elections, Karl Rove's Office of Political Affairs hatched an electoral scheme that included, among other things, sending cabinet officials to specific states in the hopes of helping give Republican candidates a boost.

The Office of Special Counsel launched a lengthy investigation and determined that Rove's gambit misused public funds and ran afoul of federal ethics laws.

Is Team Trump's scheme equally flawed? There are experts who can speak to this with more authority than I can, though the AP quoted Donald K. Sherman, deputy director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington watchdog group, who said, “It’s obvious that the administration is doing this for a political reason. What’s not obvious is if they’re doing this within the contours of the law or outside of it.”

Complicating matters is whether it would matter if the White House were ignoring federal ethics laws or not. At issue is the Hatch Act, which exists to prohibit federal officials from engaging in certain political activities.

It is, however, an ethics law Team Trump has said it does not care to follow.