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Office of Special Counsel: Team Trump repeatedly ignored ethics law

Walls are supposed to exist between official and political duties. Team Trump obliterated those walls. So what happens now that they've been caught?

Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's speech at the Republican National Convention last year was filled with bizarre and demonstrably false claims, but the fact that it occurred at all was extraordinary.

As we discussed at the time, federal ethics laws were supposed to prevent the secretary from using his position — during a foreign diplomatic trip, no less — for partisan political purposes. Pompeo is supposed to be the chief diplomat of the United States, representing all of us in international affairs, not a GOP operative working on Donald Trump's re-election bid.

Indeed, Pompeo personally approved a State Department policy months earlier that told the agency's workforce, "Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event." He then proceeded to ignore his own policy, while simultaneously ignoring federal ethics laws and modern American norms.

The same week, the Republican National Convention turned an official naturalization ceremony into a partisan stunt, effectively allowing the then-president to play the role of a game-show host handing out a cherished prize. (Some of the new citizens were put on display at a political convention without their consent.) This, too, seemed obviously illegal.

As it turns out, the Office of Special Counsel, which is responsible for investigating Hatch Act violations, came to the same conclusion. The New York Times reported:

Thirteen of President Donald J. Trump's most senior aides — including his son-in-law and his chief of staff — campaigned illegally for Mr. Trump's re-election in violation of a law designed to prevent federal employees from abusing the power of their offices on behalf of candidates, a government watchdog agency said Tuesday. Henry Kerner, who heads the Office of Special Counsel, made the assertion in a withering report that followed a nearly yearlong investigation into "myriad" violations of the law, known as the Hatch Act.

In a 63-page report, the Office of Special Counsel concluded, "Senior Trump administration officials chose to use their official authority not for the legitimate functions of the government, but to promote the re-election of President Trump in violation of the law."

Richard Painter, who served as the chief White House ethics lawyer in the Bush/Cheney White House, described Team Trump's transgressions as "disgusting" and "unprecedented in the history of the Hatch Act." Painter added that the entire Trump administration, at the most senior levels, was "devoted to illegally using federal offices to promote the president's political campaign."

While scandals surrounding Donald Trump and his aides are hardly new, what's striking about these controversies is the degree to which the former president's operation broke the rules knowingly and shamelessly, confident that there would be no consequences.

The rules exist for a reason: The idea of taxpayer-funded political operations is at odds with the basic principles of good government. It's why walls are supposed to exist between official and political duties — walls that have existed for decades to prevent abuses in administrations from both parties.

Between 2017 and 2020, those walls were simply obliterated. Members of Team Trump decided that rules and limits just didn't apply to them.

The obvious question, of course, is what will happen now that these violations have been exposed, scrutinized, and documented. The answer is, nothing.

A Washington Post report noted, "No punishment is expected to be assessed because, by most legal interpretations, the president in office at the time is the only person who can take action to fire or reprimand his political appointees when they act illegally."

In other words, it was up to Trump to enforce the ethics law and impose limits on his own team. He didn't care; his staff admitted they didn't care; and so the ethics law was ignored and repeatedly violated.

The only real incentive to honor the Hatch Act is to avoid headlines about the White House having "turned the federal government into a sprawling, taxpayer-funded political machine in violation of U.S. law."

Evidently, that incentive isn't enough.