Team Trump eyes dubious Iowa road trip for caucus members

The Trump campaign is dispatching multiple cabinet secretaries to Iowa. That may not be entirely kosher under federal ethics laws.
Image: U.S. President Trump holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses members of his cabinet and the news media as he holds a cabinet meeting at the White House in Washington, U.S., August 16, 2018. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
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By Steve Benen

There are only a handful of states that shifted from Bush to Obama to Trump, but Iowa is one of them. And as Democratic presidential hopefuls blanket the state, many of the top contenders aren't just hoping to win next week's caucuses, they're also hoping to lay a foundation that will help swing the Hawkeye State in a bluer direction this fall.

It's why Donald Trump's re-election operation is also making early efforts in the state. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday:

For the Feb. 3 caucuses, the Trump campaign is planning an ambitious show of force around the state, with over 80 surrogates expected to campaign at caucus locations. The push will be led by campaign manager Brad Parscale, the president's sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, as well as Eric Trump's wife Lara Trump, who works for the campaign and Donald Trump Jr.'s girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, also a campaign adviser.

The group heading to Iowa includes White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and a number of cabinet members, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. Also attending are members of Congress, among them House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) , Rep. Elise Stefanik, (R., N.Y.) and Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), as well as Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and governors from surrounding states.

Parscale told the newspaper, "Our Caucus Day operation is just a preview of what is to come."

Time will tell whether the chest-thumping boasts amount to anything, and whether dispatching a small army of Trump surrogates to Iowa -- to do what, I'm not sure -- will make an electoral difference.

What I'm curious about, though, is the legality of the plan -- because I seem to recall a similar effort from the recent past that did not fare well under scrutiny.

Remember these findings from nine years ago?

At least seven Cabinet secretaries to President George W. Bush took politically motivated trips at taxpayer expense while aides falsely claimed they were traveling on official business, the independent Office of Special Counsel said Monday night in concluding a three-year probe.

In a report on allegations that first surfaced before Bush left office, the agency condemned what it depicted as widespread violations of a law restricting political activities by federal workers and illegal use of federal funds to engage in electioneering.

At issue is something called the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal officials from using their office to influence the electoral process

It's an ethics law Trump and his team ought to be familiar with -- because prominent members of the president's administration have been caught ignoring it.

The question is whether Team Trump dispatching cabinet secretaries to campaign events, as the Bush/Cheney White House did, is also at odds with the law. The details, of course, matter, and it's not yet obvious whether the cabinet secretaries are traveling to Iowa on the taxpayers' dime or whether the Trump campaign is picking up the tab.

But it's not the only relevant variable. In an April 2016 media interview, then-HUD Secretary Julian Castro acknowledged his support for Hillary Clinton's candidacy, making clear that he was speaking in his personal capacity, not as an administration official. The Office of Special Counsel said the distinction didn't matter: Castro ran afoul of the Hatch Act simply by publicly advocating in support of a candidate for public office while serving in the president's cabinet.

When Secretaries Ross, Azar, DeVos, and Carson arrive in Iowa as part of a Trump campaign operation, are we to believe they'll be there in a politically neutral capacity?

MORE: Today's Maddowblog