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Burying the Hatchet Act: Donald Trump’s Unconventional Convention

Conventions suggest norms, a set of accepted rules. Behaviour is agreed upon in advance. In the case of US political conventions, there is much cant and gaudy ceremony. Certain transgressions are simply not contemplated. But the Trump administration is freighted with transgression, deviation, and, in some cases, a whole set of new norms born in defiant violation.

With that pattern in mind, why stop at the Republican National Convention? Ethics experts are aghast. Commentators are up in arms at the behaviour of Trump officials who have gone into full electioneering mode. The distinction between office and party campaigner has been not so much blurred as obliterated. President Donald J. Trump, in keeping with his own extravagant reading of his office, was not campaigning as a candidate but as the President with the office at his disposal. The White House, in short, had been mobilised in an official capacity to assist in his re-election. Trump appointees had been enlisted in the effort. “You’d be forgiven,” mused Rebecca Ballhaus of the Wall Street Journal, “for thinking the Republican National Convention was being hosted at the White House.”

This sparked interest in a piece of legislation that would otherwise remain part of the obscure, corroding statuary of the Republic’s laws. “The Hatch Act was the wall standing between the government’s might and candidates,” tweeted former head of the US Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub. “Tonight a candidate tore down that wall and wielded power for his own campaign.”

The sum effect of the Hatch Act, which conditionally exempts the President and the Vice President, is to prohibit federal employees from participating in partisan political activity in their “official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.” Activities covered by this injunction include the official employment of the employee’s “official title while participating in political activity” while political activity is defined as “an activity directed towards the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group.”

At the Republican National Convention, such injunctions had become baubles to be ignored. There was his pardon of Jon Ponder, convicted for bank robbery. There was Trump’s departure from convention in giving his acceptance speech at the South Lawn of the White House, a point that commentators tried to link to a legal breach. “It is legal,” Trump had foreshadowed with scorn. “There is no Hatch Act because it doesn’t pertain to the president.”

What mattered more were those employees the Hatch Act is supposedly designed to bar from such displays of partisanship. There was US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spouting hope and praise from Jerusalem and campaigning on what was a taxpayer-funded foreign trip. A nice touch to the whole proceedings was that in doing so, Pompeo was effectively negating the very memo he had signed off on: that Senate-confirmed officials are barred from appearing at political party conventions or convention-related events.

In doing so, he certainly delivered a roguish cat amongst the pigeons. Former foreign policy adviser in the Obama administration Lauren Baer imaginatively concluded that this would somehow impair “the ability to conduct diplomacy free from politics.” (Where has Baer been?) Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security was offended to “find the Secretary of State illegally deploying government resources, to use Jerusalem as a political prop to appeal to evangelicals.” A violation of protocol and law, but an act of mercenary political marketing.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, in presiding over the naturalization ceremony, was even more flagrantly in breach of the Hatch Act. The justification given to Ballhaus was that the White House “publicized the content of the event on a public website this afternoon and the campaign decided to use the publically available content for campaign purposes.”

Wolf’s presence was enough to see US House Representatives Raja Krishnamoorthi and Don Beyer dash off a note of concern to Henry J. Kerner of the US Office of Special Counsel. They requested an investigation, to be conducted by the Office of Special Counsel, on whether Wolf “and other senior members of the Trump Administration violated the Hatch Act on August 25, 2020 through using their positions, official resources, and the White House itself, to participate in the Republican National Convention.”

Kerner claims to be a fan of the Hatch Act, taking issue with arguments that it is obsolete, “the federal election law equivalent of the stagecoach.” Its principles, he argued in February this year in the Federal News Network, “are as important today as when the law first passed.” He also warned Trump last year about violations of the Act by the president’s counselor Kellyanne Conway. “Ms Conway has repeatedly violated the Hatch Act during her official media appearances by making statements directed at the success of your re-election campaign.” In recommending terminating her retainer, Kerner suggested that not punishing such breaches would “send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions.”

And so it came to pass. Conway poured scorn on the Act. “Let me know when the jail sentence starts.” The Trump administration, for its part, proceeded to quietly defang the Merits Systems Protection Board, the body responsible for policing the Hatchet Act and an agency of appeal for federal employees disciplined, demoted or fired.

The Office of Special Counsel was not ignorant about the convention logistics but decided to distribute a mild note of “general advice” that did “not purport to address every situation that could result from holding a political event at the White House.” The opinion also chose to ignore the provisions of the Hatch Act covering the president in barring him from compelling employees “to engage in … any political activity including … working … on behalf of any candidate.”

This was too much for Shaub. “It happened on Henry Kerner’s watch,” he fumed. “With ample advance warning, he chose not to use the bully pulpit of his office … to object to this travesty or arm the people with detailed information about what was prohibited.” But even he was gloomily impressed by what he considered Kerner’s devilry in attempting to deal with this mess: “he’s a fast-working fixer.”

The Hatch Act was being made to wither with each speech, yet another relic, yet another instrument to succumb to Trumpist vanity. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, in airing his thoughts to Politico on the subject, was brutally frank. The Hatch Act was there for the burying. “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.” There was much “hoopla” made about the convention only because it had “been so unbelievably successful.” To those who breach regulations, ethics and even the law, go the spoils.

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  1. New England Cocky

    Never let an honest election obstruct the re-election of the worst President in the history of the United States of Apartheid. Corporate America has never had it so good and wants to keep it that way.

  2. Matters Not

    Those who watch (and listen) to US media will know that the polls have moved in the last 24 hours. Normal that a Convention will give a boost but in this case it’s a little higher than usual with support for Trump up approx 4% (on average). Worse – the crucial ‘swing’ States are swinging. It certainly isn’t all over – but everyone ‘knew’ that didn’t they?

  3. Jack Cade


    Anybody naive enough to think the defeat of Trump would usher in an era of the USA living up to its self-image has been watching too many Hollywood films.

  4. Michael Taylor

    It will be interesting to see where Eric Trump’s woes with the SDNY head during the next week.

  5. guest


    You are a party spoiler. You have used the Hatch Act to put the hatchet to the Republican Party Convention.

    It must be very disappointing for Greg Sheridan, who has worked so hard to make Trump and fellow conventioners sound so brilliant.

    “Trump ain’t pretty, but he gets the job done.”
    “There is a flicker of encouragement in the polls for Trump.”

    But with a little criticism, just in case he might be accused of being biased.
    “Although I think it has been a more effective, and more rational, convention than the Democrats offered last week, it certainly had its clunky and questionable moments.”

    But Sheridan puts the boots in by using a favourite attack weapon: identity politics, which he sees as a characteristic of the Democrats, instead of “real politics”.

    It seems as if Sheridan is trying to convince himself as much as anyone – unless he is trying to convince Australian readers, even though they do not vote for trump.

  6. wam

    Trump has firmed from 12/10 to 11/10 MN
    There is no reason for Americans not to believe trump’s description of his presidency instead of the fake media’s assessmentor of an old democrat the image of trump just airboating all over the swamp conventions is powerful look at me I am doing what I said MAGA is real and I am doing it.”
    look at my accomplishments:
    Almost 4 million jobs created since election.
    More Americans are now employed than ever recorded before in our history.
    We have created more than 400,000 manufacturing jobs since my election.
    Manufacturing jobs growing at the fastest rate in more than THREE DECADES.
    Economic growth last quarter hit 4.2 percent.
    New unemployment claims recently hit a 49-year low.
    Median household income has hit highest level ever recorded.
    African-American unemployment has recently achieved the lowest rate ever recorded.
    Hispanic-American unemployment is at the lowest rate ever recorded.
    Asian-American unemployment recently achieved the lowest rate ever recorded.
    Women’s unemployment recently reached the lowest rate in 65 years.
    Youth unemployment has recently hit the lowest rate in nearly half a century.
    Lowest unemployment rate ever recorded for Americans without a high school diploma.
    Under my Administration, veterans’ unemployment recently reached its lowest rate in nearly 20 years.
    Almost 3.9 million Americans have been lifted off food stamps since the election.
    The Pledge to America’s Workers has resulted in employers committing to train more than 4 million Americans. We are committed to VOCATIONAL education.
    95 percent of U.S. manufacturers are optimistic about the future—the highest ever.
    Retail sales surged last month, up another 6 percent over last year.
    Signed the biggest package of tax cuts and reforms in history. After tax cuts, over $300 billion poured back in to the U.S. in the first quarter alone.
    As a result of our tax bill, small businesses will have the lowest top marginal tax rate in more than 80 years.
    Helped win U.S. bid for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
    Helped win U.S.-Mexico-Canada’s united bid for 2026 World Cup.
    Opened ANWR and approved Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines.
    Record number of regulations eliminated.
    Enacted regulatory relief for community banks and credit unions.
    Obamacare individual mandate penalty GONE.
    My Administration is providing more affordable healthcare options for Americans through association health plans and short-term duration plans.
    Last month, the FDA approved more affordable generic drugs than ever before in history. And thanks to our efforts, many drug companies are freezing or reversing planned price increases.
    We reformed the Medicare program to stop hospitals from overcharging low-income seniors on their drugs—saving seniors hundreds of millions of dollars this year alone.
    Signed Right-To-Try legislation.
    Secured $6 billion in NEW funding to fight the opioid epidemic.
    We have reduced high-dose opioid prescriptions by 16 percent during my first year in office.
    Signed VA Choice Act and VA Accountability Act, expanded VA telehealth services, walk-in-clinics, and same-day urgent primary and mental health care.
    Increased our coal exports by 60 percent; U.S. oil production recently reached all-time high.
    United States is a net natural gas exporter for the first time since 1957.
    Withdrew the United States from the job-killing Paris Climate Accord.
    Cancelled the illegal, anti-coal, so-called Clean Power Plan.
    Secured record $700 billion in military funding; $716 billion next year.
    NATO allies are spending $69 billion more on defense since 2016.
    Process has begun to make the Space Force the 6th branch of the Armed Forces.
    Confirmed more circuit court judges than any other new administration.
    Confirmed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh.
    Withdrew from the horrible, one-sided Iran Deal.
    Moved U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
    Protecting Americans from terrorists with the Travel Ban, upheld by Supreme Court.
    Issued Executive Order to keep open Guantanamo Bay.
    Concluded a historic U.S.-Mexico Trade Deal to replace NAFTA. And negotiations with Canada are underway as we speak.
    Reached a breakthrough agreement with the E.U. to increase U.S. exports.
    Imposed tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum to protect our national security.
    Imposed tariffs on China in response to China’s forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and their chronically abusive trade practices.
    Net exports are on track to increase by $59 billion this year.
    Improved vetting and screening for refugees, and switched focus to overseas resettlement.
    We have begun BUILDING THE WALL. Republicans want STRONG BORDERS and NO CRIME. Democrats want OPEN BORDERS which equals MASSIVE CRIME.

  7. guest


    your grocery list looks like something written up by Trump himself. Anyone would think there has been no other US president ever. There are those who attribute a great deal to Obama for whatever Trump has achieved..

    Of course the Republican Party will generally sing Trump’s achievements, but some of his family do not. Think about it.

    Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal will of course praise Trump.

    Two Newspapers which do not praise Trump are The Washington Post and American Independent, which demolish claims made at the Republican Convention with graphs and point by point demolition.

    Beware the midnight Twitter man and his fake news.

  8. wam

    trump is a talker like our recent boy PMs and:
    Think how is bloody powerful is the image of ‘trump just airboating all over the swamp conventions, not just hatch, l
    ‘look at me I am doing what I said MAGA is real and I am doing it.”
    look at my accomplishments:’
    These is his own his list of his accomplishments. (If they were mine it would be blank except for Kim, Guns, Russia, women and ‘deals’)
    My poorly explained point is would you vote for lord’s list or trump’s list as being true????
    I head him today wow what an absolute crock of ‘faeces but he is on a winner ‘the septics are as afraid of the word ‘socialists’ as we are of ‘loonies’ neither fears are rational but they are real and such beliefs are almost impossible to shake. It will take a scummo miracle for biden to win.

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