WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump appeared from the White House twice on the opening night of the Republican National Convention on Monday, and he will deliver his acceptance speech this week from the South Lawn. Melania Trump will speak from the Rose Garden. And even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will beam in to endorse the president from a rooftop in Jerusalem.
Their appearances amount to a radical break from tradition even for an administration that has repeatedly shattered long-standing norms. Never in recent times has a president used the majesty of the White House to stage a nominating convention, nor has a sitting secretary of state participated in such a partisan event, much less from overseas where he is ostensibly on a diplomatic mission.
The convention speeches — the president is to speak Thursday, and the first lady and Pompeo will appear Tuesday — are only the latest examples of how Trump has further blurred the lines between the government and his campaign as he presses the advantages of incumbency to pull off a come-from-behind victory in November. While other presidents running for a second term have mixed governing and electioneering, they generally adhered to certain boundaries between their public duties and political interests, proprieties that Trump has disregarded from the start.
The president’s critics argue that he is also using the power of his office in more substantial ways to secure a second term, like undercutting the ability of the Postal Service to process mail-in votes, sending federal agents to counter street unrest in “Democrat-run cities,” encouraging the Justice Department to prosecute his enemies and pressuring health officials to authorize treatments and vaccines for the coronavirus before the election.
“This is indicative of something much more dangerous to our democracy,” said Richard W. Painter, who served as White House ethics counsel to President George W. Bush before becoming a sharp critic of Trump. Government agencies “have been turned into arms of his political campaign.”
Pompeo’s involvement in the convention drew immediate criticism from Democrats, Republicans and career Foreign Service officers, who saw it as a breach of the nation’s top diplomat’s role representing America as a whole to the outside world — rather than promoting one party’s candidate in an election at home.
It also seemed to contradict State Department guidance saying that officials may not “speak for or against a partisan candidate” at a convention and “may not even attend a political party convention.” A cable sent in Pompeo’s name just last month repeated the warning. Even presidential appointees “may not engage in any partisan political activity in concert with a partisan campaign, political party, or partisan political group, even on personal time and outside of the federal workplace,” the cable said.
“It appears he’s either violating the rules or the administration decided the rules wouldn’t apply when they weren’t convenient,” said Nick Schwellenbach, the senior investigator at the Project On Government Oversight, a government watchdog group. “Pompeo is sacrificing the department’s diplomatic tradition on the altar of a partisan campaign.”
Daniel Fried, who spent 40 years as a career diplomat working for officials like Condoleezza Rice when she was national security adviser and later secretary of state, said he could recall no precedent for Pompeo’s appearance.
“The secretary of state should put partisanship aside when she or he takes office,” Fried said. “Condi Rice, as NSA and secretary, never said or, as far as I could tell, did anything partisan. Nor did she tolerate it in others.”
The State Department said in a statement that Pompeo would be speaking “in his personal capacity” and that no department staff or resources would be used to facilitate the speech. But it did not address the wisdom or ethics of the secretary’s participation in the convention.
In Trump’s White House, there often seems to be little distinction between government and political events. His campaign music soundtrack — the Rolling Stones, Village People, Elton John, Lee Greenwood — is even played before his entrance at official appearances, like this summer’s launch of the SpaceX rocket.
After that event, in fact, the Trump campaign posted a video of the president at the launch featuring images of the astronauts and their families, and took it offline only after the wife of one of the astronauts complained. The campaign likewise fashioned an online ad within hours of Trump’s march to St. John’s Episcopal Church near the White House after the police used pepper spray against peaceful protesters to clear Lafayette Square.
Official White House websites, financed by the taxpayers, are regularly used for Trump campaign-style videos. The president’s team posted an overtly political “Obamagate” video on the official White House Facebook page attacking former President Barack Obama. A video on the White House YouTube channel showing the president signing orders meant to lower drug prices includes a heroic musical score reminiscent of campaign ads.
Trump has also used the power of his office to promote private sector interests that he perceives as supportive of him and to harm companies that he views as politically hostile. He posed for pictures with Goya Foods products in the Oval Office after the company’s chief executive came under criticism for praising the president. And last week, he called on supporters to boycott Goodyear for telling employees to refrain from wearing political slogans at work, including Make America Great Again hats.
Trump’s decision to stage his convention partly from the White House was born to some degree out of necessity, after he was forced to cancel the convention in Jacksonville, Florida because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It would not be the first time he has used the venue for clearly political events. An hourlong Rose Garden appearance in July that was billed as a news conference was essentially an extended attack on his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden
Still, even some Republicans found it disquieting. “What’s so hard about going to a hotel?” said former Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, the onetime head of the House Ethics Committee and a Republican supporting Biden. “Just another norm out the window.”
When Republicans like Sen. John Thune of South Dakota raised ethical concerns, an irritated Trump shot them down. “John Thune did? The Republican John Thune?” he said when a reporter mentioned the senator’s comments. Trump argued that it would in fact be simpler and less costly because the building is already secured.
Other presidents have used the White House for political activity. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan both announced their reelection bids from the Executive Mansion, and Bill Clinton hosted coffees there for prominent donors, and he let some stay overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom. Obama filmed campaign ads in the West Wing.
But in staging much of his convention from the White House, Trump is taking it even further. As the gathering got underway on Monday, the president appeared from the East Room talking with front-line workers in the battle against the coronavirus and later from the Diplomatic Reception Room with hostages he helped bring home. A stage has been constructed on the South Lawn with lighting and flags for his acceptance speech on Thursday
Tim Murtaugh, the president’s campaign spokesman, brushed aside questions about the use of the Executive Mansion, saying Trump’s opponents were just looking for something to criticize.
“Democrats and the media don’t want the president holding rallies, they don’t want him holding news conferences, they don’t want him speaking at Mount Rushmore, and they don’t want him speaking at the White House,” Murtaugh said. “They want to keep him from speaking entirely because their own candidate, Joe Biden, is locked away in his basement by his handlers because he can’t be trusted when he opens his mouth.”
Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said the White House would be careful to abide by the Hatch Act, which generally bars government employees from participating in partisan activities, although it does not apply to the president himself.
“RNC convention events will be planned and executed, at whatever the venue, by the Trump campaign and RNC,” he said of the Republican National Committee. “Any government employees who may participate will do so in compliance with the Hatch Act.”
The White House has ignored past findings of Hatch Act violations by the Office of Special Counsel, a small independent agency charged with enforcing the law. The office found last year that Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, was a “repeat offender” and should be fired, a recommendation that Trump disregarded. Conway dismissed such complaints as “blah, blah, blah” and as an attempt “to silence me.” (Conway said Sunday night she would step down at the end of the month for unrelated family reasons.)
Pompeo’s decision to speak at the convention reflects his own political ambitions as a former congressman thought to have an eye on the White House himself. And doing it from Jerusalem, with the historic Old City in the backdrop, will remind voters of Trump’s support for Israel, including decisions to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and to recognize Israel’s authority over the Golan Heights.
But it flies in the face of long-standing department guidelines. Just last February, Stephen E. Biegun, the deputy secretary of state, noted that “the Department has more far-reaching restrictions” than the Hatch Act to remain nonpartisan. “As a Senate confirmed Department official,” he wrote in an email to department employees, “I will be sitting on the sidelines of the political process this year and will not be attending any political events, to include the national conventions.”
Painter said he believed Pompeo’s speech would violate the Hatch Act and vowed to file a complaint. “He is on a diplomatic mission and cannot legally use that to endorse the president’s political campaign,” he said.
John B. Bellinger III, who served as the top State Department lawyer under Rice, said legal or not, he would have warned the secretary against it. “I can’t think of a recent precedent, and I absolutely would have discouraged it, even if it may be permissible under the Hatch Act,” he said. “Secretaries of state have historically stayed out of partisan politics.”