The 13 Trump officials under fire for violating the Hatch Act
On Monday, it emerged that a federal watchdog agency is investigating U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for possible violations of the Hatch Act—making her the latest Trump administration official to fall afoul of the 81-year-old government ethics law.
The Hatch Act bars members of the executive branch (with the exception of the President and vice president) from engaging in political activities while in an official capacity, and DeVos appears to have stepped over the line thanks to an appearance she made on Fox News earlier this month. DeVos criticized Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden during an interview on the network, and her Department of Education proceeded to disseminate a clip of the appearance via an official department email distribution list. Politico obtained a copy of the email, which was sent under the header “From the Desk of the Secretary.”
That has prompted the launch of an investigation by the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel (OSC), the government agency responsible for enforcing the Hatch Act. Though DeVos is among the most high-profile members of the Trump administration to be scrutinized for a potential Hatch Act violation, she is far from the first. At least 13 Trump staffers have been officially reprimanded by the OSC for flouting Hatch Act regulations, according to the nonprofit watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
Of those 13 administration officials, one—Kellyanne Conway, who recently departed her role as counselor to the President—was found to have violated the law to such an extent that the OSC recommended her firing last year. But since that decision ultimately belongs to the President, and President Trump refused to act on the OSC’s guidance, Conway was able to hold onto her job.
The Trump administration has thus far shown nothing less than disregard for the Hatch Act and its purpose of keeping politics out of the day-to-day running of the federal government. While the 12 other Trump officials to be reprimanded by the OSC escaped with a mere warning from the agency, many observers considered last month’s Republican National Convention—with its myriad speeches and events at the White House—to have been awash with Hatch Act violations, and House Democrats urged the OSC to investigate the matter earlier this month.
Not that it would necessarily matter to the President and his top advisers: White House chief of staff Mark Meadows brushed off the ethics rules last month, telling reporters that “nobody outside of the Beltway really cares” about the law and claiming critics were interpreting it “well beyond the original intent of the Hatch Act.”
These are the Trump administration officials found to have violated the Hatch Act to date:
- Dan Scavino, White House director of social media
- Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations
- Michael O’Rielly, FCC commissioner
- Stephanie Grisham, communications director and current chief of staff to the First Lady
- Raj Shah, former White House deputy press secretary
- Jessica Ditto, former White House deputy communications director
- Madeleine Westerhout, former personal secretary to the President
- Helen Aguirre Ferre, former White House director of media affairs
- Alyssa Farah, former press secretary to the Vice President and current White House director of strategic communications
- Jacob Wood, former deputy communications director at the Office of Management and Budget
- Ryan Zinke, former secretary of the Department of the Interior
- Kellyanne Conway, former counselor to the President
- Lynne Patton, regional administrator at the Department of Housing and Urban Development
The likes of CREW have also called for Hatch Act investigations of other high-ranking Trump administration officials, including Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. To date, none of those officials have been found in violation of the Hatch Act.
Prior to 2012, federal employees often faced the prospect of losing their jobs for breaching Hatch Act regulations. But President Obama signed the Hatch Act Modernization Act into law that year, which modified penalties to include a range of less severe disciplinary actions, including fines, suspensions, and demotions.
During the Obama administration, two cabinet secretaries were determined by the OSC to have violated Hatch Act regulations: Kathleen Sebelius, the former secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and Julian Castro, the former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Update, September 23, 2020: This story has been updated to revise the number of Trump administration officials found to have violated the Hatch Act to 13, from 11 previously, and to include FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke among those ruled by the OSC to have violated the law.