Trump tests limits as Cabinet members fan out to key states

WASHINGTON (AP) – Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was planning a “Moms for Trump” rally in her home state of Michigan. The senior homeland security officer was in Texas to celebrate the completion of a section of the US-Mexico border wall. The chief of the Environmental Protection Agency traveled to North Carolina after visiting Georgia the day before.

That was only Thursday.

Members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet are traveling extra miles as mostly unofficial campaign surrogates in key states in the final days leading up to Tuesday’s elections, mixing politics and politics in ways that critics say bypasses established norms and may even violate the law.

It has long been one of the advantages of tenure that a president can use his cabinet to further the performance of the administration. But only up to a point, with a law on the books since 1939 that mandates a division between political and official activities for all federal employees except the President and Vice President.

“The Trump administration has completely blurred that line,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, which describes itself as an impartial surveillance organization. “The White House is now the seat of government where the president lives and one of his main pillars of the election campaign. And this erosion of norms has spread throughout the administration. “

This criticism is not new, but it has intensified in recent months. The government, which has come under fire for using the White House as the backdrop for the president’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, has insisted it abide by the law known as the Hatch Act.

“The Trump administration takes the Hatch Act seriously and all events are conducted in accordance with the law,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere.

In the past few weeks, however, at least one member of the administration has violated the decade-old law.

The Office of Special Counsel, led by a Trump appointee, concluded this month that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue broke the law at an event in North Carolina in August that featured his statements in support of the President in crowd chants by “Four more years” were converted. Perdue was instructed to reimburse the government for the cost of the trip.

“He turned an official event into a campaign,” said Jordan Libowitz, Washington director of communications for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, who filed a complaint with the federal agency about Perdue’s appearance.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could be next.

Two New York Democrats, Rep. Eliot L. Engel and Rep. Nita Lowey, said this week that the same bureau was investigating the speech America’s top diplomat from Israel gave to the GOP convention. The office declined to comment, and the State Department noted that a previous Hatch Act complaint against Pompeo had been dismissed.

This Pompeo speech was one of a number of appearances, including one in Wisconsin in September, that created the impression many observers were disregarding a long tradition of under-secretaries’ avoidance of partisan politics. But he is hardly alone and the examples have increased in recent days.

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette visited southwest Pennsylvania this week for the third time since August – a rocking area in one of the major battlefield states. In an area closely related to fracking, Brouillette made no mention of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden by name, but cautioned that efforts to develop renewable energy sources to combat climate change could threaten “any form of energy except renewable energy.”

Andrew Wheeler, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, has made repeated trips to highly competitive Michigan, including one announcing $ 2 million in grants where he criticized the Obama administration’s response to the lead contamination crisis in Flint .

DeVos has frequently visited key states such as Florida, Texas and Wisconsin to discuss efforts to reopen schools closed by the coronavirus pandemic and encourage school elections, an issue Trump focused on in hopes of black voters to address. The announcement of her appearance at the “Moms for Trump” rally on Thursday in Detroit described her as “Honorable Betsy DeVos” and not as an education secretary for a clearly political event.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf was in South Texas to mark the completion of the 400-mile border wall, one of the central themes of the Trump 2016 campaign. Wolf has also scrutinized through press conferences in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to announce relatively minor immigration operations. American Oversight issued a letter Thursday calling on the Office of Special Counsel to investigate Wolf and other DHS officials.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has traveled to a number of President and Senate battlefield states over the past few months to combine inauguration ceremonies and other official business with a “fireside chat” and praise of vulnerable GOP incumbents. His work has been criticized by Congress Democrats.

Other examples include National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, who is traveling to Minnesota and Wisconsin this month to discuss the trade. Stephen Miller, senior Trump adviser, held a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, speaking on immigration policy “in his personal capacity”. and Kayleigh McEnany as White House spokeswoman and “Trump 2020 campaign advisor,” as she was described in an appearance on Fox & Friends on Thursday.

Violations of the Hatch Act can be referred to the Department of Justice for criminal investigation, but usually result in administrative penalties. Evers, a former litigation attorney and government attorney, said subordinates should be concerned about the potential legal ramifications of working on barely-hidden political missions.

There could also be election consequences. “The political calculation that goes into these decisions could be very wrong,” he said. “It should be important for the public that their apolitical government is used for purely partisan purposes. So it may not have the expected payout. ”

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Associated press writers Collin Binkley in Boston, Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Ellen Knickmeyer and Hope Yen in Washington contributed to this report.

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