Letters From an American

It is Not Named the Trump White House

The Hatch Act has no authority according to this administration

It is Not Named the Trump White House

First Lady Melania Trump speaks during the Republican National Convention filmed in the Rose Garden at the White House on Tuesday, Aug 25, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Republican National Convention is designed to fire up the base to make sure its members vote, and to reassure wavering Republicans that they can vote for Trump without being racists but rather staunch Americans. And on both fronts, the first two days of this convention have delivered.

Yesterday, Don Jr. and his girlfriend Kim Guilfoyle offered up red meat to the base, warning that Democrats stand for “rioting, looting and vandalism,” while Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley promised that race relations aren’t really that bad in America after all.

Tonight, First Lady Melania Trump spoke soothingly of parenting and offered sympathy to coronavirus victims while offering a sanitized version of her own American dream. Trump offered American symbolism, using the might of the presidency. He was flanked by servicemen in the White House, naturalized five immigrants, pardoned Jon Ponder, a Black man who started a program that provides services for former convicts after he was convicted of robbing a bank.

The Trump team is not using half-measures; they are meeting head-on the criticisms of Trump and exacerbating them. They are campaigning by audacity. That is, after all, one of the characteristics Trump’s base likes most about him.

Tonight that audacity dovetailed with what appears to be the Trump family’s growing authoritarianism to make them broadcast that they are above the law. Tonight’s proceedings smashed all US laws and traditions against using public property for partisan purposes. The power of the presidency, the physical space of the White House — the people’s house– and the nation’s international standing are all enlisted to get this president, this one man, reelected.

Trump used the power of his office to pardon as a campaign stunt. He used a naturalization ceremony — the fundamentally non-partisan act of becoming an American citizen — to sell the idea he is not anti-immigrant. Melania Trump spoke from the White House Rose Garden, behind a podium that bore the presidential seal, to campaign for her husband. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke virtually from an official trip to the Middle East.

There is a law — the Hatch Act — which prohibits all employees of the Executive Branch except the president and the vice president from engaging in partisan political activity. It also prohibits the president and the vice president from commanding any employee to work on behalf of any candidate. The act is designed to make sure that officials cannot leverage the power of their office to enhance their own power. Since the law’s passage in 1939, presidents of both parties have scrupulously adhered to it. Members of the Trump administration have violated that act repeatedly, but tonight’s performance celebrated and extended those violations.

Pompeo’s speech made it clear the violations were no accident. One of the State Department’s own legal memos says in bold letters: “Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention.” But Pompeo not only spoke at the convention, he did it on an official overseas trip paid for by US taxpayers. Former Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who spent 35 years in the foreign service, told NBC News: “People are extraordinarily upset about it. This is really a bridge too far…. Pompeo is clearly ensuring the State Department is politicized by using his position to carry out what is basically a partisan mission.”

Pompeo’s appearance with some of the religious sites of Jerusalem showing behind him was intended to highlight Trump’s outreach to evangelical voters like Pompeo himself. Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the other day said: “We moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That’s for the evangelicals.”

The State Department said Pompeo addressed the convention in his “personal capacity,” but even this is out of bounds. In February, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun wrote an email to department employees saying he would not talk politics even when responding “to emails from friends.”

The State Department says that the RNC will pay for “everything” associated with the talk, but four current and former high-ranking diplomats noted that the logistics of overseas travel make that unlikely: the planes, motorcades, security, and so on required for a Secretary of State’s travels is all paid for with taxpayer money.

A State Department official told NBC News, “It is outrageously un-American for a sitting secretary of state to participate in a political convention.” At least the State Department indicated a little nervousness about using taxpayer money for partisan purposes. The White House has shown no such concern.

The first two nights of the convention have ranged far from the truth, keeping weary fact-checkers working overtime. But the gaslighting is not an accident, either; it is the point. Trump is selling the classic alternative reality of authoritarians who have little actual good news to report: he claims the country is in chaos, caused by lawless “others,” and he alone can solve the problem. He will return his supporters to the positions of authority they feel they have lost, ushering back in the good old days when the country was great.

Far from objecting to Trump’s lies or his violation of the law to use of the government to win reelection, Trump’s true believers will likely applaud both. The lies are a comforting story, made better by how much they upset non-believers — those “others” — and in their minds, the power of the government actually should be used to put down Trump’s unAmerican opposition.

Trump’s plan for a second term, though, will not necessarily benefit his supporters. He appears to intend to continue to act as he has done for the past three and a half years, slashing regulations and taxes, destroying the social safety net, and privatizing infrastructure, all in the service of freeing up capital to boost the economy.

That plan was in the news today as, in response to an inquiry from leading Democrats, the Chief Actuary for Social Security crunched the numbers behind Trump’s plan to end the payroll tax. Chief Actuary Stephen C. Goss said that the plan would end Disability Insurance in mid-2021 and Social Security by mid-2023.

Payroll taxes are just that: taxes that come out of your paycheck. In this case, the tax in question is the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) payroll taxes and the Self-Employment Contributions Act (SECA) taxes. These taxes provide the money that funds Social Security and Disability Insurance. Trump has talked about eliminating the taxes, arguing that getting rid of them would put more money in people’s pockets. It would, in the short term but, as Goss explains, it would almost immediately destroy Social Security and Disability Insurance.

A disregard for social welfare laws is not limited to Trump. In the New York Times yesterday, former chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen and Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Priorities, note that the Senate is on vacation while thirty million American households did not have enough food last week. “The economics of this moment are not complicated,” they write. The economy can’t recover and sustain itself until the coronavirus is under control. Until then, it is imperative for Congress to fund a relief bill to put money back into people’s pockets, both for moral reasons, and to keep the economy from grinding to a halt.

The House passed a $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill in May, but the Senate refused to take it up. The Senate turned to writing a bill in late July, just as the federal boost of $600 a week to unemployment benefits was due to expire, along with the moratorium on evictions. Quickly, though, it became clear the Republican caucus could not agree on a bill, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell turned the problem of negotiating a new bill over to White House leaders and congressional Democrats.

With Republicans on the sidelines, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows refused to budge from their $1 trillion starting point even after the Democrats offered to meet them halfway. Trump declared the negotiations over and dramatically claimed to be handling the most crucial problems with executive actions. His use of the nation’s disaster relief fund to pay for a $300 weekly bonus in unemployment benefits to people in 30 states (so far) will not last more than five weeks, even as it drains our capacity to respond to the California and Colorado wildfires, the Iowa derecho, and the two tropical storms bearing down on Louisiana.

Reality looks a lot less triumphant than tonight’s tawdry performance in the house that has sheltered Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, and which belongs not to the Trumps, but to the American people.

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.