The White House ran afoul of the Hatch Act after initial warning, government watchdog says

WASHINGTON— Top White House spokespeople failed to comply with a law intended to prevent federal employees from using their offices to influence elections after press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was warned against using “MAGA” to describe certain Republicans, a government watchdog agency said.

In a letter first shared with NBC News, the independent Office of Special Counsel said that Jean-Pierre and deputy press secretary Andrew Bates took actions “contrary” to official guidance on adhering to the Hatch Act when they slammed “MAGA” Republicans’ budget plan this year — days after Jean-Pierre was told she had violated the 1939 statute.

The OSC issued government-wide guidance over the summer that deemed the use of “MAGA” and similar terms effectively off-limits as campaign-related slogans after determining that Jean-Pierre was in violation of the Hatch Act when she repeatedly referred to “mega MAGA Republicans” in the run-up to the 2022 midterms. “MAGA” is the campaign slogan for former President Donald Trump in his current White House bid.

A week after NBC News published the OSC’s warning to Jean-Pierre in June, she issued a statement criticizing Republicans’ “hardcore MAGA” budget, while Bates, in a memo, went after “MAGA tax welfare.”

While Jean-Pierre and Bates acted “contrary” to the OSC’s warning and guidance, the office decided against any disciplinary action, Hatch Act Unit Chief Ana Galindo‐Marrone said in a letter sent in October. Galindo‐Marrone said Jean-Pierre and Bates had not appeared to use “MAGA” in an official capacity since their June infractions but that the OSC would keep watch for future violations.

“Please rest assured that we will continue to monitor the situation and reserve the right to reopen these cases,” she added.

Asked whether Jean-Pierre and Bates had “violated” the Hatch Act, as the OSC assessed in their June 7 letter, when the spokespeople used MAGA in official communications again on June 14, OSC Communications Director Zachary Kurz declined to comment.

A White House official on Thursday told NBC News, “We take the law seriously and uphold the Hatch Act.”

According to a review by NBC News, Bates used the “MAGA” acronym referring to “MAGAnomics” as recently as Monday in a memo about Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare, also known as the Affordable Care Act, days after Trump said he was “seriously looking at alternatives.”

In an October memo, Bates criticized Republicans’ insistence on “radical MAGAnomics policies.”

OSC maintains that the use of “MAGAnomics” is permitted after the Trump administration used the term to brand its economic plan.

Elsewhere, political speech has become a central flashpoint in Trump’s legal cases as the former president argues that he is being silenced unfairly by courts in New York and Washington, D.C.

Michael Chamberlain, a former Trump administration official who now runs a conservative watchdog group called Protect the Public’s Trust, said the OSC’s failure to enforce the Hatch Act after Jean-Pierre and Bates “doubled down” on political speech shows the law to be toothless against those who violate it when they serve at high levels of government.

“Apparently, nobody takes the Hatch Act very seriously, at least nobody that matters. Ms. Jean-Pierre cites it frequently to avoid tough questions, but when she and her deputy received the initial warning from OSC, they doubled down,” Chamberlain said. “They probably guessed there would be no consequences, and the OSC appears to have proven them correct.”

Chamberlain said the lack of official repercussions for Jean-Pierre and Bates calls into question the Biden administration’s ethics claims after it vowed to uphold the highest standards.

Protect the Public’s Trust filed a Hatch Act complaint against Jean-Pierre and Bates in June, charging that their statements “appear to be a deliberate thumb in the eye” of the OSC’s authority.

“Your letter advised Ms. Jean-Pierre ‘that should she again engage in prohibited political activity, OSC would consider it a knowing and willful violation of the law that could result in OSC pursuing disciplinary action.’ That is precisely what Ms. Jean-Pierre has done,” Chamberlain wrote. “It further is highly unlikely that the phrase ‘MAGA’ appeared in two separate White House Press Office documents on the same day by accident.”

Chamberlain warned against “a two-tiered system” that permits the arbitrary enforcement of government rules for prominent White House officials even as others potentially face stark repercussions.

The Hatch Act is largely viewed as unenforceable for top officials, even as ordinary public servants face major disciplinary actions. In May, employees at the Department of Labor and Veterans Affairs were suspended without pay after violating the rule.

Jean-Pierre has cited the Hatch Act repeatedly in declining to answer questions, such as when she was asked about Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s challenge to President Joe Biden for the 2024 presidential nomination and whether Biden would complete a second four-year term in office if re-elected.

Trump administration officials came under scrutiny for breaching the law numerous times, with a November 2021 report from the Office of Special Counsel characterizing their behavior as “especially pernicious” in light of its timing ahead of the 2020 election.

“This failure to impose discipline created the conditions for what appeared to be a taxpayer-funded campaign apparatus within the upper echelons of the executive branch,” the 2021 report said.