Nats’ ‘unpresidented’ visit to the White House the latest to raise ethical questions

MAGA-like rally with Nationals follows a long string of instances where Trump officials engaged in partisan politics on federal property in apparent violation of the Hatch Act

The Trump White House continues to blur the lines on how much blatant campaigning is allowed during events held on federal property that are legally required to be nonpartisan.

During a visit to the White House on Nov. 4 by the Washington Nationals, Donald Trump chose to hold the World Series congratulatory celebration on the South Lawn, where a large, mostly pro-Trump crowd gathered. Normally, ceremonies honoring sports teams and others are held inside the White House or in the Rose Garden to a limited crowd.

But after Nats fans soundly booed Trump and even chanted “Lock him up” during Game 5 of the World Series, Trump no doubt wanted vindication. The Nats agreed to visit the Trump White House in an “unpresidented” two days after the team’s championship parade. The previous shortest time for a title team to visit Trump was a little over two months by the New England Patriots in 2017.

Not coincidentally, the date for the visit was just one day before elections in several states.

Eleven players from the 40-man Nats’ roster, including MVP candidate Anthony Rendon, All-Star reliever Sean Doolittle, and Gold Glove runner up Victor Robles, declined to show. While some cited family reasons, a few sources told The Washington Post that the short turnaround made players feel like they had to attend or it would look more like they were skipping out due to political reasons.

When Trump was announced during the Nats’ White House ceremony, the crowd of more than 1,000 people largely cheered. A few attendees booed, according to some reporters.

Some noted that the crowd could have been bolstered by local Republicans organizing their own to attend, or even a concerted White House effort to make sure the crowd was favorable to Trump. It’s also possible that many anti-Trump fans purposely steered clear of the event, effectively boycotting it, while pro-Trump fans enthusiastically attended on their own.

At one point, some chanted, “Four more years,” a phrase often yelled at Trump rallies in reference to their desires to see their candidate win the 2020 presidential election. In this case, some thought the chant could have been targeted at Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who fans wanted to see signed for at least another four years. But the history of that chant makes it open to interpretation.

Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman paraphrased Trump’s MAGA slogan in praising him for “continuing to make America the greatest country in the world.” He added that Trump was “keeping everyone here safe in our country,” a statement with which family members of mass shootings would likely have a problem.

Adding fuel to the fire, catcher Kurt Suzuki whipped out a MAGA hat, raised his arms, and told the crowd he “loved” them. Rather than distancing himself from what could appear to some to be a violation of the 1939 Hatch Act barring partisan campaigning on federal property, Trump awkwardly hugged Suzuki from behind, resulting in a viral photo.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are exempt from the Hatch Act, though other federal employees who helped organize the ceremony are not. Suzuki claimed his MAGA hat-wearing stunt was not political and in good “fun,” something many fans and observers failed to see.

Manager Dave Martinez and general manager Mike Rizzo applauded Suzuki’s stunt and smiled wildly throughout Trump’s ramblings. In 2018, the Office of Special Counsel, a federal watchdog agency, issued updated guidelines related to the Hatch Act, which included that employees could not “wear, display, or distribute items with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ or any other materials from President Trump’s 2016 or 2020 campaigns” while on federal property or on official duty.

At one point, Trump mentioned that people mostly liked talking about Nats baseball and impeachment these days, again making the event political and about him. He claimed to like Nats baseball more, despite him being a long-time Yankees fan who had not attended a Nats game before the 2019 World Series.

In the aftermath, Strasburg tweeted for the first time in months, using one of Trump’s favorite phrases, “FakeNews,” to call out a video showing him ignoring Trump’s extended hand at first. Rendon also admitted publicly to being a Trump supporter, blaming his no-show on a miscommunication on the date. He was originally told it would be the day after elections, but that was suddenly changed to the day before elections, making claims that such Trump events are not political bogus.

The vitriol against the Nationals on social media was back, after many rooted for them during their underdog playoff run. Goodwill was crushed in the blink of a Trumpian awkward, behind-the-back hug.

In a 2012 visit I observed by the Dallas Mavericks with former President Obama, no one donned an Obama hat or shirt, or praised him publicly. They merely thanked him and talked about the team and season. The ceremony was inside in the East Room with about 200 people, not outside in a rally with several thousand supporters.

Some reporters who had covered numerous White House visits noted the contrast.

Engaging in partisan politics at nonpartisan events the norm for Trump

As some put it, the Nationals’ White House ceremony-turned-MAGA-rally seemed to run afoul of the Hatch Act, the 1939 federal law that bars federal employees from engaging in political activities at government events or in the workplace.

That’s nothing new for Trump and his administration, as well as federal employees who support him. Check out a few other examples:

  • In July 2019, Trump officials organized a “social media summit,” comprised of mostly right-wing bloggers and commentators, including Bill Mitchell and Charles Kirk, at the White House. Among the goals, of course, was to further Trump’s campaign, leading some to charge an open violation of the Hatch Act. While the president is exempt from that act, his staffers who helped organize the summit are not.
  • Trump regularly issues partisan comments during official federal events. For example, during a May 2019 visit to a natural gas plant in Louisiana to supposedly tout energy policies, Trump blasted Democratic presidential contenders. At times, he repeated the same, tired, immature names, such as calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” and Bernie Sanders “Crazy Bernie.” Again, the comments could make staffers who accompanied him and arranged the visit subject to the Hatch Act.
  • In June 2019, the Office of Special Counsel recommended that Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway be removed from her position due to repeatedly “disparaging Democratic presidential candidates while speaking in her official capacity during television interviews and on social media.” Trump, who somehow can rule on such recommendations, declined to fire her, of course.
  • In 2018, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham violated the Hatch Act for tweeting “#MAGA” with a photo from a Trump campaign rally, the OSC found. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed the complaint that led to the reprimand. Several other Trump administration officials were reprimanded for similar social media violations.
  • CREW has filed other complaints and actions against Trump, including with the State Department’s Inspector General about him awarding the 2020 G-7 Summit to his own resort in 2019. While Trump reconsidered doing that under such pressure, hosting a summit in his own resort would violate the Constitution’s Domestic Emoluments Clause and raise procurement conflict of interest issues, CREW said in the complaint. CREW maintains a database of Trump conflicts since he took over the White House, which numbered more than 2,600 as of November 2019.
  • In 2017, White House social media director Dan Scavino and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley received official warnings from the OSC over breaking the rules. Scavino had called for a primary challenge to Republican Rep. Justin Amash on his official Twitter account, while Haley had retweeted an endorsement of a South Carolina Republican.
  • In 2017, Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner briefed White House officials during a staff meeting about Trump’s re-election campaign, according to a complaint. Kushner also used his White House title on a Trump campaign news release.
  • Trump himself regularly tweets endorsements of candidates. While that cannot be curbed by the Hatch Act, the OSC circulated emails telling federal employees not to retweet Trump’s Twitter endorsements.
  • In 2018, Federal Communications Commission member Michael O’Rielly violated the Hatch Act when he advocated for Trump’s re-election during a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the OSC wrote. The agency warned of tougher action for future violations.
  • An employee of the Defense Logistics Agency violated the law when he displayed a message to “Vote Republican” on a PowerPoint presentation he gave in the federal workplace, the OSC said in 2019. The employee agreed to a 30-day suspension without pay.

Democrats, independents have also violated Hatch Act

The OSC has also issued rulings directed at federal employees who support Democrats and independents for Hatch Act violations. Those include:

  • Carmene DePaolo, a federal immigration judge who retired in 2019, violated the law when she promoted Hillary Clinton’s plan for immigration reform during a 2016 deportation hearing, the OSC ruled in 2018. DePaolo was fined $1,000 and debarred from federal work for 30 months.
  • In 2018, the OSC reached an agreement with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement employee who told coworkers to vote for Clinton and posted social media messages in support during the 2016 campaign. The employee agreed to resign and faced a five-year ban on federal service.
  • In 2017, an administrative judge ruled that Keith Arnold, an employee with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, be removed from his position after he ran for Congress in Washington state. Arnold ran unsuccessfully as an independent in 2016, as well as a Democrat in 2014 and 2012.
  • In 2014, a Federal Election Commission attorney agreed to resign after criticizing Republican candidate Mitt Romney on Twitter and during a Huffington Post webcam event. The attorney was barred from federal employment for two years.
  • In 2012, then-Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius violated the law during the Human Rights Campaign Gala by telling the audience it was “hugely important to make sure that we re-elect” Obama, the office found. Sebelius reimbursed the government for travel expenses related to the event.

Written for 45+ newspapers/mags. Written some books — see Visited 48 states, 30+ countries.

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