White House apology over ethics violation shows shift in tone from Trump

White House chief of staff Ron Klain
White House chief of staff Ron Klain. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

WASHINGTON — Earlier this week, White House chief of staff Ron Klain was found to be in violation of federal law for using his government Twitter account to promote Democratic candidates for elected office.

In a Wednesday letter, the Office of Special Counsel (not to be confused with the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, tasked in 2017 with investigating electoral interference) wrote that it had “decided not to pursue disciplinary action and instead issued him a warning letter.”

By then, Klain had already deleted the offending message, a retweet of a Democratic group called Strike PAC.

The White House quickly apologized. “We are not perfect, but our violations have been few,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Thursday. She was referring to violations of the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that prohibits federal officials from engaging in political activities. Only the president and vice president are exempt from its limitations.

And that was that. Klain faces no disciplinary action from a president he has closely advised for many years. At a time of nuclear fears and economic anxieties, the episode was little more than a blip on the crowded political radar, a reminder that Klain may, like the rest of us, need a break from social media.

But for some in Washington, Klain’s ethical transgression provided a useful contrast to how the Trump administration handled such situations — of which there were many during Donald Trump’s four years in the White House. That the complaint against Klain was filed by Stephen Miller, a top adviser to Trump who had run afoul of the same Hatch Act rules, added a note of irony.

“I recall in the White House when we would get Hatch Act violations, that was a badge of honor. It was a joke in the White House,” Trump’s former communications director Stephanie Grisham said last year.

Never was the Trump administration’s cavalier attitude toward government ethics more apparent than on May 29, 2019.

That day, Kellyanne Conway strode to a bank of microphones on a strip of pavement outside the White House known as “Pebble Beach.” Senior administration officials routinely give interviews there, but rarely of the kind Conway gave that day.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway speaking to reporters on May 29, 2019, when she dismissed concerns over Hatch Act violations. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The Democratic primary for the 2020 presidential nomination was underway, and Conway — a longtime Republican operative who had been a senior adviser to Trump since the start of his term — was unimpressed. She denounced the Obama administration for its foreign and domestic policy, and singled out Vice President Joe Biden for his own alleged shortcomings.

“We inherited a mess from the last administration, of which he was a major part,” Conway told reporters.

Biden, however, was no longer merely the former vice president or a three-decade veteran of the Senate. A month before, he had announced he was running for the White House. By denouncing Biden from the White House grounds, Conway seemed to be violating the Hatch Act, which she had already done several times before.

Yet when she was confronted by a reporter about the potential transgression, Conway defiantly dismissed the concern. “If you’re trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it’s not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts,” she said.

It was an exchange typical of how Conway and other top Trump administration officials often conflated the business of government with naked political concerns, said government ethics officials at the time.

Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller
Conway and senior adviser Stephen Miller at the White House in 2017. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Plenty of officials in previous Democratic and Republican administrations had violated the Hatch Act; with Trump, the difference was a matter of scale. Supporters of the former president argued that government ethics attorneys were part of a “deep state” fundamentally hostile to his administration and intent on undermining the president at every turn. Trump had been elected to break norms, those supporters argued, and that was exactly what he was doing, in his own unconventional ways.

But transgressing norms and breaking laws are not the same thing. Two weeks later, the OSC — the same office that warned Klain earlier this week — urged Trump to fire Conway, arguing that she was a singularly enthusiastic offender of the rules. “Never has OSC had to issue multiple reports to the President concerning Hatch Act violations by the same individuals,” the report said. “Her actions thus erode the principal foundation of our democratic system — the rule of law.”

The White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, countered with a report of his own, calling the OSC’s accusations against Conway “outrageous” and “unprecedented.” Trump said much the same thing. “It looks to me like they’re trying to take away her right of free speech, and that’s just not fair,” he told Fox News. Conway would remain at the White House for another year, announcing her resignation in August 2020.

Days later, Trump held the Republican National Convention on White House grounds, in what seemed to many experts a gross conflict of interest. “The Hatch Act was the wall standing between the government’s might and candidates. Tonight a candidate tore down that wall and wielded power for his own campaign,” argued former White House ethics counselor Walt Shaub. (Some made a similar charge about President Biden’s recent speech in Philadelphia about threats to American democracy; Biden, however, was not explicitly seeking reelection at the time.)

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention in front of a live audience on the South Lawn of the White House, Aug. 27, 2020. (Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty Images)

The following year, an OSC report found that 13 members of the Trump administration had violated the Hatch Act. “The cumulative effect of these repeated and public violations was to undermine public confidence in the nonpartisan operation of government,” the report found. The violations had been committed by not only Conway, but also senior adviser Jared Kushner, who in a CNN interview charged Democrats with offering “a very dark vision of America” absent any policy solutions; White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who all but endorsed Madison Cawthorn for the House of Representatives in a Fox News interview; and Miller, who during the 2020 campaign described Biden as “stuck in a basement somewhere.”

The Biden administration has tried to avoid Hatch Act controversies, as part of its effort to restore the democratic norms that Trump trampled on. During her second White House press briefing, Biden’s first press secretary, Jen Psaki, assured reporters that “you will not see a political rally on the South Lawn of the White," a reference to the convention staged there by Trump.

Neither the White House nor Klain himself responded to Yahoo News’ requests for comment.

As the midterm elections approach, Psaki’s successor, Karine Jean-Pierre, faces daily questions about the Democratic Party’s prospects — questions she invariably answers with a variation on the same theme.

“I have to be careful of what I say, because we do respect the Hatch Act here in this administration,” Jean-Pierre said on Monday when asked if the president was doing enough to help congressional candidates before Election Day. If such evasions are frustrating to reporters, they are the inevitable outcome of following the ethics rules so many of Trump’s advisers so frequently ignored.