iStock/bboserupBY: JORDYN PHELPS and BEN GITTLESON, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — As the Republican National Convention gets underway this week, President Donald Trump has set the stage for a norms-busting political event that has transformed the White House into a backdrop for his campaign, raising ethical questions as he steamrolls over precedent.
The president is set to deliver his nomination acceptance speech from the South Lawn of the White House Thursday evening complete with an audience — amid the still raging coronavirus pandemic — while first lady Melania Trump will deliver her address to the partially-virtual convention from the historic and freshly-renovated Rose Garden on Tuesday night.
A large stage with extensive lighting has been set up on the lawn, while the first lady oversaw a renovation of the garden — completed just in time for her speech.
Beyond that, the participation of other White House officials and most notably the president’s daughter and senior adviser Ivanka Trump, who is set to introduce the president Thursday night, has raised a host of ethical questions.
Kathleen Clark, an ethics lawyer and professor at Washington University Law School in St Louis, said in an interview with ABC News that the convention amounts to a “four-day extravaganza of unethical conduct.”
It’s a “new level” of unethical conduct by President Trump, Clark said, in “exploiting the backdrop of the White House for partisan purposes.”
“It is unprecedented in the context of other presidents and how they have handled themselves but it is not unprecedented when it comes to President Trump because he has repeatedly shown he uses government power for his own political personal benefit and that is what he is doing here so it’s actually consistent with his record,” Clark said in an interview with ABC News.
There are specific legal concerns as it relates to the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using their official authority to affect an election. While the president and vice president are largely exempt from the law, it does apply to those who work at the White House — including the president’s daughter Ivanka, in her capacity as an adviser to the president.
The White House has said she will be speaking in her “personal capacity.” While Clark says that is permissible, what Trump says and the physical location of her speech will be critical.
“She has to be outside and she can’t invoke federal authority. She has to be introduced as the president’s daughter and not as his adviser, and she needs to be talking about her daddy and not her boss,” Clark said.
Clark explained that the Hatch Act was written in such a way that specifies prohibited activities as being limited to the confines of federal buildings.
“When Congress passed these provisions, they wanted to ensure that the federal workplace was free from partisan political activity and the language they used was referring to a room or building occupied by federal employees. Now some federal employees carry out their duties outside. But the Hatch Act doesn’t apply to that.”
“If people are wondering why it’s outside, maybe it’s because of COVID but maybe it’s also because of the Hatch Act,” she said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also slated to speak, which would make him the first sitting secretary of state to deliver a speech to a party’s political convention in modern times. Pompeo was expected to tape his remarks during an official diplomatic stop in Jerusalem Monday; the State Department said he would be speaking in his “personal” capacity.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Monday defended the president’s decision to deliver his convention address from the White House, saying the country is “an unprecedented time” as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic and noting that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt went before him during World War II.
He downplayed concerns around the appearance of impropriety in delivering a political address from the White House grounds, in part by noting that the speech is outdoors and not indoors.
“I don’t see a mixture of it. It’s actually coming from the White House lawn, as you know,” he said. “And so it’s not an address from the Oval Office like Franklin Delano Roosevelt did so many years ago.”
Meadows was transparent that the choice of venue was not based on a matter of convenience, noting that the president is willing to travel, but said the backdrop matches up with the message the president wanted to send voters.
“No, it’s not about convenience,” he said. “I think it’s about for most people wanting to understand and hear from the President of the United States on what he’s going to do to make sure the next four years continue to build on the last four years.”
While it can be difficult for a president to totally separate himself from politics — while promoting legislation with an Oval Office address, for example — using the White House as a “prop” at a party convention is unprecedented in recent times, according to Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
“There still is a boundary between politics and governing, and the Oval Office and White House are a public site meant for the country that isn’t meant to be a political backdrop,” Zelizer told ABC News. “To just use it as the major site for a convention speech seems like a lot with President Trump — you just take all the guardrails down.”
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence frequently use official travel and events, at the White House and across the country, to attack Democrats and make blatant political speeches, even playing the same music they use at campaign rallies.
Trump’s insistence on having in-person crowds at his events, despite warnings from public health officials that such gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic could spread the virus, have also ignited concerns about this week’s events at the White House.
The White House declined to comment on what precautions were being taken to protect attendees from COVID-19 or whether the White House staff was involved with any measures. Typically, those who come into close contact with the president and vice president, including senior staff and visitors to the White House, receive rapid diagnostic tests for the virus.
The Republican National Committee and the president’s reelection campaign did not respond to requests for comment about coronavirus-related precautions.
Despite top public health officials and the White House itself officially encouraging Americans to practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings, the president himself has eschewed that advice — and sometimes, local regulations — by speaking to packed campaign rallies, almost never wearing a face covering, and disparaging governors who take a more cautious approach.
Last week, Meadows explained to reporters that Trump benefits from having an in-person audience because “he does get energy from other people” and that he hoped a crowd at the White House this week would provide for “that interaction back and forth” with the president.
In fact, on Monday, the president made an unannounced stop at the site of the Republican National Convention’s limited, in-person proceedings in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he spoke for nearly an hour to a crowd of delegates indoors.
Later in the day, Trump traveled to Mills River, North Carolina, ostensibly for an official event on feeding Americans during the pandemic that was the impetus for his visit to the political battleground state.
In reality, he used the majority of his remarks at the taxpayer-funded event to campaign against his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The president railed against Democratic governors who he has alleged, without evidence, are keeping coronavirus-related restrictions in place to suppress the economy and hurt him politically — including North Carolina’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, who backed limitations that ultimately prevented a large-scale, in-person GOP convention from taking place.
“All Democrats, they want to keep it closed as long as possible — right up until the election, then they’re gonna open it,” he said, without providing any factual basis for the assertion, which he has made before.
Biden and public health experts have highlighted the risk of Trump’s in-person campaigning.
“Look what happens when — with what’s happened with his, his events — people die,” Biden said Friday in an exclusive interview with ABC “World News Tonight” Anchor David Muir. “People get together. They don’t wear masks. They end up getting COVID. They end up dying.”
ABC News’ Kendall Karson, Terrance Smith and Conor Finnegan contributed reporting.
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