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Escape Hatch: 10 times the White House cited this law to avoid questions in 2022

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 12/30/2022 Haisten Willis
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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre takes the Hatch Act seriously. Passed in 1939 to prohibit government employees from overt political campaigning, the Hatch Act has caught up many a presidential staffer over the years.

But Jean-Pierre may have found a new twist on the law in 2022, citing the act early and often during her press briefings, arguably as a way to skirt unwanted inquiries.


"It sounds to me like she's overusing it and arguably using it as an excuse to avoid answering questions," Harvard Law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz told the Washington Examiner in October. "Disclosing a schedule would not be a violation of the Hatch Act."

Other scholars say they're fine with the White House citing the act as often as they'd like; better to overcite than undercite or ignore it, as some Trump staffers often did.

Jean-Pierre began mentioning the act in early August as the midterm elections neared and hasn't stopped in the weeks since elections ended, naming the Hatch Act in more than two dozen different press briefings since Aug. 4.

Though there are many more examples, here are 10 times she cited the act in refusing to answer a question.

What will Biden's schedule look like?

Jean-Pierre cited the Hatch Act as the reason she couldn't say what President Joe Biden's schedule would look like ahead of the midterm elections — one of six times she mentioned the act in a single briefing on Oct. 17.

"[Biden] hasn’t attended any rallies or public-facing events with candidates in recent weeks," a reporter said. "What will his schedule look like in the coming weeks as the midterms get closer?"

"I have to be careful because we do respect the Hatch Act and our strict limits from here," she responded. "So, I want to be very, very careful."

Jean-Pierre did follow that up by mentioning two upcoming trips and several previous ones but then reiterated that she couldn't say more.

Why is Biden doing closed-door fundraisers with no photographers?

"I understand you have the Hatch Act to consider," a reporter asked on Oct. 18, hoping to preempt a citation.

"But what I was curious about is: Even though we're seeing the president out there, he's been doing these smaller events with smaller audiences. He's been doing closed-door fundraisers with no photographers. Why aren’t we seeing big campaign rallies?"

The attempted preemption was not successful.

"Look, I can't answer that question from here," Jean-Pierre said. "It is an election — an election that's currently happening at this time, so I'm very limited to what I can say from the podium."

Why are Democrats backing far-right candidates?

Democrats raised a few eyebrows in the fall by backing far-right candidates in Republican primaries, hoping they could beat them in November. A reporter tried to ask about this on Aug. 4, only to get the Hatch Act as an answer.

"Can I quickly get you to respond to the Peter Meijer situation?" the inquiry began. "He's one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. He went down on Tuesday night. But the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) and other groups were going hard to boost his pro-Trump opponent. Does the president have a view of playing ball in primaries like that in a way that helps Trumpists?"

The answer was no.

"Because of the Hatch Act, I cannot speak to any political campaigns or elections — midterms including," said Jean-Pierre. "And so I just can't speak to that at this time."

Why isn’t Biden visiting battleground states?

Biden employed a low-profile campaign strategy in the midterm elections, one which ultimately proved successful. But some questioned why a sitting president would avoid campaigning in battleground states, with the response often including the Hatch Act.

"Can you talk to us a little bit about the thinking on the president's upcoming travel?" a reporter asked on Oct. 11. "He's going to the West Coast tomorrow. He isn’t visiting Arizona or Nevada. I mean, we have four weeks until the midterms. Should we expect to see him travel to some of the more competitive states, campaign alongside some of the candidates who are in very competitive races?"

"As I've said many times, we, here at the White House, this administration, we respect the Hatch Act," Jean-Pierre said. "I'm going to be very mindful of that. And I cannot speak of the 2022 midterm elections or any elections from this podium."

Was John Fetterman impaired by his stroke?

Sen.-elect John Fetterman (D-PA) made a lot of headlines after suffering a stroke in May and being rather coy about his recovery afterward. After Biden met with Fetterman in October, a reporter asked about the president's impressions of his health.

"After speaking with John Fetterman, does the president believe that he has any impairments from the stroke?" came an Oct. 14 question. "And then, did he have any advice to him about stroke recovery?"

Jean-Pierre would not say.

"So first, can't speak to the midterms or the elections," she said. "I want to be very clear. I've got to respect the Hatch Act. This administration does respect that."

The press secretary did add that Biden respects Fetterman and that "they have a relationship" but would not go further.

What should Biden be telling voters about inflation?

Inflation began running hot during the summer of Biden's first year in office and hasn't let up since. But an Oct. 19 question on this topic still merited a Hatch Act mention.

"House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in an interview posted today by Punchbowl News, said that Democrats need to improve their messaging when it comes to inflation over the next three weeks before the midterms," a reporter said. "She calls inflation a 'global issue' and points out, or argues, that because unemployment has decreased under Democrats and Biden that inflation has gone up. ... What's your response to the speaker of the House saying that there is a messaging issue?"

Jean-Pierre responded that she's got to be mindful because of the Hatch Act and elaborated following some back-and-forth with the reporter.

"I want to make sure that I adhere to the Hatch Act," she said. "We have always been very clear, the president has always been very clear. We understand — I know you were talking about polls and what the American people are feeling. We understand what they're feeling. We understand that they are feeling a bit of a crunch because of inflation."

Jean-Pierre then listed off some of the administration's policies, contrasting them with Republicans who she said want to get rid of Social Security and Medicare.

Is Biden’s democracy message undermined by Democrats supporting election deniers?

Another inquiry about Democrats financially backing election deniers in the GOP primaries came on Nov. 3.

"Karine, does the president feel like his message on threats to democracy is undermined by Democrats who spend millions to elevate election-denying Republicans in the primaries?" came the question. "And will he call out those Democrats if some of those election-denying Republicans win on Tuesday?"

The only thing called out was the Hatch Act.

"I've been asked that question many times, and I'm just not going to get involved in any political strategy that's related to the midterms. I'm not going to do that from here," Jean-Pierre said. "I hear you. I'm just not going to answer that question because there's the Hatch Act, and you're talking about a specific election strategy. And so I'm not going to comment about that."

Has the president spoken to the DNC about the 2024 primary calendar?

Lately, Jean-Pierre has begun saying she's "covered" by the Hatch Act, making explicit the defensive nature of the citations.

When discussions arose about the Democratic National Committee making South Carolina rather than Iowa the first state to hold 2024 presidential primaries, questions arose about Biden's role since the Palmetto State helped fuel his 2020 campaign.

"Karine, has the president had any discussions with DNC members about their 2024 primary calendar," a reporter asked on Nov. 29.

"So, look, that's a political question that — I'm covered under the Hatch Act — that I can't speak to," Jean-Pierre said. "So, any specifics on that, I would refer you to the DNC."

Will Biden support Kyrsten Sinema after her party switch?

The Hatch Act-ing of questions didn't stop even once the midterm elections and Georgia's runoff election ended. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) shocked Democrats in early December by announcing she'd become an independent, prompting questions about how Biden might react.

"Does Sen. Sinema have the support of the president in this decision and moving forward into 2024?" a reporter asked on Dec. 9.

"So, cannot speak to 2024," came the response. "I'm covered by the Hatch Act. And as far as I understand it, she hasn't announced her plans for 2024 yet. So it's just not something that I'm going to speak to."

The press secretary did add a moment later that the White House sees Sinema as a "key partner" and that "we understand her decision to register as an independent."

Should Biden return campaign contributions from Sam Bankman-Fried?

FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried's fall from grace embroiled Washington as it was revealed that he donated huge sums to Democrats and wined and dined with a top government regulator before the walls closed in. Naturally, reporters began asking questions.

"The president received campaign donations from [Bankman-Fried], and many prominent Democrats did, some Republicans did as well," one correspondent asked on Dec. 13. "Will the president return that donation? Does he call on all politicians who got campaign donations that may have come from customer money to return those funds?"

We still don't know.

"So, look, I am covered here by the Hatch Act," said Jean-Pierre. "I’m limited on what I can say. And anything that's connected to political contributions from here, I would have to refer you to the DNC."

The reporter tried to clarify that it was only Biden's opinion that was of interest.

"No, you asked me two questions," Jean-Pierre said. "You asked me about will he return the donations, and then you asked me about his opinion. I’m answering the first part, which is: I’m covered by the Hatch Act from here. I am limited on what I can say. And I just can't talk to political contributions or anything related to that. I cannot speak about it from here."


The reporter followed up again.

“Are you covered by the Hatch Act?" the correspondent asked.

"I am covered by the Hatch Act," said Jean-Pierre, "which I’m happy to say over and over again because we believe in the rule of law here.”


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Tags: 2022: Year in Review, News, White House, Washington D.C., Karine Jean-Pierre, Biden Administration

Original Author: Haisten Willis

Original Location: Escape Hatch: 10 times the White House cited this law to avoid questions in 2022


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