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Trump Puts Aides on Tightrope With White House Acceptance Speech

Bloomberg logo Bloomberg 8/5/2020 Emma Kinery

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s idea to give his nomination acceptance speech from the South Lawn of the White House may be legal -- for him. But it lays out a minefield of problems for the staff charged with putting such an event together.

Legal experts said White House staff would violate the federal Hatch Act by planning or participating in such an event. The Hatch Act bars U.S. government employees from conducting any political activities during work hours, while in a government building or while wearing a government uniform.

The president -- as Trump himself highlighted Wednesday -- and vice president are exempt from the law. But everyone else who works at the White House, from the chief of staff to the groundskeepers and event planners, are not.

“There is a legitimate objection to this. It’s never been done before and it involves massive use of White House personnel,” said Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration.

Trump on Wednesday said that not only would the proposed speech location be legal for him, but using the White House would save “tremendous amounts of money for the government.”

‘Least Expensive’

“It would be by far the least expensive location,” he said at a news conference. “There’d be very little in terms of that tremendous traveling security with airplanes and everybody flying all over the place. So I think it would be a very convenient idea, something that we threw out to be very cost conscious by comparison to any other location.”

But Painter said every federal employee who attends the event in their official capacity would be breaking the law.

“If he has White House staffers there with him, if he starts to put on a show, they bring in bleachers, they bring in an audience, you get protesters outside and have to deal with that, at that point you’re using a lot of federal resources for purposes of putting on a political stunt,” Painter said.

Read more: Biden, Democrats to Skip Milwaukee for Convention on Virus Worry

And having campaign workers come to the White House isn’t a solution, either.

Secret Service

While campaign staff aren’t affected by the Hatch Act, the government officials such as U.S. Secret Service agents who would provide security for them are.

“Every one of those campaign officials has got to go through Secret Service and they’ve got to give their Social Security number, they’ve got to have background checks on those people and that comes at taxpayer expense,” Painter said.

Painter, a vocal critic of the president, alleged that Attorney General William Barr violated the Hatch Act after he used federal law enforcement personnel to clear protesters from a park across from the White House before the president entered it.

Republican Senators John Thune and Mitt Romney also questioned the legality of a White House lawn acceptance speech.

“Is that even legal? I assume that’s not something you could do,” Thune told reporters. “I don’t know if that’s ever been done before. Maybe the 1800s, something like that?”

Romney mused, “I don’t know if it’s technically legal or not, but it’s got to be somewhere.”

a close up of a sign: RNC 2020 © Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg RNC 2020

2020 Republican National Convention signage is displayed inside the Spectrum Center during a media walk-through in Charlotte, North Carolina on Nov. 12, 2019.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

When asked for comment, White House spokesman Judd Deere noted the president isn’t subject to the Hatch Act, and didn’t comment on whether the administration was concerned about staffers being in violation. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Convention planning committee both declined to comment, deferring to the White House.

Initially, the convention was to be held in Charlotte, North Carolina, until Trump changed plans because Democratic Governor Roy Cooper refused to ease social distancing and other protective measures to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Trump first moved his acceptance speech to Jacksonville, Florida, but as cases increased there, he scrapped the Jacksonville event entirely. As of now, official convention business will still be held in Charlotte but the RNC has not announced the location for his acceptance speech.

(Adds Trump comments in fifth, sixth paragraphs)

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