RNC: Trump criticized for using White House as a backdrop for the convention

WASHINGTON – Watching the Republican National Convention? Then you've already seen quite a bit of the White House, and there's more on the way.

President Donald Trump will formally accept the Republican nomination Thursday from the South Lawn, where a stage was being constructed over the weekend. The first lady is set to deliver her remarks Tuesday night from the newly renovated Rose Garden. And Trump is making "surprise" appearances, with guests, from inside the White House during the convention.

The use of the White House as a convention backdrop is unconventional and comes as Trump and the RNC scrambled to finalize details amid cancellations and COVID-19.

Previous presidents have avoided blurring the line between campaign-style events, such as party conventions, with the official business of governing from the White House. Nowquestions are bubbling about the propriety of the arrangement.

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President Donald Trump speaks with former hostages during the Republican National Convention at the White House in Washington, D.C., Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows defended Trump's decision to deliver his convention address from the White House, saying Monday it is necessary during the "unprecedented time” as the country battles the COVID-19 pandemic. 

He also stated the venue choice was purposeful, noting Trump is "willing to travel everywhere" but that the background of the White House matches the message the president wishes to send to voters.

“No, it's not about convenience," Meadows 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.”

Still, government watchdog groups and others worry that even the appearance of a political event at the White House raises concerns about ethical conflicts.

What is the Hatch Act?

Trump giving his acceptance speech at the White House has raised questions about the Hatch Act.

The Hatch Act is a 1939 law that restricts federal employees' engagement in specific partisan political activities, with the aim of preventing members of the executive branch from interfering in elections. These prohibited activities include running for office, hosting fundraisers, making campaign speeches or distributing campaign materials.

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White House as seen from North Lawn, with Washington Monument in distance.

After concerns were raised following the announcement of the speech location, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said in a letter that Trump could deliver his RNC speech from the White House because "the President and Vice President are not covered by any of the provisions of the Hatch Act." 

But White House employees technically would not be able to assist in the address, with the letter explaining they "are covered by the Hatch Act, so there may be Hatch Act implications for those employees, depending on their level of involvement with the event and their position in the White House." 

Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, said the White House would be careful to abide by the Hatch Act, saying “RNC convention events will be planned and executed, at whatever the venue, by the Trump campaign and RNC.” 

“Any government employees who may participate will do so in compliance with the Hatch Act,” he said.

Republicans are arguing that the speech on the South Lawn may avoid the part of the Hatch Act's provision that prohibits partisan activities in federal buildings, as they interpret that location as part of the president's residence.

This won't be the first time a sitting president has used the White House to accept a party's nomination. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his acceptance speech from the White House via radio to the Democratic convention that nominated him for an unprecedented third term.

Criticism, concern after Monday night

Trump also used several rooms of the White House as the backdrop for a few round-table segments during the RNC on Monday.

While it was widely reported that Trump would be accepting the nomination from the White House, several clips from the first night of the convention were also filmed in the White House. 

Critics had questioned whether Trump would be breaking the law if government employees assisted in the convention – and that concern was amplified Monday. 

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MSNBC host Joy Reid tweeted, "No masks in site at this 'frontline workers' meetup with Trump, using the White House as a set. I don’t even know where to begin."

Jonathan Ladd, an associate professor from Georgetown, posted, "It's still illegal under the Hatch Act for any White House staffer to participate in executing a campaign photo op/video segment in the White House."

"The law still matters. It should be enforced," he concluded.

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Former GOP Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, who endorsed Democratic nominee Joe Biden, tweeted the White House shouldn't be used "for campaign purposes.

An unprecedented convention

The location of the president's acceptance address will be just one of the ways the RNC will break with political norms, with First Lady Melania Trump also giving an address from the Rose Garden on Tuesday.

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Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will join virtually to endorse the president from a location in Jerusalem, a speech that may violate State Department policy. In an email obtained by Politico, the State Department's Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun highlighted the agency's limits on engaging in partisan political activity, says that “Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event.” 

Other Hatch Act concerns have arisen over the speeches of Trump advisers Kellyanne Conway and Ivanka Trump. 

The White House stated Ivanka will be speaking in her “personal capacity.” 

Ivanka Trump listens Monday as President Donald Trump speaks at the 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

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Trump’s daughter and the other senior officials who speak at the RNC are subject to the Hatch Act’s civil statues. The White House has defended their involvement.

Questions again emerged after the White House was used as a background for pre-taped "surprise appearances" from Trump to swear in five new U.S. citizens and to pardon Jon Ponder.

Those two instances — which were filmed and later aired at the RNC — drew scrutiny from Democrats, some of whom questioned the president's use of an official act at a political convention.

Others also raised concerns over the appearance of Trump cabinet member, acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, who conducted the naturalization ceremony for new citizens filmed for the political event.

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The coronavirus pandemic forced the RNC to select a new venue for Trump to deliver his speech. Republicans had initially chose Charlotte, North Carolina, for their convention but then shifted to Jacksonville, Florida, for the event's highest-profile speeches. 

Trump then canceled the events scheduled in Jacksonville, as coronavirus cases spiked there. He had also floated delivering the speech at the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania before choosing the White House.

Past Hatch Act violations, ethics concerns

Trump, and members of his administration and family, have faced ethical concerns before for using the power of the office promote private interests.

Last month, both Ivanka Trump and the president faced questions over potential violation of White House ethics rules as a result of a social media post that promoted Goya Foods, whose CEO had praised Trump.

Additionally, the Office of Special Counsel found that Conway was a "repeat offender" who had committed "egregious, notorious and ongoing" Hatch Act violations by disparaging Democratic presidential candidates. The Office of Special Counsel recommended the president fire her. Trump said he would not.

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Contributing: John Fritze, Michael Collins, David Jackson, Nicholas Wu