White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki hasn’t had an easy ride, so far, despite a largely sympathetic press corps. Her main problem appears to be an unwillingness – or perhaps an inability – to give a direct answer to any but the simplest question. She frequently promises to “circle back” to a particular reporter, punting her answer to a later date and perhaps hoping or assuming the said reporter will never follow up. More recently, though, Psaki committed a greater sin than being evasive; she violated federal law. That is not really a matter of opinion, but a fact – if one chooses a strict interpretation of the law in question. One could opt to view the situation differently, of course, which is exactly what is going to happen, since members of the Biden administration appear to be entirely above the law.
To be clear, Psaki’s potential or probable criminal activity is neither grave nor unique. She violated the Hatch Act by clearly endorsing a candidate for political office while carrying out her official duty as Joe Biden’s press secretary. The Hatch Act, signed into law in 1939 and amended three times since, prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity, which covers a lot of things. The current version of the act does allow certain exceptions. Some government workers, for instance, can engage in “political activity” when they are off duty, not in uniform (should their job require a uniform), and not in a government building.
That said, the act defines political activity as including “any activity directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group.” Thus, when Psaki said, in answer to a reporter’s question about the Virginia gubernatorial race, “We’re going to do everything we can to help former Governor [Terry] McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he’s representing,” she engaged in “prohibited partisan political activity.” It’s that “we believe in the agenda … ” bit that jumps out as a Hatch Act violation.
Promised to Do Better
The real problem, here, isn’t that Psaki violated the Hatch Act. After all, it would take very little research to uncover numerous possible or certain violations spanning multiple administrations. The problem is that Mr. Biden, as well as his allies and supporters in the halls of power, constantly berated his predecessor, Donald Trump, for various perceived acts of corruption or dishonesty. Biden promised to do better; like former President Barack Obama, he suggested he would bring decency and honesty to the White House, and, like his former boss, Biden has failed to do so.
Psaki’s defenders on social media dived into the game of “whataboutism” when Trump’s former press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, tweeted the question: “Why does the media not hold @PressSec accountable for potential Hatch Act violations? She has twice advocated for political candidates from the podium.”
As some pointed out, McEnany herself also violated the Hatch Act – at least, some of her past words and actions could be interpreted that way. That is still beside the point. As the adage says, two wrongs don’t make a right. It is entirely irrelevant that countless executive branch officials, over many years, have violated the act. This administration pledged to be better, and yet multiple senior officials, including Biden himself, have been caught up in political or financial scandals. Psaki’s transgression is but one more example of open flouting of legal or ethical boundaries by Mr. Biden and those who serve in his administration.
A government watchdog, Citizens for Responsibility & Ethics in Washington (CREW), lodged a complaint against the press secretary:
“By mixing official government business with support of a candidate for partisan political office in the weeks before the election and engaging in political activity while on duty, Ms. Psaki appears to have used her official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election, political activity that is prohibited by law.”
This was no partisan attack. CREW alleged numerous Hatch Act violations by members of the Trump administration. In response to the group’s complaint, Psaki told Fox News, “While the president has publicly expressed his support for McAuliffe, we’ll leave it to the press and the campaign to provide commentary on the race. I take ethics very seriously and will choose my words more carefully moving forward.” Presidents and vice presidents are not bound by Hatch Act restrictions. With her statement to Fox, though, Psaki effectively acknowledged she broke the law.
So, it’s business as usual in Washington, D.C., despite the empty promises to provide the American people with decent, honest, and ethical government. Well, perhaps it isn’t business as usual, since business hasn’t been this bad for quite some time.
~ Read more from Graham J Noble.