I noticed US President Trump held a Republican National Convention (RNC) event at the White House the other day.

Is it not illegal, and unprecedented, for the President to use the White House — a federal government installation — in that way?


3 Answers 3


One of the things that people ought to understand (but generally don't) is that any form of democracy — any form of government, in fact, but democracy is particularly sensitive to the principle — runs on institutions, not laws. Democratic institutions are generally accepted norms of behavior that people adhere to not because they are afraid of punishment, but because they respect other citizens, and respect the form of government as valid and legitimate in and of itself. In that sense, it hardly matters whether Trump's actions are illegal. The question of their legality should never arise, because the actions deeply violate political norms in the USA.

The Hatch Act, passed in 1939, is a good example of this principle. In the congressional election of 1938 local Democratic leaders (under a Democratic administration) used employees of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to bolster their campaigns, particularly in swing states. At the time this action was not illegal; it was not even an issue that people had bother to consider. However, it dawned on many in Congress that this behavior violated the institutional norms of free and fair elections. Using the WPA in this fashion granted those Democratic leaders free labor (paid for by US citizens of all parties), and gave those leaders a veneer of legitimacy — as though the Federal government itself was supporting their campaigns — which was a distinct and unfair advantage over anyone not associated with the current political administration. Further, it had a faint odor of coercion: a question of whether federal employees were obliged to help the Democratic party, since a Democratic administration ostensibly wrote their paychecks. This also did not rise to the level of illegality — at least, no outright charges were filed, despite avid investigation — but clearly violated the institutional norm of freedom to support one's preferred party. Senator Carl Hatch, a Democrat from New Mexico, subsequently sponsored the eponymous act that broadly prevented the use of public employees, agencies, and resources in political campaigns.

Kudos to the Democrats of the era for self-policing...

The point is that the creation of the law was subsequent to the violation of political norms and institutions. While there is a pertinent question of whether Trump's actions specifically violated the law itself, we should pay more attention to the fact that it unambiguously violated the norms and institutions of free and fair elections. Trump used high-ranking employees of the administration, family members being paid by the Federal government, and public resources such as the White House itself, all to further the political ends of his own party.

The philosophical problem we have with Trump is that Trump does not appear to respect anything. He is dismissive of our form of government, constantly denigrating the election process, the judicial process, the media, and any institutional check or balance that might limit his own use of power. He does not respect other citizens: he praises them if they give him loyalty, he degrades or condemns them if they don't, calling them thugs, traitors, or etc. Trump is transactional and teleological: he decides what he wants, and he does whatever he thinks is the easiest and surest way of getting it, and he has no concern for the damage he does to others in the wake of his actions. Our institutional norms mean nothing to him at all, except to the extent that he knows violating those norms will create conflict and division that he can use to his political advantage.

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    This wasn't a question about Trump or what he respects. In a democractic regime with functioning institutions, those check-and-balance each other - not perfectly, but in many respects. Supposedly, such a check was possible for this event through the courts, or actually, merely by directing the attention of white house staff to the legal impossibility of holding this event. But strangely, I have not head anything about that being attempted; hence the question.
    – einpoklum
    Aug 29, 2020 at 19:46
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    @einpoklum: the question explicitly mentions Trump, so the first part of your comment is incorrect. The second part is misleading, at best. If the question needs to be referred to the courts, that ipso facto means that the institution is not being respected. And this is precisely what Trump consistently does: break the rules and force people to pursue him in court, where he has the advantage of wealth and power. Aug 29, 2020 at 20:58
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    As much as I personally liked this answer, I'm downvoting it because right now it doesn't actually answer the question. What's written so-far is fine as a background or editorial sidebar to an answer, but "Can partisan events be held in the White House?" should be directly answerable, regardless of the contemporaneous political climate.
    – Dai
    Aug 31, 2020 at 4:32
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    This does not answer the question asked.
    – qwr
    Aug 31, 2020 at 6:40
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    @qwr: it answers the question behind the question that was asked, which is sometimes the best course of action. But I'll review it and see if I can make that clearer. Aug 31, 2020 at 7:06

Yes, unprecedented. Perhaps illegal, though it obviously hasn't gone to court yet. It is possible that Federal employees who are engaging in political activities in "building occupied in the discharge of official purposes" have breached some of the civil (not criminal) parts of the Hatch act. It is possible that officals have used their authority to instruct federal employees to work on behalf of a candidate (which is a criminal offence) (source, which is generally partisan)

However the President is in the clear. He is excempt from the civil provisions and It is fairly clear that he can't be prosecuted for criminal activities while in office. It is most unlikely that any foreseeable election will produce a Trump presidency and a supermajority for the Democrats in the senate (needed to successfully remove the president by impeachment). It would seem to be unlikely that this will become a major election issue.

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    I'm gonna have to argue with "unprecedented." FDR gave his acceptance speech for his third nomination by television from the White House. I'd argue that that is definitely a partisan event. That doesn't, of course, speak to the legality of using the White House for convention events, but it is a precedent for such events.
    – Gryphon
    Aug 30, 2020 at 17:51
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    @Gryphon I don't know how strong that precedent would be. He gave his speech on a very new technology (he was the first President to appear on TV at all) - the broadcast likely took a lot to set up, and the White House would have been a good environment for that. FDR also had his physical issues that might have made leaving the White House more of an effort, and while the US was not formally at war, Europe certainly was and it was a difficult time. The fact that no President since has used the White House for such events may speak more to the precedent than this one contrary action.
    – Kayndarr
    Aug 31, 2020 at 2:05
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    @Kayndarr All of those various points you mentioned are definitely very good reasons for FDR to have given his speech from the White House. However, that doesn't mean that the fact that he did isn't a precedent. It would be pretty hard to argue that there isn't an array of special circumstances right now too. You could definitely say using the WHite House for that kind of event is rare or unusual or even almost unprecedented, but actually saying it's unprecedented is incorrect.
    – Gryphon
    Aug 31, 2020 at 3:54
  • @Gryphon I agree, just wanted to discuss how a court might interpret the applicability of that precedent if a case arose. Your comment does bring up an interesting point - one could argue that even without the precedent, the current Coronavirus crisis might permit the President to campaign from the White House for his own safety (though the large crowd he invited would damage that argument).
    – Kayndarr
    Aug 31, 2020 at 4:56
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    "being in the clear" because one "can't be prosecuted" is quite different from acting legally.
    – Evargalo
    Aug 31, 2020 at 13:55

Not entirely unprecedented according to USA Today. Nor exactly illegal, according to RNC, but others don't necessarily agree:

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. [...]

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." [...]

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.”

[...] 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.

N.B. advisers to the president (Cabinet officials) can't be fired through the Merit Systems Protection Board like other federal employees can, for violating the Hatch Act. Only the President can fire them. Apparently that was duly noted since Pompeo also took part by teleconferencing in Trump's acceptance event.

No other sitting secretary of state had delivered a speech like his before their party's political convention.

As far as similar events from officials go:

President Barack Obama similarly didn't discipline his former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in 2012 when she was found in violation of the Hatch Act, or his HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who was found in violation of the Hatch Act for a 2016 interview in which he praised Hillary Clinton.

However, both of those officials released statements apologizing following the OSC's investigations -- while Conway has remained defiant and not apologized or even acknowledged her alleged violations, according to the OSC.

  • Advisors and cabinet officials are distinct categories that are treated similarly under the Hatch act. This answer implies that the terms are synonymous.
    – phoog
    Oct 11, 2020 at 15:29

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