Six Executive Branch Staffers Warned on Hatch Act Violations for Tweeting "#MAGA"

Oliver Lester, of Montgomery, wears a hat with President Donald Trump's campaign slogan Nov. 6, 2018, in Montgomery, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

WASHINGTON — The Office of the Special Counsel — the permanent federal investigative agency, not Robert Mueller’s team — found Hatch Act violations with six White House employees for mixing campaigning with federal business, while exonerating four others including press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

The Hatch Act of 1939, named for New Mexico Sen. Carl Hatch, prohibits executive branch employees, excluding those at the highest levels, from certain types of political activity and active campaigning.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed complaints with the OSC saying that tweets in support of President Trump and the GOP, including the #MAGA hashtag, qualified as political activity and were violations.

Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah, Deputy Director of Communications Jessica Ditto, Executive Assistant to the President Madeleine Westerhout, former Director of Media Affairs Helen Aguirre Ferré, Press Secretary for Vice President Mike Pence Alyssa Farah, and OMB Deputy Communications Director Jacob Wood were cited for Hatch Act violations. Sanders, deputy press secretaries Lindsay Walters and Hogan Gidley, and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney were exonerated.

Violations of Westerhout, Farah, Wood included using #MAGA in tweets and retweeting President Trump doing the same. Shah tweeted research from the Republican National Committee using his official account; Ditto retweeted Shah’s message. Ferré’s violation was using a “Make America Great Again” header on her Twitter account.

“Under the Hatch Act, retweeting a message from a political party chairperson with the campaign slogan of a current candidate for partisan political office constitutes political activity,” the OSC said of the hashtag in the ruling.

“Ms. Ferré deactivated the ‘@haferre45’ Twitter account when she left the White House. And once Mses. Westerhout, Farah, and Ditto and Messrs. Wood and Shah became aware that their tweets violated the Hatch Act, they deleted the posts,” the ruling noted. “Thus, although we have concluded that these six EOP employees violated the Hatch Act, we have decided not to pursue disciplinary action and are closing their files without further action. They all have been advised that if in the future they engage in prohibited political activity while employed in a position covered by the Hatch Act, we will consider such activity to be a willful and knowing violation of the law, which could result in further action.”

On Sanders and Walters, the OSC ruled that CREW’s complaint that they used half of the slogan in a tweet — “great again” — didn’t constitute a Hatch Act violation.

CREW complained that Mulvaney used the hashtag #MAGAnomics, but the OSC ruled that “because the Trump Administration branded its economic plan with the name ‘MAGAnomics,’ OMB’s continued use of the name was not for the purpose of affecting the result of an election but rather to further the Administration’s economic agenda.”

And though Gidley tweeted “#MAGA,” he did so before the OSC issued guidance to staffers that, since Trump began his re-election campaign, use of the slogan constitutes banned political activity.

“While we are glad to see the OSC confirm CREW’s findings of Hatch Act violations, warnings have not been enough to deter Trump Administration officials from using their official positions to engage in partisan political activity in direct violation of the law,” CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder reacted in a statement. “Since the time that these violations were committed, CREW has filed 11 additional Hatch Act complaints against Trump officials. Simply put, OSC must consider additional measures to prevent these rampant abuses.”