As President Donald Trump worked to hold onto key swing states that were responsible for his victory four years earlier, one of his top White House aides went to work selling the case for the president’s reelection. And he did so on the taxpayer’s dime.
Peter Navarro, the director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy, spent the month of October producing half a dozen glossy reports, printed on White House stationery using federal government resources, extolling the virtues of Donald Trump’s economic policies. But these weren’t reports on the general health of the U.S. economy; they were designed to sell the president to residents of six crucial swing states: Florida, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.
The reports don’t explicitly call for voters to re-elect the president. But Navarro’s office doesn’t appear to have crafted them for any states that aren’t crucial battleground contests on Tuesday. And the political undertones are clear in the language the reports use.
“The Obama-Biden administration raised taxes, increased regulations, suppressed development of America’s natural resources, slashed the defense budget, and failed to crack down on unfair trade practices by countries like the Communist China,” reads the opening sentence in three of the reports. “The Trump-Pence administration has pursued just the opposite policies while following an ‘all job creation is local’ strategy to stimulate economic growth.”
None of the state-specific reports contain explicitly political messaging, but experts say they push the boundaries of laws barring the use of federal resources for political activity. Navarro himself appears to have skirted those laws in recent days. And his office’s efforts to boost the president’s image among swing-state voters in the final weeks of the campaign shows how the Trump White House has used the levers of government power to advance the president’s political objectives.
In the final weeks of the election, top White House staffers have increasingly been converted into tools of the president’s political apparatus. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and senior adviser Steven Miller have both been dispatched to cable news shows to appear as spokespeople—not for the White House but for the president’s reelection campaign. The White House itself has even been converted into a forum for pro-Trump politicking: Republicans held portions of their nominating convention at the White House itself, and Trump plans to host a party for roughly 400 people in its East Room.
Such activities have drawn persistent allegations that Trump and his team have flagrantly violated the Hatch Act, a federal law barring the use of official government titles or resources for partisan political purposes. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-leaning watchdog group, says that, in October alone, at least 16 Trump administration officials violated the Hatch Act. “The Trump administration seems to have adopted an affirmative policy of abusing federal resources to prop up the Trump re-election campaign,” the group wrote.
In an emailed statement, White House spokesman Judd Deere said that “both the official activity of Administration officials, as well as any political activity undertaken by members of the Administration, are conducted in compliance with the Hatch Act.”
The recent and extensive overlap between Trump’s government and political operations cap four years in which the blurry lines between the president’s public and private endeavors have persistently enveloped the administration in controversy—and even led to his impeachment. As Trump faces an uphill battle to re-election, that overlap has extended beyond normal day-to-day messaging. In Navarro, Trump appears to have deputized a top policy aide in an effort to court crucial voters on Tuesday.
CREW’s report on allegedly illicit Trump administration politicking highlighted two cable news appearances by Navarro last month in which he promoted his office’s new swing-state reports. In a letter to the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates Hatch Act violations, the group also noted Navarro’s use of his official Twitter account to explicitly call for Trump’s reelection.
On the day that CREW sent that letter to the OSC, Navarro removed “45” from his Twitter handle and edited its bio to describe it as a personal account.
The swing-state reports from Navarro’s office are not quite so blatant. But in his October 19 appearance on Fox Business, Navarro couched his office’s reports as establishing a “contrast between the policies of President Trump and Joe Biden.” The reports themselves are explicit on that front. In attacking various policies of the prior president, the reports routinely refer not to the “Obama administration,” but to the “Obama-Biden administration.”
It’s not clear how widely any of those reports have been distributed. Beyond Navarro’s plugs on Fox Business, he and senior White House official Andrew Giuliani, the son of the president’s personal attorney, both promoted the Florida report through their respective Twitter accounts while Trump held a campaign rally in the state.
That Fox Business appearance resulted in a second OSC complaint filed by CREW last month, which highlighted similarly political language that Navarro himself used on air. And while Donald Sherman, CREW’s deputy director, acknowledges that Navarro’s swing state reports do not contain explicit calls to vote for or against a candidate for office, he says they could still run afoul of prohibitions on the political use of federal resources.
“OSC has found that context matters” in assessing whether a policy or statement or official government action violated the Hatch Act, Sherman told The Daily Beast in an interview. He pointed to the repeated references to the “Obama-Biden administration” and references to policy that “sets Trump apart” from his political opposition as evidence that the reports are, by their nature, political.
More fundamentally, Sherman said, the White House’s focus on those six states shows why taxpayer-backed politicking is so problematic.
“What the White House is essentially saying to the American public is that despite a global pandemic and an economic crisis affecting 50 states and all of our U.S. territories... that these handful of states are the only ones that need the attention of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy,” Sherman said. “It’s a slap in the face to people who are hurting in deep blue states, deep red states, and every state not included in this list of battleground states that the president is desperately trying to use federal resources to win over.”