Three weeks before Election Day, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) stood outside the veterans’ hospital in the Denver suburb of Aurora, in front of the cameras and flanked by Robert Wilkie, the secretary of Veterans’ Affairs.
It was exactly the kind of event that an incumbent facing a tough election, like Gardner, needs to have these days—a chance to demonstrate Washington clout by appearing next to a Cabinet official while hammering home a commitment to resolving an important and entirely uncontroversial home-state issue. The event was covered in local TV news and newspaper headlines, all of which broadcast Gardner’s desire to secure a new VA hospital for Colorado Springs. Though other federal lawmakers were invited, none came, giving Gardner the spotlight.
That scene has been replicated around the country in the home stretch of the 2020 election, with Donald Trump’s presidency and the Senate majority on the line for Republicans. Over the past three months, several Trump administration Cabinet officials have touched down in battleground states or districts to join prominent local Republicans, frequently those facing tough elections, for press events and photo ops, according to a Daily Beast review of Cabinet officials’ schedules and social media accounts.
Since August, Wilkie has traveled to at least 13 states for events with at least seven lawmakers. Four of them were incumbent GOP senators in tight races; one was a Democrat. Sonny Perdue, the Secretary of Agriculture, has appeared with at least 16 lawmakers in trips around the country in the last three months; eight were endangered GOP lawmakers, and one was a Democrat. And David Bernhardt, the Secretary of the Interior, has appeared with at least eight politicians since July, a group that includes Gardner, and at least one Democrat—Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), who Gardner has associated himself with in campaign ads.
Most of the time, so long as taxpayer resources are not explicitly directed toward campaign purposes, such activity does not break the law nor ethics rules. Donald Trump’s administration is hardly the first to recognize how the advantages of incumbency can be leveraged for the gain of the president and his party. In 2012, President Barack Obama’s administration deployed Cabinet secretaries around the country for events both official and unofficial that sparked questions over the line between government duties and Obama campaign priorities. The administration of George W. Bush before it behaved similarly.
But the Trump administration breaks from its predecessors on two fronts: the timing of trips from officials, and the backdrop of the last three and a half years, which has seen a torrent of ethical abuses from the president and his top lieutenants that have generally obliterated past standards for ethical conduct.
But observers have been struck by how close these Cabinet officials’ fly-ins have been to early voting periods and Election Day. Kathleen Sebelius, who was Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2009 to 2014, recalled to The Daily Beast her travel for the 2012 election, but said that within 90 days of Election Day, “the notion was, nobody was to go anywhere that was viewed as overtly political, to do anything.”
According to Jeff Hauser of the Revolving Door Project, a nonprofit that scrutinizes executive branch employees, “as with many issues under Trump, this is a rapid acceleration of a problem that does have some precedent.”
“What I’m most fearful about is not the travel alone, but the general understanding that Trump is a dealmaker, willing to use current political power to try to secure future power,” said Hauser, saying that provides a backdrop that may give Trump officials’ visits to lawmakers a “transactional” quality.
The Cabinet officials’ events over the last three months have varied in scope, but all have resulted in positive exposure for the lawmakers involved. In August, Bernhardt traveled to central Illinois to designate an African American historical site, praising the local congressman facing a stiff Democratic challenge, Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), for his “strong” advocacy of the project. In September, Perdue went to Nebraska and appeared at a food bank with local Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE), one of the most at-risk House GOP incumbents.
Wilkie’s visits to Colorado, Montana, Maine, and North Carolina in recent months, meanwhile, provided helpful political material to the GOP incumbents in those states. In August, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) was Wilkie’s guest of honor at a ceremony dedicating a military cemetery, an event that the Maine Republican promoted on her campaign social media accounts. In Montana, Wilkie joined Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) at several events at the end of September, providing a quote for a release from Daines’ office.
And in August, Wilkie visited his home state of North Carolina and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), who Wilkie used to work for as a staffer, and appeared in a video posted to Tillis’ official Senate website. “I’m here because of you and your dedication to the veterans in North Carolina,” Wilkie told Tillis in the video.
Representatives for Cabinet officials insist that it is the secretaries’ jobs to travel the country, even in an election season. But their activity has drawn criticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill, who argue they have gone a step too far.
In an Oct. 13 letter, the top Democrats on the Senate and House committees for veterans, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), wrote to Wilkie claiming he “may have misused taxpayer funds and other government assets in an effort to benefit the reelection of President Trump and certain Republican candidates seeking office in 2020.” The VA’s own internal guidance on visits to department facilities by lawmakers and other officeholders states that “VA must avoid the appearance that Department facilities are being used to support political candidates or campaign events.”
A spokesperson for Wilkie, Christina Noel, said in a statement that “the notion that these visits are somehow improper is absurd” and criticized the Democrats’ letter to the secretary as unfounded, “call[ing] into question who’s being partisan in this situation.” She said that Wilkie has in the past visited Tester and Takano’s home states at their requests, though Tester criticized Wilkie for deciding to make his first visit to Montana as secretary on the eve of a heated election. The Montana Democrat says he first invited Wilkie, who was confirmed in July 2018, to the state over a year ago.
Montana is unique in that Daines’ Democratic opponent in the Senate race, Steve Bullock, happens to be the sitting governor. A state’s chief executive is usually included in events with visiting Cabinet officials—but Bullock was not invited to Wilkie’s Sept. 28 event in the state, according to the governor’s office, though Wilkie later requested to meet and they ultimately spoke by phone.
The governor was also not invited by Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette when he visited Montana on Oct. 3 for an event to tour a coal mine, said Bullock’s office. Though the governor did receive an invite the day before—not from Brouillette but from a local organization—he ultimately could not go. News reports of the event show Brouillette and Daines touring the facility in what was a politically useful visit for Daines, who is running in part on energy and environment issues in this resource-rich state. “I’m excited to welcome Secretary Brouillette to Colstrip to meet with hardworking Montanans and talk about the importance of supporting Montana energy jobs and having a diverse energy portfolio,” Daines said in a prepared statement about the event.
A spokesperson for Bullock’s office, Marissa Perry, said “it’s disappointing the governor has not been included” in Trump administration officials’ visits.
Brouillette also visited Colorado for an event featuring Gardner on Aug. 12, a groundbreaking ceremony for an energy laboratory that Gardner said he helped to secure funding for.
A spokesperson for the Department of Energy told The Daily Beast that whenever the secretary travels, his staff notifies the area’s congressional delegation. The spokesperson noted that during a recent trip to Michigan, Brouillette was joined by a mix of Democratic and GOP officials, including Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), one of the few vulnerable incumbent Democrats up for reelection this fall, and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who Trump has relentlessly attacked.
Elsewhere, Perdue, a former Georgia governor who is close to Trump, has faced scrutiny from ethics watchdogs for his blurring of the line between government and campaign; notably, in August, Perdue led an audience at an official USDA event with a chant of “four more years!” He has visited several key battleground states in the last few months, including Iowa, North Carolina, Michigan, Florida, Minnesota, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona. Perdue’s social media posts from those visits have promoted several lawmakers who are relying on their farm country clout to win, such as Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA).
“Secretary Perdue is an unabashed advocate for American agriculture and has traveled to all 50 states at least once,” a USDA spokesperson told The Daily Beast. The Secretary’s policy, according to his office, is to notify an area’s House and Senate delegations in advance of a planned trip; otherwise, events featuring a federal lawmaker and Perdue usually happen at the request of the lawmaker. Rep. Scott, the Georgia Democrat, was the only Democrat to request Perdue visit his district, according to the USDA.
A spokesperson for Bernhardt, who most recently traveled to Colorado on Oct. 3 for an event with Gardner, said “elected officials–of both political parties–have been invited to participate in various aspects of the Secretary’s visits to states that these individuals represent.”
Sebelius, the former HHS Secretary, told The Daily Beast that any federal government officials’ snubbing of local officials during federal administration visits, especially important figures like a governor, would be ridiculous. “You don’t go to anybody’s backyard without inviting them to the party,” she said. “That was just protocol.”
And while the Obama administration faced criticism for its at-times aggressive use of Cabinet officials, Sebelius can personally speak to how seriously the administration sought to enforce its ethical guidelines.
In February of 2012, Sebelius traveled to North Carolina and spoke in her official capacity to a gala dinner for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights group. During that speech, she advocated for another four years of Obama’s presidency and urged support for the Democratic nominee for governor.
For those remarks, Sebelius was cited by the federal government for a violation of the Hatch Act, which prevents federal employees from engaging in explicitly political activity. Rarely invoked before, the Hatch Act has been reduced to a punchline under Trump, who has flouted it at every turn, even going so far as to host his 2020 nomination speech on the grounds of the White House.
Meanwhile, Sebelius recalls having to repay the government for the expenses of traveling to the North Carolina event. “They just took it very seriously,” said Sebelius.