WASHINGTON — Since taking on the role of White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre has become known for frequently dodging questions by citing the Hatch Act. The law bars civil servants from politicking during their day jobs, and Jean-Pierre uses it to deflect reporters’ questions involving campaigns.
But apparently she wasn’t careful enough. The Office of Special Counsel, a government agency that enforces the Hatch Act, said in a recent letter that Jean-Pierre violated the law before last year’s midterm elections.
Her offense: Making frequent references to “MAGA Republicans” during White House briefings.
According to a letter from the Office of Special Counsel, Jean-Pierre “made those references to generate opposition to Republican candidates” and “accordingly, making the references constituted political activity.”
The letter was posted online by The Washington Post. It was first reported by NBC News.
Penalties for Hatch Act violations are uncommon, and the office did not recommend any fines or other punishments for Jean-Pierre.
Violations were much more common under President Donald Trump. The Office of Special Counsel sent an “unprecedented” 15 warning letters to senior Trump administration officials about running afoul of the Hatch Act, and it even recommended the firing of top adviser Kellyanne Conway.
The OSC sent a letter explaining the violation to Michael Chamberlain, a former Trump administration official and director of the Protect the Public’s Trust organization after Chamberlain filed a complaint against Jean-Pierre. He said in the complaint that Jean-Pierre used the phrase “mega MAGA Republican” in an “inappropriate attempt to influence the vote.”
“OSC has investigated your allegation and concluded that Ms. Jean‐Pierre violated the Hatch Act. However … we have decided not to pursue disciplinary action and have instead issued Ms. Jean‐Pierre a warning letter,” OSC’s Hatch Act Unit chief Ana Galindo-Marrone said in the June 7 letter.
Galindo-Marrone wrote, “OSC concluded that the timing, frequency, and content of Ms. Jean‐Pierre’s references to ‘MAGA Republicans’ established that she made those references to generate opposition to Republican candidates. Accordingly, making the references constituted political activity. Because Ms. Jean‐Pierre made the statements while acting in her official capacity, she violated the Hatch Act prohibition against using her official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”
Why were Jean-Pierre’s remarks investigated?
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, or OSC, received a complaint from a group called Protect the Public’s Trust. The group is led by Michael Chamberlain, an appointee to the Education Department during the Trump administration.
The complaint accused Jean-Pierre of using her position “to advocate for the defeat of her partisan political opponents” and make derogatory remarks about Republicans. It noted that Jean-Pierre made the remarks from the podium in the White House’s press briefing room, less than a week before the Nov. 8 general election.
The group asked the OSC to investigate, to prevent similar actions, and to “impose penalties as appropriate.”
But the agency “decided not to pursue disciplinary action and have instead issued Ms. Jean‐Pierre a warning letter,” Ana Galindo‐Marrone, who leads the OSC’s Hatch Act unit, added in a letter to Protect the Public’s Trust.
Jean‐Pierre received a warning, Galindo‐Marrone said, because the OSC found that “the White House Counsel’s Office did not at the time believe that Ms. Jean‐Pierre’s remarks were prohibited by the Hatch Act,” and it wasn’t clear whether the OSC’s position “regarding the use of ‘MAGA Republicans’ was ever conveyed to Ms. Jean‐Pierre.”
Protect the Public’s Trust published its correspondence with the OSC after the agency shared its findings with the group. The agency’s communications director, Zachary Kurz, confirmed that the document seen online is authentic.
She added that since she received the warning letter, the White House Counsel’s Office is reviewing their opinion and will have a “dialogue” with the OSC.
There have been other uses of the “MAGA” label in the White House, including in an official release earlier this year. In that message, the Biden administration argued against a budget proposed by what it dubbed the “extreme MAGA Republican” contingent in the House, referring to the far-right House Freedom Caucus.
Of course, not all conservatives view the MAGA label as an unwelcome term. Ahead of last year’s midterms, for instance, congressional candidate Cody Hart listed “MAGA Republican Party” as his preferred identifier on the official election website in Washington state.
The organization said Jean-Pierre was “disparaging President Biden’s political opponents as ‘mega MAGA Republican officials who don’t believe in the law.’”
Jean-Pierre said the White House counsel’s office was reviewing the letter, adding that “we do everything we can” to comply with the law and take it “very seriously.”
“At the time, I was given the sign off to use that terminology,” she said. Jean-Pierre said the term was used “in the context of talking about their policies, in talking about their values.”
She noted that some reporters often express “friendly consternation” about how often she cites the Hatch Act, and she suggested that she was confused by the violation.
After all, she said, Trump’s White House used the phrase “MAGA” about 2,000 times to describe his administration’s policies.
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