“The president is increasingly using all the levers he’s got for political purposes,” says Donald Ayer, a former deputy attorney general under President George H.W. Bush who has endorsed Biden. “You can wonder whether he’s getting a bit desperate. … It appears to me that the president is making increasingly outrageous demands and comments as time goes along.”
Presidents of both parties have regularly used the power of incumbency to their advantage during election years. Jimmy Carter made political ads from the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan was seated behind the Resolute Desk when he announced he was running for reelection. Bill Clinton invited political supporters to spend the night at the White House. And George W. Bush delivered his Republican National Convention speech from the White House, saying his duties overseeing the response to a looming hurricane kept him in Washington.
But Trump has taken the use of the federal government for politics to another level. And the pace and intensity of his maneuvers have increased as his poll numbers have dropped and his campaign war chest has dwindled, according to government watchdog groups.
“I do firmly believe that Trump has blended his personal business and the functioning of government in a way we’ve seen perhaps never in United States history,” said Nick Schwellenbach, a senior investigator with the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight.
Trump’s boldest display was the Republican National Convention ceremony on the South Lawn in August, replete with fireworks and an opera singer. He trampled over government and political boundaries by issuing a pardon and holding a naturalization ceremony during the convention. At the same time, Pompeo broke with longtime tradition by delivering a convention speech from Jerusalem, and Ivanka Trump, a White House aide, gave remarks from the White House.
“Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares,” Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows said in August when asked about potential violations of the Hatch Act, which bars the use of government resources for political purposes. “They expect that Donald Trump is going to promote Republican values, and they would expect that Barack Obama, when he was in office, that he would do the same for Democrats.”
In August, Trump fell behind Biden’s fundraising. Then, Biden and the Democratic National Committee outraised Trump and the RNC by a staggering $154 million and for the first time overtook the president’s long held cash-on-hand advantage. In September, Biden raised $383 million.
At the same time, Trump went dark on TV in several battleground states. He was outspent on TV by more than 2-to-1, according to media tracking firm Advertising Analytics. From April to last week, Biden has spent $312 million on ads compared with Trump’s $188 million.
More recently, Trump held what amounted to a political rally on the White House grounds last weekend. Hundreds of Trump supporters donned MAGA hats as Trump spoke to them from the White House balcony about his campaign.
A White House spokesperson said it wasn’t a Hatch Act violation because it was organized by the White House and not the campaign.
“The White House takes the Hatch Act very seriously and ensures its events, and the government employees participating in them, comply with the law,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere said in a statement Wednesday.
But Kedric L. Payne, general counsel at for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, said Trump’s Saturday rally is a sign he’s emboldened after facing no repercussions for the convention in August.