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How The Republican National Convention Broke Legal Norms

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Republican National Convention ended Thursday night with a political rally on the White House lawn. There were campaign banners, speeches, even fireworks. Federal officers from Customs and Border Protection were there in uniform cheering. Was any of this legal?

Walter Shaub was director of the Office of Government Ethics under the last term of the Obama administration and six months into the Trump administration. He's now with the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Mr. Shaub, thanks so much for being with us.

WALTER SHAUB: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Was it legal?

SHAUB: Well, there's two questions here. Was it legal and was it appropriate? It was definitely not appropriate. And it did great harm to our country in a number of ways. There are parts of it that may have been legal and parts of it that were very likely illegal. But unfortunately, there isn't a very strong enforcement mechanism, so it's not clear what will come of that.

SIMON: Could you remind us, Mr. Shaub, why laws like the Hatch Act exist? What are they trying to prevent?

SHAUB: You know, I think this gets at the heart of both the law and the appropriateness issue. Because the goal of any ethics law is to prevent the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. And I don't think we could have seen a more extravagant use of public office for private gain than the president using his office to advance his political ambitions. In fact, the only way that any part of this might have been legal is that there are certain exceptions that were designed to protect the private life of the president, just as any other officials who live in government-provided housing. But the rationale for that was to ensure that he'd have some privacy in his personal life. There was nothing personal or private about the entire White House being a prop for the president. And unfortunately, it sends a message to a number of important constituencies. For one thing, it tells federal employees that the rules don't matter when you can get away with it. Second, it tells the outside world, including the American public, that public service at this high level is for the benefit of the people in office. And finally, it tells foreign nations that the U.S. is standing as a government that has any integrity is simply concluded. It's over.

SIMON: Mr. Shaub, what about the thinking that goes that, you know, in the end, the people elect a president and there's a certain trust implied in that relationship?

SHAUB: Well, I think the operative word there is president. We elect a president, not a king. And so there's an assumption when you cast your vote that the person who's going to take office is going to honor the laws and norms of the government and behave in the way that we expect presidents to behave, not the way that we expect kings to behave.

SIMON: I put myself on the spot by saying this, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a king do everything we saw on Thursday night.

SHAUB: I mean, I'm just at a loss for words. It's shocking.

SIMON: What about federal uniformed officers showing up to the event and applauding?

SHAUB: Yeah. The law is absolutely explicit that they cannot show up in uniform with the candidate for president with references to their official position and function. But I think that pales in comparison even to the violations committed by the acting secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf. To use his office to conduct an official naturalization ceremony for the purpose of including that video in the RNC is possibly the most egregious and blatant violation of any government ethics I've ever witnessed.

SIMON: But to follow up on something you suggested, what's the enforcement mechanism really?

SHAUB: So for career officials, like the law enforcement officials that showed up in uniform, the Office of Special Counsel can actually bring charges and pursue their removal from government. For the political appointees, like Chad Wolf, it can conduct an investigation and recommend his termination and they can pursue a thousand-dollar fine if the president won't take appropriate action. You know, we'll see if they have the stomach to do that. Sometimes people criticize the reliance on ethical norms in government, but you begin to see how the law has no teeth. So you either have a presidency that will follow the norms and the laws or you have a presidency that won't follow either. And unfortunately, we're in the latter category right now.

SIMON: Walter Schaub of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, thanks so much for being with us.

SHAUB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.