White House staffer may have violated Hatch Act by calling for defeat of Rep. Justin Amash.

Did a Trump Staffer Break the Law by Calling for the Defeat of a Freedom Caucus Lawmaker?

Did a Trump Staffer Break the Law by Calling for the Defeat of a Freedom Caucus Lawmaker?

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April 2 2017 11:12 AM

Did a Trump Staffer Break the Law by Calling for the Defeat of a Freedom Caucus Lawmaker?

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Dan Scavino records Donald Trump greeting audience members at a campaign rally in Bangor, Maine, on June 29, 2016.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

The White House escalated its very public battle against the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus this weekend, when a top administration official used social media to call for a primary challenge for Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan. And he wasn’t subtle about it. “@justinamash is a big liability,” White House social media director Dan Scavino wrote on Twitter. “#TrumpTrain, defeat him in primary.”

Government ethics lawyers were quick to criticize the move, saying Scavino likely violated federal law with his tweet. Specifically, Scavino looks to have run afoul of the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that forbids executive branch employees from using their official positions to affect the outcome of an election.

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The White House rejected the insinuation, saying the tweet was not a violation of the law because “it clearly comes from his personal account.” But lawyers largely agree that really doesn’t matter. Why? Because his account is so tied with his White House position that simply labeling an account “personal” doesn’t change that.

Richard Painter, who served as White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007, specifically pointed to Scavino’s use of a photo in the Oval Office and his job description. "This is use of official position to influence an election," Painter wrote on Twitter. "Look at the photo and description underneath. Bush WH would have fired him."

Daniel Jacobson, who served as a White House lawyer under President Barack Obama noted that regardless of how Scavino labels his account, if it looks like a de facto official account then it is one. “De facto means that if you tweet only about WH work from your account, it’s an official account,” wrote Jacobson. “Labeling ‘personal’ doesn’t change that.”

Scavino made the fight against the Freedom Caucus personal days after Trump also used his social media to blast the group of conservative lawmakers who were largely responsible for the embarrassing defeat of Trumpcare. “The Freedom Caucus will hurt the entire Republican agenda if they don't get on the team, & fast,” Trump wrote. “We must fight them, & Dems, in 2018!”

Amash responded to Scavino on Saturday saying that it showed how the “Trump admin & establishment have merged into #Trumpstablishment.” It was the same theme the lawmaker hit shortly after Trump’s Thursday tweet, noting that “it didn’t take long for the swamp to drain @realDonaldTrump.”

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.