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Biden’s press secretary violated Hatch Act, watchdog says

<i>Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>New White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre
Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
New White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre

By Betsy Klein, CNN

(CNN) — White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre violated the Hatch Act for using the term “mega MAGA” from the briefing room podium, the US Office of the Special Counsel has determined, and has received a warning letter.

Jean-Pierre was found to be in violation of the Hatch Act, a law that is supposed to stop the federal government from affecting elections or going about its activities in a partisan manner, when she said “mega MAGA Republican officials who don’t believe in the rule of law,” according to a letter from OSC. The letter was addressed to Michael Chamberlain, a former Trump administration official and director of the “Protect the Public’s Trust” organization, after Chamberlain filed a complaint that Jean-Pierre used the phrase “mega MAGA Republican[s]” in an “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 to Chamberlain, who served in the Department of Education during Donald Trump’s presidency.

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.”

Galindo-Marrone suggested that the White House Counsel’s Office “did not at the time believe” that those remarks were prohibited by the Hatch Act, and that it was “unclear” whether OSC’s analysis “was ever conveyed to Ms. Jean-Pierre.”

Jean-Pierre has taken pains during her tenure to avoid Hatch Act violations. She has refused to answer political questions, citing the 1939 law, during more than 40 White House press briefings or gaggles. Former members of Biden’s administration – namely former chief of staff Ron Klain and former press secretary Jen Psaki – have been accused of violating the Hatch Act.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates told CNN that the White House is reviewing the OSC’s opinion.

“As has been made clear throughout the administration, we take the law seriously and uphold the Hatch Act. We are reviewing this opinion,” Bates said.

Jean-Pierre defended herself to reporters on Tuesday.

“So, what I can say is at the time, I was given the sign off, right, to use the terminology,” she said. “And, and I said this just moments ago, the letter that we received was from last week – we received that letter for something that I said months ago, so it was retroactive.”

A Biden administration official also noted the Trump White House’s repeated use of the term “Make America Great Again” for official purposes – found in nearly 2,000 references on the official Trump White House website. Thirteen senior Trump administration officials violated the Hatch Act, according to a report released from the OSC in November 2021.

“Mega-MAGA” and other similar terms were used often from the White House briefing room podium in the lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections as the White House sought to draw contrasts with Trump-aligned factions of the GOP.

Biden senior adviser Anita Dunn spoke about the decision to use the tongue-twister. While she said she “did not coin it” herself, she told Axios in a conversation shortly before the election, she was involved in the decision to harness the term as the White House went on the offensive.

“I did not coin it, no – I was part of a project when I was outside of the government that was looking deeply at Republican elected officials, at how they describe themselves, at their agenda, at a wing, in particular, of Republicans who had espoused certain beliefs, starting with denial about the election results in 2020, and looking for an effective way to shorthand all of that for people,” she said.

The use of the term “MAGA,” Dunn said, “came very organically out of research, listening to people talk about what they thought was the problem with some of these Republican elected officials.”

Pressed on the use of “mega” and “ultra” as MAGA modifiers, she added, “Well, it was MAGA, but, you know, you can always improve on something.”

The-CNN-Wire
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