Karine Jean-Pierre violated the Hatch Act. What is it?

Karine Jean-Pierre said the White House counsel is going to review her Hatch Act violation after a government watchdog sent her a letter warning she violated the federal law.

The White House press secretary spoke of “mega MAGA Republican officials who don’t believe in the rule of law” during a briefing last year, which partially triggered the violation as well as a letter from a watchdog group, NBC News reported Monday.

“So as we’ve made it very clear throughout our time in this administration, that we do everything that we can uphold, certainly the Hatch Act and take the law very seriously,” she told reporters during a briefing Tuesday.

White House
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks at the daily press briefing on Monday, June 12, 2023.

The Washington Post

Michael Chamberlain, director of the conservative watchdog group Protect the People’s Trust, said in a letter addressed to the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and White House counsel on November 3, 2021, that Jean-Pierre violated the Hatch Act for comments she made during a White House briefing the day before in the lead-up to the midterms.

“Unfortunately, we have seen mega MAGA Republican officials who don’t believe in the rule of law. They refuse to accept the results of free and fair elections, and they fan the flames of political violence through what they praise and what they refuse to condemn,” Jean-Pierre said in that briefing, which was among the remarks flagged by Chamberlain.

The OSC responded with a letter that was first reported by NBC News and confirmed by other outlets. Ana Galindo‐Marrone, the chief of OSC’s Hatch Act Unit, wrote that because 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 outcome of an election.” Despite the violation, the OSC “decided to close this matter without further action” and sent Jean-Pierre a warning.

On Tuesday, Jean-Pierre said she would not “get ahead” of how White House lawyers would respond to the letter from the OSC, the independent agency which enforces the Hatch Act. She also cited the archived Trump White House website that revealed that the Trump administration used the term MAGA to describe policies and official agendas nearly 2,000 times, and mentioned congressional Republicans also use it.

“It’s going to be reviewed,” she said. “That’s what the White House Counsel is going to do. They’re going to have a dialogue, a routine dialogue with OSC. And so, I’ll just leave it there.”

Prior to Tuesday’s briefing, White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates told CBS News the opinion was under review.

What is the Hatch Act and why does it matter?

The Hatch Act is a federal law passed in 1939 that “limits certain political activities of federal employees,” according to the OSC, which oversees federal personnel issues and is separate from special counsel Jack Smith.

The purpose of the law is to ensure federal programs are administered in a “nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation,” the US Office of Special Counsel said.

Past violations of the Hatch Act

Last year, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra violated the Hatch Act when expressing support for California Sen. Alex Padilla’s reflection.

In the previous administration, at least 13 senior Trump administration officials were found to have violated the Hatch Act prior to the 2020 presidential election, according to a 2021 report from the OSC. Among them, the OSC report listed former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former senior adviser Jared Kushner and former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany as Hatch Act offenders, for which no action was taken by the Trump administration.

“President Trump not only failed to do so, but he publicly defended an employee OSC found to have repeatedly violated the Hatch Act. This failure to impose discipline created the conditions for what appeared to be a taxpayer-funded campaign apparatus within the upper echelons of the executive branch,” the report stated.

Kellyanne Conway, who was also listed on the report and was one of former President Trump’s top advisers, violated the Hatch Act multiple times. In 2019, the OSC recommended to then-President Trump that he removed her from federal service after she violated the act “on numerous occasions” by criticizing Democratic presidential candidates in TV interviews and on social media. She was later called to testify before a House oversight panel about the violations, but the Trump White House blocked her appearance, citing “constitutional doctrines”

“In accordance with long-standing precedent, we respectfully decline the invitation to make Ms. Conway available for testimony before the committee,” then-White House counsel Pat Cipollone said.