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Six White House officials violated the Hatch Act, agency finds

Key Points
  • Six Trump White House officials violated the Hatch Act by engaging in political activity using their official government social media accounts, an internal watchdog agency ruled on Friday.
  • None of the staffers will face disciplinary action for these violations. Instead, each got a formal warning.
  • This is hardly the first time that Trump officials have been in hot water for using their official taxpayer-funded platforms to advocate for partisan political candidates.
Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah, answers questions about former White House staff secretary Rob Porter during a press briefing at the White House, on February 8, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images

WASHINGTON – Six Trump White House officials violated the Hatch Act by using their official government social media accounts to engage in political activity, according to a ruling issued Friday by an internal government watchdog agency.

The staffers cited include Trump's executive assistant, Madeleine Westerhout; principal White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah; deputy communications director Jessica Ditto; Vice President Mike Pence's press secretary, Alyssa Farah; former White House director of media affairs Helen Aguirre Ferre, who left in August; and Jacob Wood, a deputy communications director at the Office of Management and Budget.

None of the officials will face disciplinary action for these violations, the Office of Special Counsel wrote in a letter Friday. (This agency is different from the Justice Department Special Counsel's Office, which is led by Robert Mueller.) Instead, each of the aides has been advised that "if in the future they engage in prohibited political activity ... we will consider such activity to be a willful and knowing violation of the law, which could result in further action."

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Signed into law in 1939, the Hatch Act bars employees of the executive branch from using their official positions to actively support or oppose any candidate for federal office. This can mean making political speeches for a candidate, sending letters or endorsements, or publicly promoting one party over another. The president and vice president, however, are exempt from the restrictions. When the OSC finds that employees have violated the Hatch Act, the consequences are typically minimal, and usually consist of a warning or sometimes a remedial briefing on the rules.

Friday's rulings were issued in response to formal complaints filed by the Committee for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit public interest watchdog group.

Westerhout was cited for two tweets she posted this spring, both of which contained the acronym MAGA, which is short for Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again."

Farah was also cited for a MAGA tweet in May that read, "This is what #MAGA looks like: Under @POTUS TRUMP, the unemployment rate is the lowest it's been in 17 years."

Wood and Aguirre Ferre were also both cited for posting tweets that had MAGA in them.

Shah's violation consisted of a June 4 tweet in which he wrote, "Fantastic @RNCResearch release #Winning: 500 Days of American Greatness." The OSC found that Shah's tweet "highlighted research done by a political party and provided a link to the party's website and its research," which constituted a Hatch Act violation.

The final aide to be cited, Jessica Ditto, had committed a violation by retweeting Shah's tweet with the RNC research link, OSC found.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNBC on Friday about the ruling.

CREW's executive director, Noah Bookbinder, said in a statement that the group was "glad" to see the rulings, but he cautioned that official warnings have so far not been enough to stop the steady stream of Hatch Act violations being committed by aides in the Trump White House.

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In the five months since the most recent of these Hatch Act violations were committed, Bookbinder said, CREW has filed 11 additional complaints with the OSC about apparent violations.

This is hardly the first time that Trump officials have been in hot water for using their official taxpayer-funded platforms to advocate for partisan political candidates. Senior White House advisor Kellyanne Conway, White House social media director Dan Scavino and outgoing ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley have all received formal reprimands from OSC for Hatch Act violations since Trump took office.

The violations prompted OSC to issue additional guidelines earlier this year, expressly prohibiting federal employees from posting messages that include "MAGA" or the phrase "Make America Great Again" on their government social media accounts.