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It’s Illegal for Federal Officials to Campaign at Work. A Trump Official Just Did So.

A trend may be emerging after the Trump administration took no action against a “repeat offender,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.

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Federal workplaces are supposed to be free of politics, but a Trump administration appointee used a government forum Wednesday to express support for the president’s reelection.

At a conference on religious freedom hosted by the State Department, an official told the crowd of several hundred people that “hopefully he will be reelected,” referring to President Donald Trump.

It’s illegal for federal employees to engage in political activities while they are on the job.

“It’s a violation of the Hatch Act for a federal official, to say in her official capacity, to hope that the president will be reelected,” said Kathleen Clark, an expert on legal ethics at the Washington University in St. Louis.

It’s not the first time a Trump administration official has appeared to cross a line. In a harsh report, a government ethics office concluded that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway was a “repeat offender” and recommended she be fired.

“Ms. Conway’s violations, if left unpunished, would send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act’s restrictions,” the ethics office wrote. “Her actions thus erode the principal foundation of our democratic system — the rule of law.”

Trump did not punish Conway.

The latest questionable comment came from Samah Norquist, a special adviser on religious pluralism in the Middle East at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Norquist is also the wife of conservative tax activist Grover Norquist.

In response to ProPublica’s questions, Tom Babington, a USAID spokesman, said in a written statement that agency personnel “immediately alerted” USAID’s chief legal officer about the comment. The legal office sent the issue to USAID’s ethics official for review and action.

“The Agency takes the Hatch Act very seriously and requires all employees to receive annual ethics training, which includes training on the Hatch Act,” Babington said. “No final decision has been made regarding a determination of a violation or potential appropriate administrative action.”

The political references began when the panel moderator, Norquist, read a written question from an audience member. “What happens to U.S. involvement in Iraq if Trump loses the election?” the query said, sparking awkward laughter.

Max Primorac, the USAID special representative for minority assistance programs in Iraq, answered first, noting that Congress had passed in 2018 a bipartisan bill authorizing the State Department to give relief to the victims of Islamic State, particularly religious minorities such as Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims, holding it up as proof that the whole country supports the policy.

Primorac then added, “President Trump will win again, but I’m very confident that this is now an American project.”

Norquist echoed his remarks about religious minorities in Iraq, calling it “an American issue” rather than a partisan one. Then, she veered into politics. She added, “And we all hope whether it’s Trump, and hopefully he will be reelected, or not, that it continues to be a priority for our government.”

Here is the exchange.

Norquist and Primorac did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

We are interested in seeing how widespread this behavior is. Are you an ethics expert who monitors this kind of thing? A federal official who has witnessed partisan political actions or statements on the job? If you know of government officials undertaking political activity in their official capacity, tell us. Email [email protected] or contact her via Signal at 405-568-7011.

Update: In October, approximately three months after this story was published, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concluded that Samah Norquist and Max Primorac did not violate the Hatch Act at the State Department forum described in this story.

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Yeganeh Torbati

Yeganeh Torbati covers the U.S. federal government for ProPublica and is based in Washington, D.C.

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