In a stunning breach of protocol and a possible violation of campaign finance law, the president of the United States used his official presidential trappings for an overtly political act on Thursday. While good government groups quickly decried his actions as “entirely inappropriate,” congressional Republicans were typically silent. But back in the 1990s, Republicans pilloried President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore for similar behavior and demanded independent counsel investigations.
Trump’s latest ethical controversy stemmed from the announcement by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio that he will seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. Trump, who had talked up then-candidate de Blasio in 2013 as “a smart guy that knows what’s going on, really big league,” tweeted a video on Thursday, blasting his potential opponent as “the worst Mayor in the history of New York City.” The video was filmed from his presidential office on Air Force One and features the presidential seal behind him. “If you like high taxes and if you like crime, you can vote for him — but most people aren’t into that,” Trump opined.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2019
In a Washington Post interview, Paul S. Ryan of the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause called the video “entirely inappropriate. “[I]t is against historical norms for a president to be campaigning from Air Force One,” he said, noting, “Most presidents have had enough respect for the office to try to separate campaigning from formal duties. Donald Trump is not such a president.”
Another watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington demanded that Trump produce receipts to prove he has reimbursed the government for using Air Force One on a political trip and noted that the use of the presidential seal to give “a false impression of sponsorship or approval by the Government of the United States” is illegal.
Nice political ad filmed on Air Force One. You now legally need to reimburse the Treasury for the use of Air Force One on a political trip. Since you had no problem tweeting out the video, you should have no problem tweeting out the receipts when you reimburse the taxpayers. https://t.co/nMc80OmWLy
— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) May 17, 2019
While no congressional Republicans came forward to demand an investigation into this latest breach of ethics laws by the Trump administration, a few years back they sang a very different tune.
In August 1996, the non-partisan Center for Public Integrity released a report documenting the many top donors and fundraisers to the Democratic National Committee who were being rewarded with overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.
The Senate Majority Leader at the time, Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) said an independent counsel should “absolutely” be appointed to investigate. “Under the law as it now exists, clearly an independent counsel is justified and merited at this time,” he said.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) was outraged. “[T]he president of the United States, in seeking to raise money for his re-election, was willing to use the Lincoln Bedroom, probably one of the more sacrosanct places in America, in order to gain those financial funds which he felt were necessary,” he complained. “And I’m deeply disappointed and I’m sure the American people will be too.”
The Republican-controlled Senate Governmental Affairs Committee investigated the matter, as did the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight. The issue lingered for years. In the 2000 New York Senate race, Republican nominee Rep. Rick Lazio mocked his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, saying, ”Mrs. Clinton, please, no lectures from Motel 1600 on campaign finance reform.” And in that year’s first presidential debate, Republican nominee George W. Bush joked, “I believe they’ve moved that sign, ‘The buck stops here’ from the Oval Office desk to ‘The buck stops here’ on the Lincoln bedroom.”
Bush also took a shot at his Democratic opponent, Gore, for making phone calls soliciting campaign contributions from his White House office — another possible violation of campaign finance laws that prohibit using government offices for campaign purposes. “I think the thing that discouraged me about the vice president was uttering those famous words, ‘No controlling legal authority.'” This was a reference to Gore’s defense at a 1997 press conference, in which he noted that the federal courts had not ruled on how those rarely enforced rules were to be implemented. When then-Attorney General Janet Reno declined to appoint a special prosecutor to look into Gore’s possible misdeeds, then-Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) suggested that it was a “coverup.”
Politico reported last week that at least 10 senior Trump administration officials have already violated the Hatch Act, which limits campaign activity by public officials, according to Trump’s own Office of Special counsel.