Continued Still…From The Ethics Alarms Mailbag: “What’s Your Reaction To Various Ethics Controversies, Including The Use Of The White House, During The Republican National Convention?” Part 3: The White House

The question that spawned this long post [ Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here] was, “What’s your opinion of Trump using the White House as a political prop?”

D. The White House

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said that Trump will further “destroy” American precedents if given a second term in office. “This is what we can expect in a second Trump administration,” Schumer said. “All the rules, norms, values that have made this country great, Donald Trump will destroy them. He doesn’t care. He only cares about himself. The rules are you shouldn’t sit in the White House and give a speech at a convention. Donald Trump says, ‘I want to do it.’ So they do it.”

There’s no such rule. The President isn’t covered by the Hatch Act, and given all the political uses of The White House by previous Presidents, I’d love to hear the argument that a speech being delivered to a virtual convention during a pandemic using the White House as a backdrop is unconscionable, or even unethical.

Professor Julian Zelizer, whose field is history and public affairs at Princeton University, said that  using the White House as a “prop” at a party convention is “unprecedented” in recent times. “There still is a boundary between politics and governing, and the Oval Office and White House are a public site meant for the country that isn’t meant to be a political backdrop,” Zelizer told ABC News. “To just use it as the major site for a convention speech seems like a lot with President Trump — you just take all the guardrails down.”

Cite, please. That something is “unprecedented” doesn’t make it unethical. The White House has been used as a political prop many times, just not at a convention. Nothing has been quite as grubby as Bill Clinton selling nights in the Lincoln bedroom for big money donations, but way back in the Kennedy Administration, the nation gushed over lovely Jackie Kennedy  hosting a televised tour of her “home,” bolstering the developing legend of how graceful and refined the young First Couple were. (Jack was probably banging a starlet while Jackie was being filmed.) Go ahead, tell me that “special” wasn’t “unprecedented” or political.

I get it: The White House is “the people’s house.” It is also a symbol of the nation, like the flag, which Democrats are encouraging “peaceful protesters” to disrespect, and the National Anthem, which the Democratic Party-endorsed Black Lives Matter has its acolytes refusing to stand for, and like the Presidency itself, which the “resistance” has worked with the Democrats and the news media to shrink in stature and influence as long as the office is held by a man they consider unfit. The AUC griped when the President made a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial; they complained when he used Mount Rushmore. They find his existence an affront, and anything he does, anywhere, for whatever reason, is “wrong.”

Seeing an article in the Denver Post sub-headlined that “ethics experts said” the President has stepped over the line, I thought, “I’ll bet anything that the “ethics experts” are CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), the partisan progressive D.C. group that calls itself non-partisan (so much for ethics) and somehow only has ethical complaints about Republicans except for the rare completely corrupt Democrat it will criticize to keep up its pose. Well, whaddya know? That’s exactly who the piece quoted.

Elsewhere, Tom Ridge, who served as Homeland Security secretary under President George W. Bush, told the Times, “The approach to this convention was an abuse of presidential prerogatives, an abuse of the office.” Boy, did Trump step in it big time when he insulted the Bushes! That network is large and still powerful, and never forgives or forgets. At least none of the Bush family and friends spoke at the Democratic National Convention, like Cindy McCain.

When I was first asked about the White House issue, my visceral reaction was, “Yeah, that was unethical.” Then I looked for reasons why it was unethical. The only one I could find was pure absolutism: “It’s unethical because a President should never, ever use the White House as a prop or a political tool.” The problem with that analysis is that the White House has been used, often, as a political tool. Instead the analysis has to be made on the basis of utilitarian balancing and a recognition of the special circumstances at play. I see three.

  • The pandemic made holding a convention with visual interest and power difficult; using the White House was a ready made solution. As they say, hard cases make bad law. I can see a strong argument that the limitations of the convention created by the pandemic justified an exception to the usual rule, but the problem with narrow exceptions is that they become broad precedents. Nonetheless, all incumbents running for re-election use the fact that they are President as a built-in advantage.

That’s one reason that they usually win.

  • President Trump is the most beleaguered President since Andrew Johnson, and the most continually denigrated–from the day after his election--in history. The entire Democratic National Convention continued an ad hominem attack against him, and that crossed ethical lines. Ethics and politics are so estranged generally, and especially now, that I am sympathetic to the argument that a President who has been treated so unfairly has to be allowed to take extraordinary action in order to protect the office and the integrity of our democracy. “These are not ordinary times” is a rationalization (#28), but it is not always invalid.

The assault on the President’s character and legitimacy, mostly fueled by a barrage of Big Lies, has substantially stripped him of the ability to be, and to act as, a President of the People. He was not permitted to enjoy a unified inauguration. Performers boycotted his Inaugural Balls. He was not allowed to host The Kennedy Center Honors program, or even attend it. He could not throw out the first ball of a baseball season; he could not give remarks at the funeral of an ex-President, a veteran U.S. Senator, or a civil rights icon; he could not be a participant in the White House Correspondent’s Dinner.  The Democratic House impeached him for acts every other President has engaged in and will in the future. The false narrative was launched that Russia and his campaign “colluded” to steal the Presidency; even now, over 70% of Democrats believe that still. The Speaker of The House made a disgraceful display of tearing up his State of the Union Address.

Then, in an exhibition of gall seldom seen even in politics, Donald Trump was attacked for not using the unifying powers of the Presidency to bolster public spirits during the pandemic! He has no such powers; they were deliberately and methodically removed by his political enemies, weakening the office and harming the nation.

In light of all if this, using the imagery and the prestige of the White House to remind voters that he is President is hardly an extreme or unreasonable reaction.

  • It is important, and perhaps existentially crucial, that the Democrats not achieve the power they seek.

I have written here more than once that it is a cruel cosmic joke on the United States that its survival as a democracy and the world’s bulwark of individual liberty may rest on the slippery shoulders of Donald J. Trump, but outrageous as that is, it appears to be the case. Although the best result for the nation would be for the President to win re-election in a 1972/1984 level landslide, it is more likely that the 2020 election will be a close one, with a relatively few votes either way determining whether the nation will be crushed by an ideologically implacable dictatorship of the Left.

I do not care to be in the hellish position of  hearing Nate Silver explain that the Democratic surge for open borders, gun confiscation, historical airbrushing, ideological litmus tests for students and teachers at universities, the end of merit-based hiring and admissions, slavery reparations,  the crippling of the economy in fear of hypothetical climate models, and the imposition of an individual initiative- and responsibility-crushing “nanny state” might have been stopped if only the President had used all of the tools at his command—like the White House—to persuade 1% of the voters to cast their ballots differently.


8 thoughts on “Continued Still…From The Ethics Alarms Mailbag: “What’s Your Reaction To Various Ethics Controversies, Including The Use Of The White House, During The Republican National Convention?” Part 3: The White House

  1. From the OSC: “Under longstanding regulations governing the Hatch Act, there are certain areas of the White House where the Hatch Act does not prohibit federal employees from engaging in political activity. The South Lawn and Rose Garden are two such areas.”
    Their next sentence muddies the waters slightly: “Therefore, covered federal employees would not necessarily violate the Hatch Act merely by attending political events in those areas.”

  2. Taking a quick break from grading…
    I wondered if the site was chosen because there wasn’t another choice. I know several previous venues cancelled due to Wuhan virus ‘concerns’. Those cities were also controlled by Democratic mayors. Was the White House chosen because Republicans aren’t allowed to hold gatherings in this country anymore?

    What venue in this country today would allow a gathering of Republicans, not wearing masks, to sit less than 20′ apart?

    • There was always the Trump National Hotel down the street. I’m sure no one would give him grief for using that venue….

      • No, he had been given grief when he used a Trump property before. Also, doesn’t that one have a big BLM logo in the street?

    • I figure, so long as those democratic mayors and governers require everyone to stay home instead of, say, participating in bolstering a flagging economy, he’s setting a good example to the rest of us by broadcasting from his house instead of traveling there in person. Isnt that what we’re SUPPOSED to do during these ‘these are not normal times’ times?

  3. Where was William Jefferson Clinton sitting when he shook his finger at us and glared, saying sternly, but in his usual cagey manner, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman. Monica Lewinsky?”*

    *The obvious, easy as a lay-up, follow-up, Jack McCoy question would have been, “Mr. President, does your definition of the term ‘having sexual relations’ include, or does it exclude, receiving fellatio?”

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