Can you #MAGA too hard? According to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel you can, under very specific circumstances.
The OSC on Friday found six Trump Administration officials guilty of violating the Hatch Act, a 1939 law prohibiting government employees from engaging in political activity while on the job. At the heart of several of the violations are accusations of tweeting or retweeting messages containing the hashtag #MAGA.
In March of this year, the OSC advised government employees that, because Donald Trump had officially declared himself a candidate for president in 2020, any use of the president’s campaign slogan from official government accounts would be considered “political activity” and a violation of the law.
It’s not just Twitter — according to the official notice, employees can not “wear, display, or distribute items with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ or any other materials from President Trump’s 2016 or 2020 campaigns, use hashtags such as #MAGA or #ResistTrump in social media posts or other forums, or display non-official pictures of President Trump” in their offices.
But, as is so often the case with social media, the rules can be hard to navigate! While the OSC found six officials guilty of violating the law, it dismissed complaints against four others. (All ten of the complaints were filed by Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, a government watchdog co-founded by former White House Ethics Czar Norm Eisen.)
OSC, for example, reprimanded Madeleine Westerhout, executive assistant to the president, for retweeting this message her boss sent out on March 9th. (The Hatch Act does not apply to president or the vice president.)
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 9, 2018
But the below tweet, sent by White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley, was perfectly legal because it went out a few hours before the OSC’s March guidance was released:
It’s always humbling to walk into work at this amazing place. When the morning sun hits the @WhiteHouse & you see the American flag waiving atop the building, there’s a deep sense of honor, pride & appreciation for this incredible country. #MAGA @realDonaldTrump @POTUS #America pic.twitter.com/boWjjFWPVd
— Hogan Gidley (@hogangidley45) March 5, 2018
OSC faulted Westerhout, Alyssa Farah (press secretary for the vice president) and Jacob Wood (deputy communications director for the Office of Management and Budget) for tweeting or retweeting #MAGA. Raj Shah, principal deputy press secretary at the White House, was reprimanded for tweeting RNC propaganda from his official account, as was Jessica Ditto, deputy director of communications, for retweeting Shah’s tweet.
According to OSC, all five deleted (or un-retweeted) the offending posts after a warning. A sixth violator, former special assistant to the president and director of media affairs Helen Aguirre Ferré, who has used a photo with the Make America Great Again slogan as the banner on her Twitter account, had already left the White House and deleted her official account by the time OSC concluded its investigation.
But OSC found three of the CREW complaints baseless: Gidley’s tweet, as well as a tweet from White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (and retweeted by deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters), which invoked the president’s catchphrase on day after the guidance was issued:
Great again: “The U.S. is likely to overtake Russia to become the world's largest oil producer”https://t.co/d5giJR686Y
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) March 6, 2018
The message was deemed permissable because it only used part of the phrase.
OMB director Mick Mulvaney was likewise officially cleared of any wrongdoing associated with his use of the hashtag #MAGAnomics “because the Trump Administration branded its economic plan with the name ‘MAGAnomics,’ [and] OMB’s continued use of the name was not for the purpose of affecting the result of an election but rather to further the Administration’s economic agenda.”
The five administration officials found guilty of violating the law were each let off with a warning this time, but as OSC said in a letter addressed to CREW, “They all have been advised that if in the future they engage in prohibited political activity while employed in a position covered by the Hatch Act, we will consider such activity to be a willful and knowing violation of the law, which could result in further action.”
CREW communications director Jordan Libowitz tells Rolling Stone the watchdog will remain vigilant and it expects to see more officials running afoul of the law. “There just seems to be this general tone set at the top that ethical rules don’t seem to matter to this White House,” Libowitz says.