White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a briefing on Oct. 12.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a briefing on Oct. 12. Evan Vucci / AP

Oversight Group Files Hatch Act Complaint Against White House Press Secretary

While not as “outrageous” as the Trump administration’s actions, that doesn’t “mean we should be casual about compliance with an important ethics law,” the group’s president says.

An oversight group filed a Hatch Act complaint against the White House press secretary on Friday for comments she recently made from the White House briefing room about the Virginia gubernatorial campaign.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel following remarks Jen Psaki gave during her briefing on Thursday, which the group believes constituted a violation of the law that limits political activity for government employees while on the job. 

“I have to be a little careful about how much political analysis I do from here and not (inaudible) into that too much,” she said. “Look, I think the president, of course, wants former Governor [Terry] McAuliffe to be the future governor of Virginia. There is alignment on a lot of their agenda, whether it is the need to invest in rebuilding our roads, rails and bridges, or making it easier for women to rejoin the workforce...I will leave it to other outside analysis to convey that off-year elections are often — are often not a bellwether, but — and there’s a lot of history here in Virginia. But, again, we’re going to do everything we can to help former Governor McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he’s representing.” 

The Trump administration “systematically co-opted the government for the president’s reelection,” said Noah Bookbinder, CREW president, in a statement. “While this conduct does not come close to rising to the level of the outrageous offenses of the Trump administration, that does not mean we should be casual about compliance with an important ethics law.” 

The White House did not immediately respond for comment on the complaint. 

CREW noted in the complaint that in February “Psaki tweeted that '@POTUS clearly opposes any effort to recall @GavinNewsom,' referring to California Governor Gavin Newsom,” but “at the time, there was no actual recall election of Governor Newsom to be influenced, only an effort to secure enough signatures on a petition to initiate a recall election, and thus her tweet did not violate the Hatch Act.”

Nevertheless, CREW said in a letter to the White House counsel that “Psaki’s tweet came closer than necessary to the situations the Hatch Act contemplated and emphasized the need for Hatch Act training and compliance.” 

In another situation in the Biden administration, OSC determined that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge violated the Hatch Act for her remarks during a briefing in March about the 2022 Senate election in Ohio. However, since Fudge “expressed remorse” shortly after and she was counseled by the ethics officials at her department, she was just issued a warning letter, said Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Hatch Act Unit at OSC, in a letter in May. 

On the Biden administration’s first full day in office, Psaki said in response to a question that “there are some political events that are acceptable;” however, “we certainly take the Hatch Act seriously.” 

On Thursday night, Kayleigh McEnany, White House press secretary under President Trump, said in a tweet that Psaki potentially violated the Hatch Act and questioned “why does the media not hold [her] accountable?” 

Under the Trump administration Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, White House Trade Adviser Peter Navarro and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley were among those charged with violating the Hatch Act. There were many other allegations. 

“Under President Trump’s watch, 14 administration officials have been found to have violated the Hatch Act over 50 times. At least another 22 officials are presently under investigation for nearly 100 more violations,” said a report from the staff of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., published in October 2020. “Despite these repeated and flagrant violations, these Trump administration officials have not faced any meaningful consequences.”