Analysis: Trump and the GOP appear comfortable in mixing politics and the federal government

WASHINGTON — Conversations with Americans from inside the White House. The first lady’s speech from the Rose Garden. The secretary of state giving an address while on an official overseas trip. The president’s acceptance speech from the White House’s South Lawn. Fireworks from the Washington Monument

All are events at this week’s Republican convention. And all either approach the fine line of violating the federal Hatch Act — or blatantly cross over it. 

But there’s an even bigger story at play: The Trump White House simply doesn’t seem to care about the Hatch Act’s principle of prohibiting executive-branch employees from engaging in political activity while on duty or in government buildings.  

For example, when the U.S. Office of Special Counsel recommended last year that outgoing White House counselor Kellyanne Conway be removed from federal service for repeatedly violating the Hatch Act —because she engaged in partisan political activity in her official capacity — the White House objected

The “overbroad and unsupported interpretation of the Hatch Act risks violating Ms. Conway’s First Amendment rights and chills the free speech of all government employees,” White House lawyer Pat Cipollone wrote. 

As it turns out, Conway is addressing the GOP convention on Wednesday night. 

The 1939 Hatch Act exempts the president and vice president, so it doesn’t prohibit President Trump delivering his convention acceptance speech Thursday from the White House’s South Lawn. (It also most likely doesn’t apply to First Lady Melania Trump’s address, either, since she’s technically not a government employee.)

President Donald Trump attends a news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House on July 14, 2020.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

But the U.S. Office of Special Counsel recently said in a letter that other employees are covered, “so there may be Hatch Act implications for those employees, depending on their level of involvement with the event and their position in the White House.”  

That includes any federal staffers who work on the speeches, who directly assist with the fireworks display, or who deliver a speech during a party’s political convention, government ethics experts tell NBC News. 

“Working on a party convention speech absolutely is partisan political activity, and is prohibited while on duty and while in federal government buildings,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor and expert on government ethics at Washington University in St. Louis.

Republican convention planners have defended convention speeches from prominent administration figures like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by saying that the Republican National Committee is paying for the costs, and that the speakers are addressing the county as a private citizen — not in their official capacity. 

Yet government ethics experts say that all of this activity — including the president’s convention speech  — is at least ethically questionable because of the Hatch Act’s underlying principle to not use the federal government for explicit political activity. 

“Nobody is supposed to be using the functions of government for political gain,” says Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. 

But the Trump White House and the GOP convention planners don’t seem to care.

Trump campaign off TV airwaves this week with convention in spotlight

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s campaign isn’t running any television ads this week in key battleground states, as the Republican National Convention takes center stage. 

The only television ads Trump has booked from Tuesday through Friday are in Washington D.C., to the tune of about $171,000, according to Advertising Analytics. 

Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s campaign has more than $9 million booked on the TV and radio airwaves during that time — including $3 million in Florida, $1.5 million in Pennsylvania, $1.3 million in North Carolina, $1.1 million in Wisconsin and almost $1 million in both Michigan and Arizona.

Donald Trump takes a stage to speak at Flavor 1st Growers & Packers on Aug. 24, 2020 in Mills River, N.C.Brian Blanco / Getty Images

It’s not like the Trump campaign will be absent from the airwaves this week — the Republican National Convention will likely draw millions of eyeballs in primetime, and the coronavirus-related restrictions allow for the party to control its message. 

But the decision to go dark on TV outside of it means that if Trump doesn’t go back up on the air through Friday, then the Biden campaign will have outspent him $28.4 million to $4.5 million on TV and radio from the start of the Democratic convention through this coming Friday.

Democrats offer counter-programming around GOP convention site

WASHINGTON — With the 2020 Republican National Convention hitting the airwaves this week, the Democratic National Committee is hitting the road with a series of counter-programming measures. 

If you’re driving around the nation’s capital Tuesday, you may see a mobile billboard funded by the Democratic National Committee. With stops at the White House, the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium and the Republican National Committee’s offices, the DNC hopes to attract eyeballs and tweets with its message focused on the unemployment rate, small businesses and evictions. 

“Over 100,000 small businesses have shuttered for good,” one slide says. “As many as 7 million could close forever by the end of 2020,” says the next, as video of President Trump golfing plays.   

The goal is not to respond to what is said each night during the RNC, a DNC spokesperson told NBC News, but to share messages about what they believe to be Pres. Trump’s policy failures.  

“Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis has cost millions of Americans their jobs, forced small businesses to close, and wrecked our economy,” DNC War Room senior spokesperson Lily Adams said. “He may want to spend their convention avoiding that reality, but we won’t let him escape his record of chaos that has hurt the American people.” 

The DNC is also broadcasting its message in a new ad released Monday that called the RNC the “Republican National Chaos”, and attacked President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

And just blocks from the White House, the former site of the Newseum will be lit up this week with a projected slideshow of rising coronavirus statistics.  

Biden campaign to air new spot across cable channels during RNC

WASHINGTON — Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign announced Monday that it will air a new television spot contrasting Biden’s vision for the United States with President Trump’s presidency on cable airwaves during the Republican National Convention as part of a $26 million ad campaign this week across broadcast, cable, radio and digital platforms.

The 60-second spot, entitled, “Heal America,” argues that the United States needs a team that’s “up to the task” of handling the four simultaneous crises plaguing the nation — public health, economic, climate, and racial injustice. 

“Together, they’ll lead America, unite America and heal America. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris: because a united America will be a better America,” the ad narrator concludes. 

Everytown booking $6 million in Florida ads to target President Trump

WASHINGTON — Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund is booking $6 million in television and digital ads to boost former Vice President Joe Biden in Florida, NBC News has learned.

The group is partnering with Priorities USA, the major Democratic super PAC that’s supporting Biden and attacking President Trump, on production and strategy. Everytown plans to spend $4 million in TV ads in the Orlando and Tampa markets and $2 million in statewide digital ads starting after Labor Day and running for five weeks. 

“Facing a gun violence crisis that claims 100 American lives every day, President Trump has chosen the gun lobby over the safety of the American people at every turn,” John Feinblatt, the head of Everytown Victory Fund, said in a statement. “Together with Priorities, we’re going all-in to make sure Trump’s a one-term president. Everytown has an aggressive plan to mobilize voters in Florida, who know the pain of gun violence all too well and are poised to play a decisive role in electing Joe Biden, a proven gun sense champion.”

The announcement marks the group’s first formal entry into the presidential race’s TV ad wars of the cycle, and its largest-ever investment in a presidential race. The state has seen a handful of mass shootings in recent years, including at an LGBT-friendly nightclub in 2016 and a Miami-area high school in 2018.  

Everytown grew out of two groups aimed at curbing gun violence — Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense — and pushes for reforms like universal background checks. The group was co-founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has sunk millions into the effort. 

The group is expecting to play a larger role in the 2020 presidential election than it has in any previous presidential election. It’s said it plans to spend $60 million on the 2020 elections up and down the ballot, twice what it spent during the 2018 midterms. 

President Trump has repeatedly campaigned on protecting the Second Amendment and the National Rifle Association was one of his most prominent backers during the 2016 race. 

Kanye West won’t appear on Illinois or Ohio ballots

WASHINGTON — Kanye West won’t appear on either the Ohio or Illinois presidential ballots this November, the states respectively officially announced on Friday.  

In Illinois, West’s home state, the board ruled unanimously that West hadn’t submitted enough signatures from registered Illinois voters to be on the ballot. The board of elections requires 2,500 signatures for independent candidates, and West only filed 1,200. 

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose announced that West failed to meet the requirements to appear on the ballot in that state as well. According to LaRose, the information and a signature on the nominating petition and statement of candidacy submitted to the secretary of state’s office did not match the nominating petition and candidacy statement used to circulate “part-petitions”, or circulated nominating materials. 

“A signature is the most basic form of authentication and an important, time-honored, security measure to ensure that a candidate aspires to be on the ballot and that a voter is being asked to sign a legitimate petition,” LaRose said in a statement. “There is no doubt that the West nominating petition and declaration of candidacy failed to meet the necessary threshold for certification.”    

One of West’s best chances to appear on a battleground state’s ballot was Wisconsin. On Thursday, Wisconsin’s state election board ruled 5-1 that West’s application was submitted too late to be counted. 

West’s long-shot presidential campaign has been marred by allegations that Republican operatives are trying to bolster West’s candidacy to peel voters away from Democratic nominee Joe Biden. 

Commuted by President Trump, Alice Marie Johnson aims to bolster him with RNC speech

WASHINGTON — When Donald Trump was on the ballot in 2016, Alice Marie Johnson couldn’t vote for him even if she wanted to because she was in prison. Now, even though her voting rights haven’t been restored, Johnson says she’ll do everything she can to ensure the man who granted her clemency is re-elected to a second term.

Johnson was convicted in 1996 of nonviolent drug and money laundering chargers and served nearly 22 years of a life term before the president commuted her sentence.

Next week, she’ll be a featured speaker at the Republican National Convention in Washington D.C. The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, called Johnson personally to make the ask. 

Alice Marie Johnson speaks at the 2019 White House Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act celebration. Hosted in the East Room of the White House, on April 1, 2019.Cheriss May / NurPhoto via Getty Images

She didn’t hesitate. “It gives me an opportunity to share my heart with America,” Johnson told NBC News in an interview this week. “People can tell when you’re authentic.”

Johnson will use her time to tout the Trump administration’s work on criminal justice reform and outreach to African-American supporters. “I’m hoping that my story will remind everyone that’s there’s many others just like me who are waiting for mercy and a chance for redemption.” 

The 63-year-old great-grandmother is scheduled to deliver her address at the GOP convention live, either from the White House or the Andrew Mellon auditorium nearby.

Her case was championed by Kim Kardashian, who is married to rapper and presidential hopeful Kanye West. Johnson said she hasn’t spoken to either of them since Kanye announced his White House bid but wouldn’t “judge” his decision to get into the race yet.

Johnson didn’t watch much of the Democratic National Convention but she said a portion of former First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech resonated with her.

“It’s very, very important to vote this year. I agree with her that people do need to vote,” she explained.

Johnson has already been featured heavily by the Trump campaign in their re-election pitch to voters, most notably as a part of a $10 million ad buy that aired during this year’s Super Bowl. Johnson was also a special guest at the State of the Union, where she received a bipartisan standing ovation.

For her, participating in this election in any way possible is incredibly personal, even though she won’t be able to cast a ballot this fall.

“From prison to the White House to literally being able to speak to the president and make a difference, this has been a whirlwind,” she said. “It’s not only been an honor. It’s my duty to go.”

Pelosi endorses Kennedy ahead of tight Massachusetts Senate Democratic primary

WASHINGTON — Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi endorsed Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., Thursday in what is expected to be a close Senate primary race against incumbent Democratic Sen. Ed Markey on Sept. 1.  

“Never before have the times demanded we elect courageous leaders as today. And that is why I’m proud to endorse Joe Kennedy for Senate,” Pelosi says in a video released by the Kennedy campaign.

The Speaker credits the congressman for his work campaigning across the country to help Democrats reclaim the House in 2018, adding that Kennedy “knows that to achieve progressive change you must be on the frontlines leading movements of people.”

“Massachusetts and America need Joe Kennedy’s courage and leadership in the Senate to fight for the change we need,” Pelosi concludes.

The Speaker’s endorsement of Kennedy, the 39-year-old grandson of late Sen. Robert Kennedy and grandnephew of former President John F. Kennedy, comes less than two weeks before the primary, where polls show a close contest

Both Kennedy and Markey are viewed as progressives with little daylight between their policies, though the four-term congressman has cast himself as a representative of the next generation of politicians.

Markey, 74, is nearly twice Kennedy’s age and has served in Congress for decades (overlapping with Pelosi in the House for many of those years), but earned the support of one of Democrats’ youngest and most progressive members — New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — last year.

Ocasio-Cortez and several progressive groups immediately criticized the Speaker’s endorsement, arguing that a party establishment that regularly backs incumbents over challengers shouldn’t now support a candidate running against a progressive incumbent.  

Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez are not the only prominent Democrats to weigh in on the race.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., debates Rep. Joseph Kennedy III, D-Mass., in Boston on Aug. 11, 2020.WBZ-TV via AP, Pool

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and fellow Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren have both endorsed Markey. The incumbent is also backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

In the Kennedy camp are late Rep. John Lewis, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and now the House Speaker, who selected the congressman to give the Democratic response to President Trump’s State of the Union address in 2018.

“Nancy Pelosi is a force. No one has done more to take on Donald Trump and build our Party’s future. Proud and humbled to have her with me in this fight,” Kennedy tweeted in response to the Speaker’s endorsement. 

Biden’s DNC speech will reflect how Trump’s presidency has shaped his campaign, source says

Joe Biden will deliver what in many ways is the speech of his political life tonight. And his preparation reflects that, a source close to the process tells NBC News. 

Biden’s acceptance speech was developed and written over the course of the summer. While it has evolved through the process, it was largely “locked” weeks ago — “which is nearly unheard of in Bidenland,” as one source put it. 

Biden began rehearsing the speech at least two weeks ago — a timeline that lines up with an unexpected trip he made to the Chase Center in Wilmington even before the venue was announced as the location for his remarks. 

Biden, as always, has a heavy hand in writing his own words. Others involved include his chief strategist Mike Donilon and Vinay Reddy, a speechwriter who has been with him off and on since the second term as vice president. He’s also been preparing with Michael Sheehan, an experienced speechwriter and coach who, like Biden, overcame a stutter. 

“He knows exactly what he wants to say and he’s been saying it from the outset,” one source said, pointing to his consistent case that this election represents “a battle for the soul of the nation.” 

“It was mocked in the early part of the campaign but it feels like the world, or at least a large share of the electorate, has caught up to where Biden has been,” the source added. “Joe Biden, however this campaign ends, will have no regrets or questions. He is running as himself and he has been saying this from day one.”

The theme of a battle for the soul of the nation reflects the degree to which Biden’s candidacy, and his success in winning the nomination, has been shaped by Donald Trump’s presidency. 

“If someone else were president other than Donald Trump, I believe with every fiber of my body that he would not be running for president now,” Valerie Biden Owens, Biden’s sister, longtime campaign manager and a close confidante, told NBC News this week. 

But Biden will also make a case for himself tonight.

“You’ll hear him lay out his positive vision for the country and reaffirm his core belief that we can unite this country, even in these divisive times,” deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield told reporters. “He has been tested by historic recessions, global conflicts, pandemics, divisive politics and the never ending quest for justice and fairness in America, and every step of the way he has risen to the moment with steady and effective leadership.”

The speech will try to sum up that arc of Biden’s public service over the years. But it might not necessarily sound like a lot of the speeches he has given at past conventions. Yes, he’ll talk about the middle class and the family values that have shaped him and how he views the task ahead, but there’s a more urgent moment now that he will focus on more. 

The biggest challenge for Biden might well be not having an audience. For Biden, oratory “is not about words on a page, it’s about how it lands with the audience,” the source said. Tonight, his only audience will be a handful of aides and about a dozen reporters in the room.

“It’s like asking the Supreme Court justices to applaud during the State of the Union. You’re not going to get it,” the source said.

Biden, Trump campaigns debut new ads ahead of Biden’s DNC speech

WASHINGTON — Ahead of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s acceptance speech Thursday at the Democratic National Convention, Biden and President Donald Trump’s campaigns are out with new ads to push their own Biden messaging. 

Biden’s campaign unveiled an ad entitled, “What happens now”, which documents the former vice president’s experience during the economic crisis after the 2008 recession as proof he will be able to build back the economy from the coronavirus pandemic. The television ad is a part of the Biden campaign’s latest $24 million media buy next week and will air in key battleground states: Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. 

The Biden campaign will also be expanding a previous ad that’s been running in Ohio titled, “Backbone.” That ad documents Biden’s upbringing in Scranton, Penn. and his understanding and commitment to working class families. Per the campaign, this is the “first major push during the general election” to lay out Biden’s biography. Biden’s life story has been a marquee of the DNC this week, with several speakers talking about Biden’s father losing his job and moving his family to Delaware from Pennsylvania for work.

And, as the DNC closes, the Trump campaign is out with a new digital ad highlighting a Biden figure that hasn’t taken part in the week’s festivities: Biden’s son Hunter. 

Hunter Biden hasn’t appeared at the DNC, except for in a short clip when he eulogized his brother, Beau. 

The new ad is the centerpiece of a seven-figure digital buy specifically targeted at the DNC. 

It focuses on a 2013 trip to China where Biden brought his son Hunter, and features 2019 footage of Hunter fielding questions on the potential impropriety of the visit. Both Bidens maintain there was nothing  inappropriate about it and that the two didn’t discuss his business dealings in China. Hunter Biden had been on the board of a Chinese-backed company, and has since left that company

It was not unusual for Biden during his foreign trips as vice president to bring along family members along, including grandchildren. They would usually join him for some ceremonial or cultural parts of the trip while maintaining separate itineraries while Biden conducted official business. 

That was the case with Biden’s trip to China, and the White House said at the time that Hunter was going along for the trip in part to look after his daughter, Finnegan.

The new Trump campaign video ends with text that reads: “With Joe Biden in charge, China is in charge.” 

President Trump has publicly asked China to investigate the Biden family and the pressure exerted on Ukrainian officials to do the same is what ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment

Obama and Harris are country’s two most popular political figures

WASHINGTON — Tonight’s main speakers at the Democratic convention — former President Barack Obama and V.P. nominee California Sen. Kamala Harris — happen to be the two most popular political figures in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll when it comes to their net-positive ratings (though Obama is much more popular than Harris is).

Digging inside Obama’s 54 percent positive, 34 percent negative rating (+20), the former president gets high marks among Black voters (84 percent to 6 percent), Latinos (63 percent to 19 percent), women (60 percent to 29 percent), voters 18-34 (59 percent to 24 percent), independents (51 percent to 23 percent), and he even breaks even with white women without college degrees (44 percent to 44 percent).

Compare those numbers with Biden’s among those same subgroups: Black voters (65 percent to 10 percent), Latinos (38 percent to 31 percent), women (47 percent to 36 percent), independents (25 percent to 42 percent), voters 18-34 (30 percent to 43 percent), and white women without college degrees (36 percent to 53 percent).

The NBC News/WSJ Poll was conducted between Aug. 9-12, with a margin of error of +/-3.3%