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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre violated the Hatch Act, watchdog says

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre says the U.S. Office of Special Counsel's finding that she violated the Hatch Act is "retroactive," adding that she was "given the green light to actually say the comments that I made." She is seen here during Wednesday's daily briefing at the White House.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
/
AFP via Getty Images
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre says the U.S. Office of Special Counsel's finding that she violated the Hatch Act is "retroactive," adding that she was "given the green light to actually say the comments that I made." She is seen here during Wednesday's daily briefing at the White House.

When she repeatedly used the term "MAGA Republicans" days before the 2022 election, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre violated the Hatch Act, a U.S. government watchdog says. Jean-Pierre made the remarks during a briefing at the White House.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the independent federal agency that enforces the Hatch Act, issued a warning to Jean-Pierre, saying that while she violated limits on executive branch employees engaging in political activities, "the White House Counsel's Office did not at the time believe that Ms. Jean‐Pierre's remarks were prohibited."

Why were Jean-Pierre's remarks investigated?

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, or OSC, received a complaint from a group called Protect the Public's Trust. The group is led by Michael Chamberlain, an appointee to the Education Department during the Trump administration.

The complaint accused Jean-Pierre of using her position "to advocate for the defeat of her partisan political opponents" and make derogatory remarks about Republicans. It noted that Jean-Pierre made the remarks from the podium in the White House's press briefing room, less than a week before the Nov. 8 general election.

The group asked the OSC to investigate, to prevent similar actions, and to "impose penalties as appropriate."

What did Jean-Pierre say in 2022?

In both her prepared remarks to start the Nov. 2, 2022, briefing as well as in the Q&A portion with journalists, Jean-Pierre referred to "mega MAGA Republican officials," describing them at one point as politicians "who don't believe in the rule of law."

Jean-Pierre used the term "MAGA" four times. Less than 10 days before she used the term, President Biden referred to "mega MAGA Republicans" five times during an Oct. 24 speech at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in Washington, D.C., as he urged supporters to vote for Democrats and boost his party's seats in Congress.

As you might recall from recent history, the Hatch Act does not apply to the president and vice president.

What did the OSC find?

The OSC concluded that Jean‐Pierre did violate the Hatch Act, noting that the legislation "prohibits a covered employee from using her official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election."

But the agency "decided not to pursue disciplinary action and have instead issued Ms. Jean‐Pierre a warning letter," Ana Galindo‐Marrone, who leads the OSC's Hatch Act unit, added in a letter to Protect the Public's Trust.

Jean‐Pierre received a warning, Galindo‐Marrone said, because the OSC found that "the White House Counsel's Office did not at the time believe that Ms. Jean‐Pierre's remarks were prohibited by the Hatch Act," and it wasn't clear whether the OSC's position "regarding the use of 'MAGA Republicans' was ever conveyed to Ms. Jean‐Pierre."

Protect the Public's Trust published its correspondence with the OSC after the agency shared its findings with the group. The agency's communications director, Zachary Kurz, confirmed that the document seen online is authentic.

What does Jean‐Pierre say now?

When asked about the findings, Jean‐Pierre described the OSC's action as "retroactive," adding, "we did not know their opinion when ... we were given the green light to actually say the comments that I made. So I just want to make that very clear."

She added that since she received the warning letter, the White House Counsel's Office is reviewing their opinion and will have a "dialogue" with the OSC.

There have been other uses of the "MAGA" label in the White House, including in an official release earlier this year. In that message, the Biden administration argued against a budget proposed by what it dubbed the "extreme MAGA Republican" contingent in the House, referring to the far-right House Freedom Caucus.

Of course, not all conservatives view the MAGA label as an unwelcome term. Ahead of last year's midterms, for instance, congressional candidate Cody Hart listed "MAGA Republican Party" as his preferred identifier on the official election website in Washington state.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.