Why Trump’s blurring of the line between campaigning and governing matters, explained by an expert

Trump speaks to contractors at the Shell Chemicals Petrochemical Complex on August 13, 2019 in Monaca, Pennsylvania. | Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Trump’s trip to Pennsylvania illustrated how he can’t resist getting political, even at taxpayer-funded events. It’s not supposed to work like that.

During a rally-style speech to energy workers in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, President Donald Trump used a slur to demean Sen. Elizabeth Warren, insulted former Vice President Joe Biden as “sleepy Joe,” bragged about poll numbers that he inflated, took credit for legislation signed into law by his predecessor, urged union leaders to vote for him (“and if they don’t, vote them the hell out of office”), and mused about cancelling the 2020 election and serving as many as four terms.

All of that would be abnormal stuff to say coming from any other American president. None of it is particularly unusual for Trump. But there was just one problem: Trump’s speech wasn’t even supposed to be a campaign event.

Trump is joking about calling off the 2020 election and serving a 3rd term during a speech to energy workers in PA that is not supposed to be a campaign event pic.twitter.com/EI9jZA1HaO

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 13, 2019

Trump’s visit to Royal Dutch Shell’s Pennsylvania Petrochemical Complex was an official White House event. The trip was funded by taxpayers, and taxpayer dollars are not supposed to be used by political campaigns. As a result, presidents in such situations normally stick to things like touting positive accomplishments or talking about new proposals — but in any event they steer clear of bashing their opponents with derogatory nicknames.

Tuesday was perhaps the starkest example yet of how Trump has obliterated the line between campaigning and governing. But it was not the first.

“Sleepy Joe! He was someplace in Iowa today and he said my name so many times that people couldn’t stand it anymore. ‘No, don’t keep saying it!’ Sleepy guy,” Trump told his audience during a White House event in Council Bulls in June, seemingly making stuff up on the fly, before going on to bash the media.

This is technically an official White House event, not a campaign one, but here’s Trump insulting “the fake news” and misleading people about unemployment rates.

(It is no longer the case that they are at record lows for any of the demographic groups he mentions.) pic.twitter.com/YTK3Oo9IhQ

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) June 11, 2019

Trump’s speeches to uniformed troops have also repeatedly come under criticism for being overtly political. During his visit to Iraq last December, for instance, he attacked Nancy Pelosi by name and characterized Democrats as being opposed to the military’s interests.

Trump’s abuse of taxpayer resources for politicking might not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But according to Jordan Libowitz, communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), it threatens the very core of our democracy.

“In a free and open democracy, the government doesn’t use taxpayer resources to keep itself in power,” Libowitz told Vox. “That’s what authoritarian dictatorships do.”

In the wake of Trump’s speech on Tuesday, I spoke with Libowitz about why Trump’s conflation of campaigning and governing matters, and what CREW is thinking about doing in response. Our conversation follows, lightly edited for clarity.

Aaron Rupar

What is the legal basis for distinction between campaign events and official ones?

Jordan Libowitz

There are two issues at play. This general thing is called mixed travel — when there’s involvement of both official and political behavior. Then there’s the Hatch Act, which does not apply to the president but would apply to people who work for the president. So they could not be using official resources to put on a political event.

However, it definitely depends upon his planned and official remarks. If he just goes off-script and turns it into a political event — which is likely what happened [on Tuesday] — it’s not really a Hatch Act issue, but there is the issue of taxpayer money should not be used for political purposes. So in that case, when he goes wildly off-script and turns an official event into a political event, the campaign or the party needs to pick up the bill, and there is a formula the government has for what extent they have to pay. But they would have to reimburse taxpayers if it does cross that line.

Aaron Rupar

What are the ways the FEC could hold the campaign accountable?

Jordan Libowitz

We’re looking into whether he crossed a line now and whether it is complaint-worthy. We’re still in the early stages of looking into that.

Aaron Rupar

Why do you think the distinction between campaign events on one hand and official on the other is important? Why is it important to keep the difference clear?

Jordan Libowitz

It gets to the basis of our government, that in a free and open democracy the government doesn’t use taxpayer resources to keep itself in power. That’s what authoritarian dictatorships do. We are not Russia. So there needs to be a clear line between campaigns and the government, and any blurring of that line starts to threaten the democratic process.

Aaron Rupar

Is there any precedent in American political history where presidents have sparked concerns in the way Trump is about misusing taxpayer dollars for campaign purposes? Is this a uniquely Trumpian thing?

Jordan Libowitz

I can’t think of any that have come to the extent that Trump has. There’s a slip-up every once in a while, but [with Trump] this happens so often that no one knows when a government event can turn into a political event, and that’s something we’re not used to seeing. There’s been a pretty clear line between them with previous presidents.

But when the same people who are running the government are involved with the campaigns and business because they are all a family, lines get blurred. And when you have a president who has difficultly sticking to his prepared remarks, who tends to go wildly off-script with whatever is on his mind, that makes this a lot more likely to happen.

Aaron Rupar

Trump’s speech yesterday seemed especially egregious as far as veering into politics. It was basically the same sort of delivery he would give at one of his rallies, to the point where if you were watching you could’ve been forgiven for thinking it was one. Did you notice that as well?

Jordan Libowitz

At first blush it appears like a campaign event, but we’re looking over the transcript. I think as we get closer to the actual election, I would not be surprised to see more and more of this happening.

Aaron Rupar

What especially are flags CREW looks for in terms of, “these remarks are problematic because they’re political”? For instance, I assume it’s generally okay to tout positive accomplishments.

Jordan Libowitz

So that kind of thing happens a lot, presidents talking about the great things they’ve done or even like, “I promised to do this while I was running and now I’ve done it.” I think that doesn’t step over the line to the same extent as using derogatory nicknames for the frontrunners who could face you in the election, or talking about people who are declared candidates against you. I think that’s a pretty clear step over the line.

Trump on Elizabeth Warren: “We’ll have to hit Pocahontas very hard again if she does win.”

(This is not supposed to be a campaign speech.) pic.twitter.com/UBlejLKFhf

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 13, 2019

When you talk about a future election in which you are a candidate specifically, that makes it much clearer that it’s really a campaign event. There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the White House right now who tends to tone him down. And I think that might be why we’re seeing more of this lately.

The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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