US Presidential election: Is a Trump White House acceptance speech legal?

President Donald Trump, who has avoided wearing a mask in public, wore one in a visit to a military medical facility outside Washington. (Source: Reuters)

President Donald Trump instantly ignited new controversy when he said recently that he may deliver his nomination acceptance speech during the Republican National Convention at the White House.

But using the Rose Garden, the Executive Mansion or even the Oval Office as the backdrop for his speech capping the Aug. 24-27 convention would mark an unprecedented use of federal property for partisan political purposes.

Critics allege it would violate ethics laws, such as the Hatch Act, which limits political activity by federal workers, although few have faced penalties.

Trump says the idea is well within the law. It is legal. There is no Hatch Act because it doesn't pertain to the president, Trump said Wednesday.

While the president is exempt from the act, ethics experts said, presidential staffers working to pull off the event would be in jeopardy.

The rule prohibiting political activity on government property still applies, regardless of the Hatch Act's exception for the president, according to Kedric Payne, ethics director at the Campaign Legal Center. Any federal employee who helps facilitate the acceptance speech risks violating the Hatch Act.

Here is an overview of the controversy:

Presidents typically hold their nominating conventions in large arenas in states critical to victory, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced candidates to change the way they campaign.

All four days of the Republican National Convention were planned for Charlotte, North Carolina, until Trump feuded with the state's Democratic governor over coronavirus health restrictions.

Trump then moved the speech and some other elements of the convention to Jacksonville, Florida, a decision welcomed by the state's Republican governor. But the president later canceled those plans because of a resurgence of the coronavirus in Florida.

Trump says delivering the speech at the White House would save travel costs of flying the entire presidential entourage to the convention, though he hadn't made cost an issue until now.

If I use the White House, we save tremendous amounts of money for the government in terms of security, traveling. ... I think it would be a very convenient location," Trump said.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden says he'd accept his party's nomination in a speech delivered in his home state of Delaware instead of the planned convention in Milwaukee.

Presidents historically have avoided using the White House for strictly political events, though Trump has shown disregard for traditional efforts to separate governing and campaigning. Trump turned a recent Rose Garden speech on China into a lengthy attack on Biden, saying his opponent's entire career has been a gift to the Chinese Communist Party.

The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, noted that even though Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are exempt from the Hatch Act, federal government employees must refrain from participating in partisan political activity.

I think anything you do on federal property would seem to be problematic, according to Thune.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former justice on the Texas Supreme Court, expressed similar concern.

I would have to have somebody show me where it says he could do that. I would think on government property would be problematic, Cornyn said.

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