A federal ethics agency is telling civil servants to avoid workplace talk about impeachment and #resistance for the next 705 days — until the day after Election Day 2020.
The memo from the Office of Special Counsel also warns federal employees not to engage in "strong criticism or praise of a presidential administration's policies and actions." The only presidential administration right now is President Trump's. The document was circulated to ethics officials across the government this week.
The 79-year-old Hatch Act is mainly aimed at keeping partisan politics out of executive-branch bureaucracy. The small Office of Special Counsel, or OSC, enforces the act, periodically publishing guidance as new issues arise. (OSC isn't to be confused with special counsel Robert Mueller, who leads the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.)
The new guidance is all about Trump. He's the only major candidate who has announced he's running in 2020 (he did it a few weeks after taking office), the only candidate whom some critics want to impeach and the object of the social media hashtag #resistance that liberals coined as he took office in 2017.
Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the OSC Hatch Act unit, said the guidance was written in response to questions from federal workers and agencies' ethics officers, and that it wasn't intended to be sharply different from existing standards. She said the phrase "strong criticism or praise" didn't draw a stricter line than other regulatory limits, such as to "support or oppose" a specific candidate.
"To me, it's no different from the language we've used before," she told NPR.
But Debra Katz, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who handles employment and whistleblower cases, said the new language in the guidance "can't be inadvertent." She described the guidance as bringing a partisan taint to OSC, which oversees Hatch Act coverage of more than 2 million workers in the executive branch. "I think we need to look no further than this act to say this office has become politicized," she said.
Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the guidance "would seem to have a real chilling effect," inhibiting employees' discussion of policies and legislative proposals.
The Hatch Act guidance comes at a time when the administration is under scrutiny for trying to stifle discourse in other ways. This month, the White House unsuccessfully attempted to permanently pull the press credentials of a CNN reporter who's an aggressive questioner of the president. The Trump administration also has pulled security clearances from retired intelligence officials who oppose his policies.
Since the administration took office, many government scientists, particularly those in the field of climate research, report political interference in their work. This month, Trump and high-level officials have sought to discredit a major climate change report issued by a range of scientists across the government.
Several Trump administration officials have run afoul of the Hatch Act. In March, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway violated the act when she endorsed a Senate candidate during interviews in front of the White House. There was no punishment. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is being investigated for possible Hatch Act violations related to appearances he made with candidates this year. And the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed Hatch Act complaints against several other Trump appointees.
American Oversight, a liberal watchdog group, is urging OSC to rescind the new guidance. Austin Evers, the group's director, said the agency should enforce the Hatch Act, but the guidance "opens a dangerous door for the Trump administration to crack down on dissent."