White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, September 30, 2021.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters
White House press secretary Jen Psaki may have violated a law barring executive branch employees from partisan politicking, a government ethics watchdog said Friday.
But the group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also said that Psaki’s alleged breach of the Hatch Act was nowhere near as egregious as the mountain of similar ethics complaints that piled up during former President Donald Trump’s administration.
CREW alleged in a complaint that Psaki violated the ethics law Thursday during a press briefing when she affirmed President Joe Biden’s support for Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.
“I have to be a little careful about how much political analysis I do from here,” Psaki said before noting that Biden “of course” wants McAuliffe “to be the future governor of Virginia.”
“We’re going to do everything we can to help” McAuliffe, Psaki said, “and we believe in the agenda he’s representing.”
The complaint, filed to Henry Kerner of the Office of Special Counsel, alleged that Psaki appeared to violate the Hatch Act by “impermissibly mixing official government business with advocacy for former Governor McAuliffe’s election.” Her remarks were made in her official capacity and they were aimed at a preferred outcome in a partisan political election, the complaint said.
The complaint called on Kerner to investigate and take “any appropriate disciplinary action” against Psaki.
“While the President has publicly expressed his support for McAuliffe, we’ll leave it to the press and the campaign to provide commentary on the race,” Psaki told CNBC in an email.
“I take ethics very seriously and will choose my words more carefully moving forward,” she said.
CREW President Noah Bookbinder, who authored the complaint, noted in a press release that Psaki’s conduct “does not come close to rising to the level of the outrageous offenses of the Trump administration,” which “systematically co-opted the government for the president’s reelection.”
The ethics group filed Hatch Act complaints against numerous Trump administration officials, including two press secretaries, Kayleigh McEnany and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as well as then-communications aides Raj Shah and Hogan Gidley.
CREW said its complaints led to reprimands against at least a dozen Trump administration officials, including former Trump advisors Kellyanne Conway and Peter Navarro, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Trump’s third press secretary, Stephanie Grisham.
The Office of Special Counsel in 2019 issued a scathing report recommending Conway in particular should be fired for her repeated Hatch Act violations. But Trump shrugged off the report, claiming in a Fox News interview that “it looks to me like they’re trying to take away her right of free speech.”
The Trump administration’s abuse of the Hatch Act “does not mean we should be casual about compliance with an important ethics law” under Biden, Bookbinder said. “The Biden administration should not follow the Trump administration down that path.”
“After the ethics disaster of the Trump administration, there is extra pressure on the Biden administration to be above board,” Bookbinder said. “We hope the Biden administration will give renewed attention to staying on the right side of this law.”