Originally Published in The Washington Post
Philip Bump - August 25, 2020
President Trump attends a naturalization ceremony on Tuesday. (Republican National Convention/Reuters)
Trump arrived at a lectern set up in the White House’s Great Hall. There, acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf waited, along with five candidates for naturalization: two men and three women, one in a headscarf and another in a traditional Indian sari. The five were presented to Wolf.
“On behalf of everyone here today,” Wolf said at the outset of the event, “I’d like to express my gratitude to you, Mr. President, for hosting this naturalization ceremony here at the White House.”
He administered an oath of allegiance. The five immigrants became citizens.
“Mr. President, I want to again commend you for your dedication to the rule of law,” Wolf said, “and for restoring integrity to our immigration system. Thank you for hosting such a patriotic celebration here at the White House today.”
The reason that event was hosted at the White House is also the reason we can convey in such detail what actually happened. That ceremony, the culmination of five long journeys toward achieving recognition as American citizens, happened in the White House quite obviously so that it could be filmed and incorporated into Trump’s reelection effort. The legitimate achievements of those five people was something that, for Wolf and Trump, became an opportunity to score political points.
The event was cynical and dubious in an avalanche of ways. The appearance of Wolf, for example, who earlier in the day had earned an honor of his own: Twitter-nominated to officially serve in the position he’s now held in an acting capacity for almost a year.
Wolf’s sudden nomination to hold his position permanently may have been prompted by the determination this month that his appointment as acting secretary role was illegal, a violation of the law governing how positions should be filled. This, in turn, meant that actions Wolf had approved might also be considered illegal — or, at least, subject to being overturned. Though as you’ll soon see, there’s reason to suspect that Trump may not be overly concerned about the legality of Wolf’s position.
Despite his embrace of new immigrants in that campaign video, Wolf’s tenure has prompted a lot of criticism. He’s been reliable in putting into effect policies introduced by Trump aide Stephen Miller, a notorious advocate for broadly limiting immigration. Wolf helped instantiate the policy that separated children from their parents upon entering the country illegally, a policy aimed at discouraging people from coming to the United States. He deployed officers to serve as domestic law enforcement in Portland, Ore., this summer at Trump’s request.
In other words, the words that struck closest to Wolf’s heart weren’t his praise for the patriotic celebration but, instead, for Trump’s “dedication to the rule of law” — despite the irony of Wolf making that assertion while serving without legal authorization.
And while also apparently violating federal prohibitions against using government resources for campaign purposes. The Hatch Act broadly bars government officials from using government time or buildings — like the White House — for advancing a political effort. The law has been regularly ignored by members of Trump’s administration, but rarely so ostentatiously as it was in the campaign’s naturalization event.
“We just witnessed President Trump and DHS official Chad Wolf violate a criminal Hatch Act provision that prohibits anyone employed in ‘an administrative position’ from using his official authority to affect the nomination or election of any Presidential candidate,” Kathleen Clark, government ethics expert at the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis told The Washington Post’s Michelle Lee and Josh Dawsey on Tuesday. “Breathtaking in their contempt for the law.”
Concern about using the executive mansion as a backdrop for convention events has been discussed for weeks, since Trump first publicly mentioned the idea as his party scrambled to revise its convention plans. There’s no question, in other words, that his administration and his campaign should have known where the lines were drawn, even if they weren’t particularly concerned about crossing them.
What’s the campaign’s defense? An official told the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus that the event was technically public, having been announced this afternoon — and that the campaign then decided to use the footage for the convention. That there have been no prior similar events, that the new citizens offered so compelling a picture of global diversity, that there were only five to begin with and that the event was publicized only hours before it became a political ad all serve to make the obvious obvious: The campaign is proud of the cleverness it shows in skirting the rules. Who’s to say what the “spirit” of a law is, anyway?
That cynical approach to the law pales, though, next to the rank cynicism of Trump’s use of the ceremony to bolster his bona fides. It’s the equivalent of those occasions when he tries to wave away some controversy by offering an obviously false tweet in response. Here, convention viewers were asked to set aside years of Trump antagonism toward immigrants entering the country both legallyand illegally and, instead, to believe that he offers warm embraces to new Americans.
Trump had the audacity to tell the life story of and pose for a photograph with an immigrant from Ghana. During an Oval Office discussion about immigration in early 2018, Trump rejected the idea that people from Haiti, El Salvador or African countries should receive special protections.
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” he asked.
To put it in the words of the Ghanian immigrant who posed with a smiling Trump on Tuesday, because by coming to America, “I have the chance to work hard and succeed in life." It’s not clear what the man’s name was; Trump identified him by two different names as he introduced him.
“As citizens,” Trump said to the five as he concluded his remarks, “you’re now stewards of this magnificent nation. A family comprised of every race, color, religion and creed united by the bonds of love. We are one people sharing one home, saluting one great American flag.”
Those words, if offered at any other convention by any other politician, would seem at worst anodyne. But coming from this president, at this time, in that place, beside that homeland security official, the pablum was necessarily blanketed by layers of cynicism, opportunism and questions about the president’s willingness to adhere to the law.