White House press secretary has violated rule against politics on the job, watchdog says

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, June 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Since taking on the role of White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre has become known for frequently dodging questions by citing the Hatch Act. The law bars civil servants from politicking during their day jobs, and Jean-Pierre uses it to deflect reporters’ questions involving campaigns.

But apparently she wasn’t careful enough. The Office of Special Counsel, a government agency that enforces the Hatch Act, said in a recent letter that Jean-Pierre violated the law before last year’s midterm elections.

Her offense: Making frequent references to “MAGA Republicans” during White House briefings.

According to a letter from the Office of Special Counsel, Jean-Pierre “made those references to generate opposition to Republican candidates” and “accordingly, making the references constituted political activity.”

The letter was posted online by The Washington Post. It was first reported by NBC News.

Penalties for Hatch Act violations are uncommon, and the office did not recommend any fines or other punishments for Jean-Pierre.

Violations were much more common under President Donald Trump. The Office of Special Counsel sent an “unprecedented” 15 warning letters to senior Trump administration officials about running afoul of the Hatch Act, and it even recommended the firing of top adviser Kellyanne Conway.

Jean-Pierre faced scrutiny after a conservative organization called Protect the Public’s Trust filed a complaint.

The organization said Jean-Pierre was “disparaging President Biden’s political opponents as ‘mega MAGA Republican officials who don’t believe in the law.’”

Jean-Pierre said the White House counsel’s office was reviewing the letter, adding that “we do everything we can” to comply with the law and take it “very seriously.”

“At the time, I was given the sign off to use that terminology,” she said. Jean-Pierre said the term was used “in the context of talking about their policies, in talking about their values.”

She noted that some reporters often express “friendly consternation” about how often she cites the Hatch Act, and she suggested that she was confused by the violation.

After all, she said, Trump’s White House used the phrase “MAGA” about 2,000 times to describe his administration’s policies.

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