MIDLAND, Texas – Air Force cargo jets hauled in armored SUVs and White House advance teams spent weeks preparing a remote oil rig site for a presidential visit, at a total cost of millions, so that Donald Trump could get on stage and attack Democratic rival Joe Biden.
And who picked up tab? If you pay U.S. taxes, you did.
“I don’t think Biden is going to do too well in Texas. He’s already written it off. It’s gone,” Trump said, a stack of oil barrels arranged behind him for the camera shot. “If these far-left politicians ever get into power, they will demolish not only your industry, but the entire U.S. economy.”
Last week’s foray into partisan politics at an “official” event was, for Trump, hardly unusual. More than any president in modern times, he has openly conscripted American taxpayers into underwriting the costs of his reelection campaign, from travel aboard $273,000-an-hour Air Force 1 to the dozens of staff who arrange his trips to the salaries of his own White House employees who regularly ― and illegally ― engage in politics on his behalf.
And on Wednesday, Trump told Fox News he was “thinking about” holding his renomination speech later this month on the South Lawn of the White House ― which is government property.
“Between ethics laws, respect for the office and a commitment to American democracy, American presidents go out of their way not to do this,” said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Donald Trump, on the other hand, has thrown his lot in with tin-pot dictators who use every opportunity to attack their perceived enemies and political opponents. When it comes to President Trump, what’s good for Trump comes above all else.”
At a May 14 “official” speech at a medical supplies warehouse in Allentown, Pennsylvania ― which, like most of Trump’s out-of-town events featured his campaign rally playlist ― mocked Biden for once referring to the 2009 H1N1 flu as the “N1H1” strain. “Who says that? Sleepy Joe Biden,” Trump said, before falsely accusing the former vice president and former President Barack Obama of depleting the national medical stockpile as well as the entire U.S. military.
On July 20, from the Oval Office, Trump claimed that the violence in Chicago was worse than Afghanistan, and would get worse still if he lost in November. “And you know what? If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell,” he said.
And in the White House Cabinet Room 11 days later, Trump claimed Biden’s policies were even more radical than those of Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. “Biden has been taken further left than Bernie ever was. Bernie was never this. I mean, totally open borders, and the sanctuary city stuff that — he’s approving things that Bernie never thought of,” Trump said.
White House staff, all of whom are government employees paid with tax money, push that same political message on government property and government time.
The White House Twitter account routinely posts clips attacking Democrats and campaign-ad-style videos featuring Trump. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany regularly attacks Democrats, including Biden by name, from the briefing room. Economic adviser Larry Kudlow, featured in a White House video shot on White House grounds, urged people to vote for Trump. And top aide Kellyanne Conway, whom the federal ethics office actually recommended to be fired for violating the Hatch Act that prohibits such political activity by federal workers, has openly mocked it. “Let me know when the jail sentence starts,” she said.
“They don’t care. I mean really, it’s just that simple,” said Joe Walsh, a former GOP congressman who unsuccessfully challenged Trump for the 2020 nomination. “You work every day for a guy who doesn’t care about rules and norms and traditions and laws, and eventually you begin to say, ‘Fuck it,’ and you don’t care.”
Presidents running for re-election have always had huge advantages over challengers, perhaps even more so in the age of television and jet travel.
Any presidential speech is by the fact of its existence newsworthy, and merely having the ability to get a message out is well over half the battle. Wherever a president travels, it is aboard the distinctively painted Air Force 1, which for the past 30 years has been an enormous Boeing 747, a plane far bigger than most challengers could afford to charter.
These advantages, combined with voters’ reluctance to switch horses midstream, helps explain why the vast majority of presidents have won a second term in contemporary times.
“The president simply doesn’t care about the rules, never has, and there are few if any consequences, Rory Cooper, a top aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Yet Trump has pushed for an advantage that his predecessors scrupulously avoided: literally making campaign remarks during events that are purportedly part of his official duties.
“The president simply doesn’t care about the rules, never has, and there are few if any consequences,” said Rory Cooper, a top aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and, before that, a staffer in the George W. Bush White House. “We’re in a world where shattering rules is called shattering norms and it’s celebrated by the president’s base. But these rules exist for a reason. But we all know nothing is going to change while President Trump is in office.”
In Midland, for instance, the cost for taxpayers of flying in Trump’s motorcade, planning out his visit to the oil rig ― the final portion over a gravel road ― and setting up two stages, an air-conditioned tent and a secure barrier totaled at least several million dollars, with the bulk of that in travel and logistics. The bottom line for Air Force 1′s six-hour round-trip was more than $1.6 million, and Air Force cargo jets each cost $15,000 an hour to fly.
In responses to HuffPost over a number of months, White House officials have made no attempt to deny that Trump uses official events for campaigning. Instead, they have repeatedly pointed out that the Hatch Act does not apply to the president. They also claim that White House staffers do not help draft Trump’s political remarks.
“White House staff and personnel do not use official resources to produce campaign speeches,” said one official on condition of anonymity, adding that Trump’s prepared remarks for official events are vetted to make sure staff has not written political statements for him to read.
That claim, though, is belied by examples at such events where Trump clearly is reading from prepared text that includes political commentary.
On July 14, from a Rose Garden event billed as a press conference, Trump launched into an extended campaign speech, attacking Biden and his record as vice president. “So Joe Biden and President Obama freely allowed China to pillage our factories, plunder our communities, and steal our most precious secrets,” Trump said, reading off prepared remarks from his lectern. “Now Joe Biden is pushing a platform that would demolish the U.S. economy — totally demolish it.”
And in Midland ― where his trip included a meticulously staged “tour” of Double Eagle Energy’s drilling rig which Trump truncated to climbing up onto a stage for a quick photo and then immediately returning to his air-conditioned SUV ― Trump was plainly reading off his teleprompter when he began attacking Democrats.
“Washington Democrats have embraced Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s nearly $100 trillion Green New Deal disaster — I’ve added the fourth word; it’s a “disaster” — which would ban oil and gas leasing on all federal lands,” he said, referring to New York Democrat Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.
“I think we see from their actions that (Trump and his staff) don’t care” about transforming “official” events into partisan ones and ignoring the Hatch Act, said Anthony Scaramucci, a longtime Trump supporter, briefly a White House aide, and now a fierce critic. He added that they have no reason to fear any consequence. “They control the Department of Justice.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.