The Republican National Convention on Tuesday offered plenty of reminders of how thoroughly President Trump has blurred his dual roles as the leader of the United States and the head of the Republican Party.
Trump surprised Jon Ponder, a reformed bank robber, with an Oprah-style on-camera pardon. A small group of immigrants were sworn as new citizens during a brief naturalization ceremony. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, gave a brief speech from Jerusalem — breaking with a long expectation that the nation’s chief diplomat stays out of domestic politics. The speech by former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who decried Hunter Biden’s involvement with a Ukrainian energy company, revived memories of Trump’s attempts to bully that country’s president into helping his presidential campaign.
It has rarely been the case in American history that the chief executive was expected to be a completely apolitical figure. George Washington warned of factionalism, but his successors were partisans. Most of those men probably saw some alignment between what was best for the country and what was best for their own interests. There has long been an expectation, however, there would be some distinction between the two roles.
Admittedly, that line hasn’t always been strictly observed. The Hatch Act, which prohibits executive branch employees from some political activities, doesn’t apply to the president or vice president. Bill Clinton invited scandal by using the Lincoln Bedroom to lure donors. His vice president, Al Gore, drew harsh criticism for soliciting cash from his White House office. Various presidents have shot political ads in the West Wing, but they often drew scrutiny for doing so. The biggest scandals in American political history — including Watergate and Trump’s impeachment — stemmed from presidents abusing their official powers to win elections.
“What a White House has to be careful of is that they don’t too easily use the tools around them in a way that would be inappropriate,” Matt Schlapp, a Republican strategist, told The New York Times in 2012.
Does this White House regard any political activity as inappropriate? Judging by this year’s RNC, it seems not. Joel Mathis