“As you know, I’m covered by the Hatch Act” is a phrase many in the White House Briefing Room are used to hearing from White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. In fact, Jean-Pierre has invoked the Hatch Act on 33 occasions at the podium since September.
The Hatch Act, a New Deal-era federal law, prohibits government employees from engaging in political activities or promoting a political campaign — the president and vice president are notably exempted.
Some White House reporters have expressed frustration with the press secretary’s frequent use of the Hatch Act, accusing Jean-Pierre of misusing the law in order to evade tough questions, according to a recent Politico report.
Richard Painter, a former chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, says that questions regarding the president’s medical records as he faces a reelection decision are legitimate and unrelated to the Hatch Act.
“It sounds like she’s overly broad in her application of the Hatch Act. It’s just that she doesn’t want to answer a question on the president’s medical records,” said Painter.
In December, Jean-Pierre notably refused to answer questions by citing the Hatch Act when asked about President Joe Biden traveling to Georgia during the Senate runoff, if Biden would release results from his physical examination, and if he or other politicians plan on returning political donations from disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried.
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Leading up to the Georgia Senate runoff in December, Jean-Pierre repeatedly refused to answer questions on whether Biden would travel to the Peach State before Election Day, citing the Hatch Act. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., notably refused to say whether he would campaign with Biden leading up to the runoff race.
Questions related to the president’s schedule, despite being related to a political campaign, can also be answered without violating the law, according to Painter, who described this line of response as “somewhat evasive.”
“When you look at the Hatch Act, she can’t use her official position to promote his campaign or to attack an opponent,” Painter said.
Jean-Pierre can certainly provide information on the president’s whereabouts and the general nature of his activities, whether political or not, according to Painter.
A former Trump White House official told Fox News Digital that Jean-Pierre seems to want it both ways, using the Hatch Act to dodge campaign-related questions while making blatantly political statements about “ultra-MAGA” and “extreme MAGA” individuals — terms Biden started using in the lead-up to the 2022 midterms to describe some Republican candidates.
Jean-Pierre’s caution may be based on a legitimate concern within the Biden White House. The Office of Special Counsel — which investigates potential Hatch Act violations — came down on Jean-Pierre’s predecessor, Jen Psaki, for a Hatch Act violation during an October 2021 press briefing where she appeared to endorse former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe in his gubernatorial race.
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“Questions related to campaign issues are not necessarily ‘off the table,’ but an employee must take into account all the circumstances of the situation at hand to determine whether answering a question would constitute political activity,” said Delaney Marsco, senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a government watchdog group.
“To me, it makes sense that Karine Jean-Pierre is being careful when she weighs in on things that could be construed as political activity,” Marsco told Fox.
As Biden mulls a potential reelection bid, telling reporters that he will announce his decision “early next year,” White House reporters will likely hear more about the Hatch Act going forward.
“This White House believes in the rule of law, and we’ll continue to provide information to members of the media while working within the bounds of federal statutes,” White House assistant press secretary Robyn Patterson told Fox.
“More broadly, when it comes to political campaigns and other political activity, we generally will continue to refer you to the DNC and relevant campaigns. If reporters have an issue with the Hatch Act, they have every right to petition their members of Congress to push for changes to the law,” Patterson added.