[LIGHT BACKGROUND MUSIC PLAYS]
ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Back in 2017, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the President, goes on Fox and Friends in her official capacity to talk about proposed tax legislation. She's standing in front of the White House on a warm November Day. You can see the portico with the columns in the background. Mostly, she talks about how Democrats are not supporting the tax bill.
KELLYANNE CONWAY: This is not about giving the President a win. That's silly. He's the President. He won. Tell Hillary Clinton, by the way. P.S. [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: She goes on for a minute or so like this, just talking. And then does something she isn't supposed to do. She segues, without being prompted, to a Democratic candidate running for U.S. Senate.
CONWAY: And Doug Jones in Alabama? Folks, don't be fooled. He'll be a vote against tax cuts, weak on crime, weak on borders. He's strong on raising your taxes. He's terrible for property owners. [SPEAKING OVER THE ANCHOR] And Doug Jones, the doctrinaire liberal — which is why he's not saying anything, and why the media are trying to boost him.
ANCHOR: So vote Roy Moore?
CONWAY: I'm telling you that we want the votes in — in the — in the Senate to get this tax — this tax bill through, and the — the media … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: A few months later, federal investigators found this interview Conway violated the law. In a report, they wrote, "Ms. Conway's statements during the Fox & Friends and New Day interviews impermissibly mixed official government business with political views about candidates in the Alabama special election for U.S. Senate.” The White House didn't express remorse, didn't sanction Conway in any way. It defended her.
After an outcry about her remarks on Roy Moore, she kept breaking the law, like on this interview on Fox and Friends in early 2019, when she insults much of the Democratic primary field.
CONWAY: Kirsten Gillibrand — this weekend, in her 50s, I guess it's the first time she's ever eaten fried chicken. [CUT, FAIRY-LIKE SOUND EFFECT] Amy Klobuchar, who seems to be a very nice person, I guess — unless you're on her staff. [CUT, FAIRY-LIKE SOUND EFFECT] I've yet to see presidential timber. I just see a bunch of presidential wood chips.
BERNSTEIN: Or in this interview with Fox news anchor Martha McCallum, after the Ukraine whistleblower report was released back in September 2019.
CONWAY: Give me a break. We don't need Ukraine to help beat Joe Biden or any of the rest of them any more than we needed Russia to beat Hillary Clinton. And these candidates are a disaster all their own there, so they self-immolate. [FAIRY-LIKE SOUND EFFECT]
BERNSTEIN: Kellyanne Conway, whose salary is paid by taxpayers, has violated the law separating politicking from governance at least 27 times. That law is called the Hatch Act, and federal investigators call Conway's violations "egregious, notorious, and ongoing."
And these 27 violations — and counting — they are just one way how, contra to law and precedent, the Trump administration has effectively made the White House a subsidiary of the Trump campaign committee.
[TRUMP, INC. THEME MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Hello, and welcome to Trump, Inc., a podcast from WNYC and ProPublica that digs deep into the business of Trump. I'm Andrea Bernstein.
Today on the show: we're going to take a broad look, not only at the ways Kellyanne Conway has violated the law, but at the way multiple administration officials have followed her example, and how the Trump administration has commandeered the White House: press briefings, out of town trips, interviews with senior administration officials to explicitly promote the President's electoral chances.
BERNSTEIN: Trump’s electioneering has become particularly pronounced as he's entered the general election, with the coronavirus constricting his ability to campaign in public. By our count, at 25 out-of-town presidential events since May, Trump has spoken about the campaign or attacked his opponent at half.
SHERMAN: He is trying to use the government apparatus to inundate us with ads supporting his reelection and attacking his opponent.
BERNSTEIN: This is Donald Sherman, Deputy Director of the watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — or CREW.
SHERMAN: The administration is using the levers of the government to hold onto power for a President whose electoral prospects are slipping minute by minute.
BERNSTEIN: The White House did not respond to our request for comment for this story.
BERNSTEIN: To understand why this kind of activity is even regulated, we need to go back to 1939, to a Senate primary race in Kentucky.
[OLD “GRAND OLD FLAG” SONG RECORDING PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is President. His New Deal program has put Americans back to work through the Works Progress Administration, the WPA —
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: … do a thousand necessary jobs …
BERNSTEIN: — building roads, schools, and hospitals; creating public art.
PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT: The federal government has allotted to Kentucky a new kind — new kinds of federal expenditures.
BERNSTEIN: In Kentucky and other states, workers at the WPA are mobilized for a different purpose: [APPLAUSE, MUSIC TRANSITIONS] to tip the scales in primary elections towards FDR-loyal candidates. Federal employees fear they'll lose their jobs if they didn't work on the campaign.
PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT: You’ve heard charges and counter-charges that federal workers and workers on relief are being directed how to vote.
BERNSTEIN: At Scripps-Howard newspapers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning series detailing the scandal describes the Kentucky WPA as "a grand political racket in which the taxpayer is the victim.”
[OLD, UPBEAT MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: Enter New Mexico Senator, Democrat Carl Hatch — "Cowboy Carl" — a champion of federal workers. He proposes the "Act to Purify Politics,” also known as the "Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities." Or, simply, the Hatch Act. The theory is, if your job is to work for the public, you shouldn't be campaigning, or pressured to campaign for somebody on the public dime.
The Hatch Act has been around for eighty years. Twice, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it. As recently as 2012, there was a bipartisan vote to modernize it.
[A MOMENT OF MUSIC, THEN SILENCE]
BERNSTEIN: Donald Sherman — the government ethics watchdog — got his start in this line of work as a member of the staff of the House Ethics Committee, the body that's supposed to enforce standards of conduct in Congress.
[LIGHT BACKGROUND MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: So the ethics people are not necessarily the most popular people in Washington. How — how has that worked out for you?
SHERMAN: [LAUGHS] Uh, yeah. It’s — it’s funny that you say that. No, they have never been. I think most people view “the Hill” as a place where there's a lot of networking and, you know, you meet a lot of people and you're going to receptions and what not. And, basically, my colleagues and I on the Ethics Committee ate lunch together every day.
BERNSTEIN: Eventually, Sherman goes to work for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, one of the nation's key Hatch Act watchdogs.
The Hatch Act says, as a federal employee, you're not allowed to do politics on company time. But there's an exception for the President, and the Vice President, and for certain advisors that work 24/7. Those people can work on a campaign, but can't use their official position to promote someone's candidacy. They can't do it from the White House, or its grounds.
SHERMAN: They can't get on TV and say, “I'm the Secretary of Defense. I endorse Donald Trump for President,” or, you know, “I am Senior White House Aide. I endorse Donald Trump for President.” And, you know, part of the reason for that is, these folks are paid by the taxpayers.
BERNSTEIN: There's an entity entrusted with enforcing the Hatch Act, the Office of Special Counsel, or OSC — not to be confused with Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
SHERMAN: In 2018, when OSC found that Ms. Conway was in violation of the Hatch Act for the first time, the White House quickly defended her, did not subject her to discipline, but, you know, sort of acknowledged the violation. And so you got the sense that, yes, she broke the law, but they didn't really care. Not that big of a deal.
BERNSTEIN: She kept breaking the law. In June 2019, the OSC took a drastic step. It recommended Conway be fired.
SHERMAN: Ms. Conway was recalcitrant to redirection, right? Like, uh, there is a provision in the statute indicating that when there are repeated violations, removal is an option.
[NOW A CLIP FROM THE OSC]
HENRY KERNER: She pivoted, sometimes completely unprompted —
BERNSTEIN: Special Counsel Henry Kerner.
KERNER: — to attacking the Democratic candidates personally, such as calling the entire field of Democratic candidates “wood chips,” and calling Senator Booker tinny and sexist.
Those statements are not facts. Those are campaign rhetoric, and they are forbidden by the Hatch Act when said in her official capacity.
BERNSTEIN: It's not just the violations that troubled Kerner. It was Conway's outright refusal to abide by the law. He called Conway a "repeat offender."
KERNER: OSC has repeatedly offered Ms. Conway the opportunity to come into compliance with the law. She refused to do so. In fact, the frequency of her Hatch Act violations only increased.
BERNSTEIN: When the OSC recommended that Conway be fired, the White House responded by saying the Hatch Act had a chilling effect on free speech. A spokesman insinuated the OSC was partisan. He said, ”Its decisions seem to be influenced by media pressure and liberal organizations.” Those criticisms don’t exactly apply here.
BERNSTEIN: The Special Counsel, Henry Kerner, is a Trump appointee, a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization. He worked for years for Daryl Issa and Jason Chaffetz, hyper-partisan Republicans who led the House Oversight committee.
KERNER: Given the evidence of clear, repeated, and knowing violations of the Hatch Act, the only appropriate recommendation to the President, under these circumstances, was removal from office.
FOX ANCHOR: Mr. President, you're not going to fire her.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, I'm not going to fire her. I think she's a terrific person. She’s a tremendous spokesperson. She’s been loyal. [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: Conway knew the President had her back. Here she is outside the White House
REPORTER: I'm quoting the OSC, which says —
CONWAY: I don't care.
REPORTER: — you mixed official government business with political —
CONWAY: [INTERRUPTING] “Blah blah.” Listen —
REPORTER: — in the Alabama special election.
CONWAY: [INTERRUPTING] “Blah blah blah.” If you're trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it's not going to work.
REPORTER: I'm not trying to silence you. The OSC said you violated —
CONWAY: Let me know when the jail sentence starts.
BERNSTEIN: The lack of consequences paved the way for more and more senior Trump administration officials to do what she did. CREW’s Donald Sherman lists some of them.
SHERMAN: Marc Short is the Chief of Staff to Vice President Pence, who is leading the Coronavirus Task Force. He did a television interview where he spent time attacking Joe Biden.
BERNSTEIN: — even though Short knew he wasn't supposed to.
MARC SHORT: Well, because of some Hatch Act restrictions, I can't really comment on the political strategy.
BERNSTEIN: He did anyway.
MARC SHORT: Vice President Biden has yet to face media in over 80 days and seems trapped inside his basement at the moment.
SHERMAN: Peter Navarro is a Senior Trade and Economic Advisor at the White House and, in the course of doing, uh, a television interview about, uh, economic policy, Mr. Navarro attacked Joe Biden.
PETER NAVARRO: Poll-driven, plagiarist, “Buy China” Joe Biden. I was astonished … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: There's also Jared Kushner.
JARED KUSHNER: When you look at the election coming up, a lot of it's gonna come down to, “Who do you trust to build the economy back?”
BERNSTEIN: Senior White House Advisor Steven Miller.
STEVEN MILLER: Well, as you know, Joe Biden is stuck in a basement somewhere.
BERNSTEIN: Mark Meadows, Trump's Chief of Staff, in an interview with Rudy Giuliani.
RUDY GIULIANI: Would you be willing, if push came to shove, the President go debate Biden in the basement?
MARK MEADOWS: Listen, I — I …
BERNSTEIN: The interview was in the Secretary of War Suite in the Executive Office Building next to White House.
MEADOWS: Let's put Joe Biden's record against the President's record.
BERNSTEIN: This conversation goes on for a while before Meadows acknowledges that maybe he shouldn't be talking about the election.
MEADOWS: Again, putting my personal hat back on, because I don't want to violate any federal law. [GIULIANI BEGINS TO TALK OVER HIM]
BERNSTEIN: Sherman's group, CREW, has filed complaints about some of these interviews. He says the OSC is investigating Peter Navarro and Marc Short. The Office cleared Jared Kushner of Hatch Act violations for an interview he did earlier this year on CNN. In other cases, the OSC has cleared administration officials after investigation, but it doesn't make these opinions public. Still, Sherman says the lines have been crossed so many times, he's lost count.
SHERMAN: And, like, this has happened time and time again. And I think it is, at — at this point, it is not a bug. It is a feature.
BERNSTEIN: At least 13 senior Trump administration officials have been found by the OSC to have violated the Hatch Act. There are investigations of 12 more that are ongoing.
By contrast, the OSC found two cabinet secretaries violated the Hatch Act during the eight years of Obama's presidency. One was Housing Secretary Julian Castro, who answered a question during an interview with Katie Couric about whether he'd accept a vice presidential slot. After the finding that he'd violated the Hatch Act, Castro apologized and said he wouldn't do it again. The other Obama cabinet official to have violated the Hatch Act was this woman:
KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: Kathleen Sebelius, the former Secretary of Health and Human services from 2009 until 2014.
BERNSTEIN: We reached her via Zoom at her home in Lawrence, Kansas. She was governor there before going to work for Obama. She says in the Obama administration, the rules were clear, consistent and frequently conveyed: separate anything political from her duties as a cabinet officer.
SEBELIUS: And certainly, I would say in the last six months before the re-election that there were, you know, pretty bright lines involving how travel expenses were allocated, what kinds of things could be done.
BERNSTEIN: Sebelius tripped up anyway.
BERNSTEIN: So, in February of 2012, you spoke at an event for the Human Rights Campaign. Can you describe the event?
SEBELIUS: [LAUGHS RUEFULLY] Um, yes. I was invited as the Secretary to go, and, uh, be the keynote speaker at a Human Rights Campaign event.
[GLASSES CLINK, GALA AMBIENCE]
BERNSTEIN: This event in Charlotte is high gloss and big. Over a thousand people are there. She's there to talk about the Obama administration's efforts to make the U.S. healthcare system fairer to LGBTQ people.
BERNSTEIN: During the speech, you said, "One of the imperatives is to make sure we not only come together here in Charlotte to present the nomination to the President, but we make sure that, in November, he continues to be President for another four years." So, did that just slip out of your mouth or — or — or what happened?
SEBELIUS: Well, I did, um, actually two things at the event that turned out to be outside of the lines that I should have maintained. One was, I introduced one of the North Carolina candidates for governor and said, “I am hopeful that we are looking at the next governor of North Carolina.” And then, as you suggest, I later did a little bit of a riff off of my remarks that had been prepared.
BERNSTEIN: "Next Governor" and "four more years." Two violations of the law. This soon became clear.
SEBELIUS: Well, I think it was my general counsel, Bill Schultz, the lawyer from HHS, and Ed Swindell, who was the Head of the Ethics Office. And my recollection is, they came in and saw me and said, you know, “We have received a complaint.” And, “Did you indeed say these things?” And I said, “Yeah, you know. Yeah, I did.” And I said, “Well, how — you know, how do I fix that?”
BERNSTEIN: The answer: reimburse the taxpayers. Her counsel told her they would have to elevate the incident anyway — report it to the White House. The OSC did an investigation. It found Sebelius in violation of the Hatch Act.
BERNSTEIN: So, now it is on your record. Kathleen Sebelius passed the Affordable Care Act and also violated the Hatch Act. How — how do you feel about that?
SEBELIUS: Well, I'd prefer that it not be on my record. As a former member of the Kansas Ethics Commission for six years and, you know, national board member of Common Cause it’s kind of a black mark. But I did what they say I did. But I think it also, for me, puts into perspective what goes on every day in this current administration that just makes the top of my head come off.
[A MOMENT OF QUIET MUSIC, THEN]
BERNSTEIN: We'll be right back.
BERNSTEIN: We're back.
[ROCK-Y GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: What Kathleen Sebelius did once, and what Kellyanne Conway and multiple Trump administration officials did, is one way administrations can break the law by mixing politics and governance — a Hatch Act violation.
The Hatch Act does not apply to the president or vice president.
That does not mean the president's actions are unregulated. Federal election law and legal requirements associated with funds appropriated by Congress require that travel for political purposes be paid for from party or candidate committees.
With Trump, it's hard to know what's an official event and what's a campaign event. They're not separated out on his schedule the way they've been some previous administrations. So I focused on out-of-town events that were officially transcribed on the White House website.
True campaign rallies — like the one Trump held in Tulsa in June — are not transcribed in this way.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Thank you, as well, to Betty and Jorge. [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: After a two-month coronavirus-induced pause on out of town travel. Trump went to the Honeywell mask factory in Phoenix. You might remember it as the mask factory trip where Trump wouldn't wear a mask.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Say, these people — you know, I saw them on television.
BERNSTEIN: The White House tweeted out a link with the livestream. When I clicked on it, I heard this:
JORGE RIVAS: Mr. President, we thank you very much. I think you're doing a great job.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Thank you.
JORGE RIVAS: All the Latinos are going to vote for you.
BETTY RIVAS: Latinos love Trump.
[TRUMP VISIT FADES UNDER, IS REPLACED BY HIGH-TECH MUSIC]
BERNSTEIN: And I thought, “That's strange. Why are people talking about the election at an official White House event?” And I started looking up all of his speeches. I put them on a spreadsheet. Speech, location, whether there were any campaign-related remarks. These events are nearly always in swing states. And when I lined up the remarks, what struck me was how often Trump talked about votes and voting and elections, or attacked Joe Biden during 12 of 25 of the events transcribed on the White House website between May 5 — when Trump resumed travel — and August 11 — when I'm recording this paragraph. At three other events, Trump presided as supporters encouraged others to vote for him. Half the time, at presidential events, he was doing some kind of campaigning.
Here’s an event in Maine, at a medical products plant. Trump won less than half of the vote there in 2016.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: [IN MAINE] And get that other half, by the way — get that other half to go with Trump, okay? [LAUGHTER]
BERNSTEIN: "Get that other half to go with Trump."
PRESIDENT TRUMP: [IN MAINE] Because there's a very, very important election coming up — the most important.
BERNSTEIN: In Michigan, at the Ford Motor company, Trump says something much like what Kathleen Sebelius said in 2012.
TRUMP: [IN MICHIGAN] It's very important that we win the second time, or everything that we've done — including manufacturing, jobs, all of this — it's going to be [PAUSE] not in a very good position.
BERNSTEIN: Trump visited a biotechnology plant in Morrisville, North Carolina in late July. He gave a presidential press briefing on COVID-19. This is what he talked about.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: [IN NORTH CAROLINA] When you look at Florida, as an example, you have thousands of boats out on — boats out in the ocean, out in the Intracoastal. You look at other states where, likewise, you have thousands of boats, and they're all waving the Trump sign, Trump-Pence sign … [FADES UNDER]
BERNSTEIN: Even Trump's Fourth of July celebration at Mount Rushmore became a diatribe about "them" and "us."
PRESIDENT TRUMP: [AT MOUNT RUSHMORE, OVER CHEERING] Make no mistake — this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution.
BERNSTEIN: Someone yells: Not on my watch!
AUDIENCE MEMBER: [YELLING] Not on my watch.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: That is why I am deploying federal law enforcement to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law. [APPLAUSE]
BERNSTEIN: Amid the cheers, you can hear the crowd chant, "Four more years."
CROWD: [CHANTING] Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!
BERNSTEIN: The crowd rises to its feet. Trump smiles and nods.
BERNSTEIN: If you're thinking: don't all presidents do something related to this? Don't they all travel to swing states — Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maine, Florida, North Carolina, Texas? Well, I asked some half-dozen senior officials in the Obama and Bush administrations, including the guy whose job it was to make sure President George W. Bush didn't cross the line from official event to electioneering.
GREG JENKINS: Greg Jenkins. My title in the George W. Bush administration was Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Presidential Advance.
BERNSTEIN: “Director of Presidential Advance” means that he was in charge of all of President Bush's travel, including during the re-election campaign in 2004. Everything from the bunting on the stage, to who would be in the motorcade.
JENKINS: There was a very bright line between what was a campaign event and what was an official event. Uh, and sometimes visiting a location had both happening, you know, in — in the same city, on the same day.
BERNSTEIN: This is an old trick that politicians use. If they want to travel somewhere for a campaign event, they also schedule an official event, which gets most of their travel costs covered.
JENKINS: So if we're going to a city and we were doing a rally, which was clearly political, and we were doing a hospital visit, which was purely official, we had to make sure that we didn't have, you know, cross pollination to be able to do both events without crossing any ethical lines.
BERNSTEIN: So, when the 2004 election was on the horizon, did there come a time when, uh, the White House Counsel or some part of the White House office gave you guidance about, you know, do's and don’ts?
JENKINS: Yes. If you could stretch things and say, “Yes, it's perfectly legal to do this,” but it has the appearance of impropriety, you don't do it.
BERNSTEIN: You don't do it.
JENKINS: And god help you if you did! If the Director of Advanced saw that in the paper the next day, would you still have a job the day after that?
BERNSTEIN: You knew the answer was no, that you wouldn't wouldn't have a job.
JENKINS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, there were — there were very — there were no second chances in that world. And there's a good reason for it. You know, the people who put on events for the president, it’s — it’s a very, very public work product.
BERNSTEIN: I mean, you knew that if you were sending President Bush to, um, Michigan or Ohio or Florida, that that was going to be good for him. Even if it was an official event, it would be good for his reelection campaign, right?
BERNSTEIN: I mean, you wouldn't just go to any old states when an election was about to happen.
JENKINS: Well, both. I mean, you would go to any old states during election season, but you'd also go to states that matter politically. Yeah, no question. Um, yeah.
BERNSTEIN: You understood that those events could boost the campaign — not because it was explicit engineering, but because it was well-produced and it would create an overall image and messaging.
JENKINS: Um, if someone were to say, “Is there a political value in the official event?” Sure. Yeah. I won't deny that. But, if you were to think of — of — of the White House as a — as a private-sector industry, its product is policy. That’s what it makes. [LAUGHS] And — and the shareholders are every voter and or person in America. So one of the chief reasons to do an official event is to talk about the policy.
BERNSTEIN: So, in Florida, a visit to a manufacturing plant — that has a political benefit?
JENKINS: Yeah, I suppose, I guess it could. But it’s — it’s kind of an open question. Unless the president says at the end of his remarks, “By the way, don't forget to register to vote, and vote for me — and, by the way, my opponent is an idiot.”
I suppose the question we would have asked ourselves is, at any given official event, if you are not a supporter of President Bush — and there were plenty who were not supporters of President Bush — yet he's the president of everyone in the country, you know, if you want to go slam the person that I support in the election, then do it on your own money. Do it on your own dime.
[AN ETHEREAL MUSIC MOMENT, CONTINUING UNDER NARRATION]
BERNSTEIN: Greg Jenkins, Director of Advance for former President George W. Bush.
Is the Trump campaign fully reimbursing for these events? We really don't know. Disclosure records do show payments from campaign committees supporting Trump to the Department of Treasury and the White House Military Office for about $900,000 in May and June. But there's no explanation of what those reimbursements are for.
I asked the Federal Election Commission how to track that. A spokesman replied, essentially, “There’s no way.” He said, ”The treasurer of a political committee is responsible for keeping the records of receipts and disbursements for three years from the filing date of the report to which they relate. A committee does not have to submit documentation to the Commission unless asked to do so as a result of an enforcement or audit matter. Each disbursement reported on a campaign finance report should include a purpose of disbursement."
On the disclosures, the Trump committees list "travel" or "air travel."
I left messages and emailed the campaign treasurer. I did not get a response. I asked the White House, and the campaign. I also didn't get a response.
[MUSIC PLAYS FOR A MOMENT, THEN GOES OUT]
BERNSTEIN: The President has broken so many norms, it's become hard to count, or track, or even raise an eyebrow. We've all become exhausted just calling the President a norm-breaker. It's easy to think, “If he's doing all of this in plain sight, how wrong could it be?”
SHERMAN: [LAUGHS] I mean, I guess to that I would respond, what is more important than the President and his cronies violating the law to help him stay in power, right?
BERNSTEIN: This is Donald Sherman again, the Deputy Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
SHERMAN: It's of a different variety, but that's what the President tried to do with Ukraine.
[LIGHT MUSIC HUMS IN THE BACKGROUND]
BERNSTEIN: That is, use the levers of power — in that case, the threat of withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine — to achieve a political end — in that case, digging up purported dirt on Joe Biden. In this case, it's senior officials and official events used to deliver an overtly political message.
BERNSTEIN: I mean, it's an incredible thing to be an incumbent. It gives you all kinds of advantages.
SHERMAN: Sure, but there aren’t —
BERNSTEIN: What I think you're saying is that this is unprecedented?
SHERMAN: I — well, I'm saying that it's unprecedented, and it's illegal.
BERNSTEIN: When I started working on this story, I thought I'd only examine Trump's out-of-town travel. Then came this day, in July, when the President held a press briefing in the White House Rose Garden.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody. Please — hope it's not too hot, but it's pretty warm. Thank you.
BERNSTEIN: Trump said he was there to talk about China.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Today, I signed legislation and an executive order to hold China accountable for its oppressive actions …
BERNSTEIN: Six minutes in, he pivots.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: In contrast, Joe Biden's entire career has been a gift to the Chinese Communist Party …
BERNSTEIN: Trump goes after Biden a second time.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Joe Biden supported China's entry into the World Trade Organization.
BERNSTEIN: And a third, fourth, and fifth time.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Biden — Biden — Biden personally led the effort to give China. Biden was a leading advocate of the Paris Climate Accord. Yet one more gift from Biden to the Chinese Communist Party.
BERNSTEIN: The mentions pile up.
[ALL OF THESE CLIPS ALMOST PLAYING SIMULTANEOUSLY]
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Joe Biden was Vice President.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: So, Biden was here for 47 years. We have bridges that should have been fixed. Why didn't he fix them?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: So, Joe Biden and President Obama freely allowed China to pillage our factories.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Biden wants to defund our military.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Biden opposed tariffs.
BERNSTEIN: Ten times.
[ONLY GETTING FASTER]
PRESIDENT TRUMP: But if we had listened to Joe Biden, hundreds of thousands of additional lives would have been lost —
PRESIDENT TRUMP: H1N1. He calls it N1H1.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Joe Biden didn't just side with China.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: But Hunter — where's Hunter? Where is Hunter, by the way? Hunter Biden walked out with $1.5 billion. Nobody talks about that. In Ukraine, he got $83,000 a month.
BERNSTEIN: Twenty times.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Joe Biden … Joe Biden gave a speech in which he said that the core —
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Joe Biden put AOC …
PRESIDENT TRUMP: … developed with socialist Bernie Sanders.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Biden and Obama used to bringing killers out.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: This is Biden.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Biden has gone radical left.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: You're going to abolish the suburbs with this, enforce Obama-Biden's radical ….
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Unlike Biden, we don't want to have criminals pouring into our country.
BERNSTEIN: Thirty-one times.
[SOUND OUT, SILENCE]
BERNSTEIN: The levees between the political and the official have been so thoroughly broken, that it hardly came as a surprise when, in early August, President Trump mused about holding his Republican National Convention acceptance speech at the White House.
[PIANO MUSIC PLAYS]
BERNSTEIN: He said: "It's easy, and I think it's a beautiful setting and we are thinking about that. It's certainly one of the alternatives. It's the easiest alternative, I think it's a beautiful alternative."
On television, the RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel defended the President.
RONNA MCDANIEL: Well, here's my personal opinion: if Joe Biden can live in his basement, the President has every right to talk in front of his house, which is the White House.
BERNSTEIN: Then the President Tweeted: We have narrowed the Presidential Nomination Acceptance Speech, to be delivered on the final night of the Convention — Thursday — to two locations: the Great Battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the White House, Washington, D.C. We will announce the decision soon!
BERNSTEIN: Gettysburg National Military Park is also federal property. It belongs to the taxpayers.
[A LONG PAUSE, THEN SOLEMN CREDITS MUSIC PLAYS]
AB: This episode was produced by Katherine Sullivan. Our editors were Jesse Eisinger, Nick Varchaver, Eric Umansky, and Meg Cramer. Jared Paul does our sound design and original scoring. Hannis Brown wrote our theme and additional music.
Special thanks this week to Bethel Habte. Huge thanks to WNYC archivist Andy Lanset for the tape of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Matt Collette is the Executive Producer of Trump, Inc. Emily Botein is the Vice President of Original Programming for WNYC, and Steve Engelberg is the Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica.
I'm Andrea Bernstein. Thank you for listening.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.