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Washington, DC, March 6, 2018 — President Trump can attack federal employees on Twitter but they may not be able to respond in kind, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). With Trump already a declared candidate for reelection, federal workers must tread carefully on what they post, like, or retweet about him, at peril of losing their jobs.
The Hatch Act is a 1939 law limiting certain political activities of federal employees. It covers President Trump because he is already an official candidate in the partisan 2020 election. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) enforces this Act, violations of which are punishable by removal from office.
In emails last week about even private use of social media, OSC tells federal workers not to:
- “Send to subordinates, or a subset of friends that includes subordinates, any message that is directed at the success or failure of a political party, candidate in a partisan race, or partisan political group”;
- “Use your official title or position when posting messages directed at the success or failure of a political party, candidate in a partisan race, or partisan political group”; or
- “Like, share, or retweet a post that solicits political contributions, including invitations to fundraising events.”
“Federal employees who get into Twitter spats with Donald Trump face career risks that the Tweeter-in-Chief does not,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the current head of OSC is a Trump appointee. “Federal workers posting or sharing material about Trump even on their own time and in private accounts may suffer consequences from embedded links to take action or donation pages – even if the material had been forwarded by President Trump himself.”
In addition, federal employees who sue pseudonyms in Rogue Twitter accounts that have sprung up following Trump-ordered crackdowns on official social media are in legal peril if they access those official accounts. These rogue accounts frequently feature scathing commentary on Trump policies.
Apart from the Hatch Act, political appointees get entangled by their social media content. Last week for example, Christine Bauserman, special assistant to Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management, abruptly resigned after reporters uncovered her inflammatory posts attacking, among other targets, Democratic leaders. The Interior Department has disavowed her postings.
“Ironically, the goals of the Hatch Act to remove partisanship from federal service and base personnel solely on merit, seem farther away even as the Act extends into cyberspace,” added Ruch. “The ability of federal employees to candidly discuss the people’s business has never been more imperiled.”