In all likelihood, everyone should never tweet, and never tweet even more on the weekend. But as long as there are people whose possession of power and Twitter accounts outstrips their ownership of common sense, there will be weird little dust-ups that threaten to consume the human race’s time and vitality, until the day comes when we lie alone, breathing our last and regretting the fact that we could have been living instead of tweeting.
Here’s some hot nonsense from the past weekend. On Saturday morning, White House director of social media something-or-other Dan Scavino awoke feeling cranky, and sent this missive from his personal Twitter account:
So, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, which just played a major role in defeating the American Health Care Act ― which the Trump White House either co-owns or rejects the ownership of, depending on which way the wind happens to be blowing at the moment. On top of that, Amash is continually dumping on Trump, and is pretty fond of doing so on Twitter, Trump’s preferred medium.
Turnabout, of course, is typically held to be fair play ― but Scavino’s April Fools’ Day response landed crosswise with ethics nerds for two reasons. First of all, Scavino is technically a White House official. More importantly, his Saturday tweet calls for Amash’s defeat in the 2018 primary. Obviously, it’s way too early to be talking about the 2018 midterms, so Scavino should be sanctioned by polite society just on general principle. But what got people animated was the perception that Scavino had violated the Hatch Act.
Here’s Richard Painter, the former ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, being angry about this:
And here’s someone who is also angry about this but thinks the Hatch Act is named for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
The Hatch Act was actually authored by Sen. Carl Hatch (D-N.M.) back in 1939 ― a time when no one could have anticipated the rise of social media. Had they been able to do so, I like to think lawmakers would have made all social media a crime. They didn’t, so now we’re left to pick through what Scavino did.
And in some good news for people who like their controversies to be tedious: This controversy is super-duper tedious.
As Jaime Fuller explained in the Washington Post back in 2014, the Hatch Act (or as it’s more alliteratively known, “An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities”) is “designed to prevent members of the federal government who do not have explicitly political roles — like the president or vice-president — from engaging in political activity.”
That sounds very straightforward, but trust me, from there it gets really wonky about what kind of political activity is actually prevented. In fact, most of what the Hatch Act concerns itself with isn’t what political activity occurs as much as when it occurred and in what capacity the person who did the political activity was acting at the time of said activity.
Which is why people keep violating the Hatch Act!
But in general, the Hatch Act is held to have drawn a bright line between personal political activity and one’s official duties, the idea being that “never the twain should meet.” So depending on your point of view, what Scavino did might have constituted a twain derailment.
So how do we sort all of this out? This is the super-duper tedious part!
SKIP THIS PART UNLESS YOU LOVE TEDIUM
See, Scavino is the White House’s director of social media. On social media, Scavino engaged in political activity ― by which we mean the bad kind of “political activity” the Hatch Act seeks to prevent, like calling for the primary defeat of a sitting legislator. (Obviously, everything the White House’s social media director might do is, on some level, “political.”)
The Office of Special Counsel has a whole page of guidelines that attempts to clarify what people affected by the Hatch Act can and cannot do with social media, chief among them being a rule that bars federal employees from engaging in “political activity while on duty or in the workplace.”
But Scavino’s tweet about Amash went out on his personal Twitter account on a Saturday. Was he “on duty?” Was he “in the workplace”?
And Scavino, in addition to his personal Twitter account, operates an official White House Twitter account. Scavino’s personal account makes no mention of his current, official title. His official account does.
Then again, at a glance, Scavino’s two Twitter accounts don’t look different from one another at all.
Still, he did purposefully create the two accounts, seemingly aware of the need to comport with the law.
But come on, how can we really distinguish tweets from multiple accounts from a guy who is, in the end and at all times, the White House’s director of social media?
Conclusion: This is absolutely tiresome and Twitter is the worst.
Let’s be straight about this: Dan Scavino is probably not going to get fired for tweeting about encouraging a primary in Michigan’s 3rd District. Not everybody gets fired for violating the Hatch Act. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wasn’t fired for doing so. Neither was former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, when he violated the Hatch Act.
But more to the point: The Trump White House is an utter ethical swamp, and if you want to try to defend good government against wholesale corruption, you need to keep your eyes on the prize.
In recent days, we’ve seen ProPublica report that President Donald Trump’s trust document allows him to “draw money from his more than 400 businesses, at any time, without disclosing it.” Additionally, the New York Times reported over the weekend that Jared Kushner ― who seems to now oversee almost every activity in which the White House is engaged ― and his wife, Ivanka Trump, are essentially tango-ing through their own conflict-of-interest minefield. These are the sorts of things on which ethics watchdogs need to be spending their time.
Besides, for pure entertainment value, you can hardly beat the Trump White House targeting Amash with a primary threat. The last time a bunch of big shots came for Amash, he threw them ― and his opponent, investment manager Brian Ellis ― in the garbage can, winning 57 percent to 43 percent. And in a wonderful break with polite traditions, Amash took to the stage the night of his primary victory to brutally insult his opponent and the people who’d backed him. No one had the guts to try to primary Amash in 2016, and he ended up being more popular on 3rd District ballots than Trump was. (Trump took 52 percent of the vote to Clinton’s 42 percent, while Amash beat his Democratic challenger Douglas Smith 59 percent to 38 percent.)
So, in the end, is this something anyone really needs to be authentically worried about?
By my reckoning, no. Tweets are mostly ephemeral garbage, the potential of the Trump White House for corruption dwarfs this instance considerably, and my advice to anyone thinking about being the warm sack of organs that volunteers to primary Amash is to let some other guy try it first.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.