Obama White House Fundraising Video a Crime?

Where is the line on using the White House to further the president's re-election effort?

The RNC has asked the DOJ to investigate whether President Obama’s use of the White House to film a fundraising video violates the Hatch Act.

Here’s the video in question:

Politico (“Reince Priebus accuses Obama of ‘an apparent crime’“):

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is accusing President Barack Obama of committing “an apparent crime” when he recorded a video in the White House as part of a raffle to raise money for his reelection campaign.

“The facts of this case strongly suggest a crime was committed,” Priebus said in a letter Monday to Attorney General Eric Holder. “I call on the Department of Justice to investigate this possible criminal act by the President of the United States.”

Priebus’s letter argues that Obama appears to have violated the Hatch Act, a federal law that restricts political activity and fundraising by federal employees. One part of that law makes it illegal for officials, including the president, to “solicit … a donation of money or other thing of value in connection with a Federal, State, or local election, while in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties.”

However, some good-government groups and campaign finance experts have shrugged off the Obama video and the related raffle, which was announced last month and sought a campaign donation of at least $5. In the fine print, it said no donation was required. And one expert said Monday that Priebus’s letter was off the mark.

“This letter is an embarrassment to the Republican Party, of which I count myself a part,” said Richard Painter, an ethics lawyer in President George W. Bush’s White House.

“The small donors get nothing in return for their donation except a chance to support a candidate they believe in — until this raffle. Now they get a raffle ticket entitling them [to] a very small chance of getting the type of meeting that a big donor has for the asking,” Painter said. “To call this a crime yet ignore the larger problem is absurd. Writing this kind of letter — after standing in the way of campaign finance reform — is laughable.”

Well, no. Something is a crime when it’s in violation of the law. If Obama violated the Hatch Act, then he’s committed a crime.

Now, I happen to think this interpretation of the law is idiotic. I honestly don’t care whether presidents and vice presidents–or even senators and representatives–make their fundraising calls from their official phones or go across the street and make them on private phones; the location generally doesn’t change the character of the act.

But, if it’s against the law for the president to film campaign videos in the White House, then he should obey the law. It turns out, however, that it’s almost certainly legal:

A 1979 opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel held that a luncheon President Jimmy Carter hosted in 1978 with Democratic Party donors could not have violated the Hatch Act because it took place in the family dining room of the White House.

The Obama White House has cited the Carter-era opinion to argue that rooms in the White House residence — such as the Map Room, where the raffle video was made — can legally be used for political activities and even fundraising.

“I do not know whether there has been a technical violation or not because the video was made in the Map Room,” Painter said. “I do not recall the Map Room being a place where a lot of official business was done at the White House, and I am sure a lot of official business does get done in the residence. So the distinction is purely technical.”

Purely technical, indeed. But the White House is in fact Barack Obama’s home. Presidents and their families are expected to live in the White House and, so far as I’m aware, all of them have. It would be absurd to expect them to leave their home to entertain guests or make phone calls and such that happen to be politically related. Frankly, pretty much everything a first term president does is related in some way to his re-election campaign. To the extent that the taxpayers are being forced to make a contribution to his campaign, certainly his filming a video in his official residence is the least of it.

Indeed, it strikes me that the bigger deal here isn’t that he filmed the video in the White House but that he’s raffling off a meeting with the president. But, as Richard Painter notes above, presidents of both parties essentially do that all the time.

Obama aides also say that because the president does not explicitly ask for money in the video but simply encourages people to take part in a “contest the campaign is running,” his pitch does not amount to a request for money.

Now, this is rather silly. Encouraging people to take place in “a contest” that asks for money for his campaign is asking for money for his campaign. It might not be a technical violation of the letter of the law–I simply don’t know–but it’s certainly a violation of the spirit.

“This was wholly appropriate and routinely done in past administrations, as evidenced by an abundance of examples spanning the past three decades,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said when asked about Priebus’s letter. “In fact, experts and lawyers have said publicly that all of what this administration is doing is above board.”

[…]

Schultz noted that in 1987 President Ronald Reagan held an event in the East Room thanking donors for giving Republicans the “financial strength to recapture” the White House and reportedly called on them to continue giving. Reagan also called in to fundraising receptions from the White House. Internet fundraising materials for the Republican National Committee in 2008 linked to images of Bush in the Oval Office.

Absent from the Obama White House’s list of historical examples is Vice President Al Gore’s acknowledgment in 1997 that he solicited campaign contributions in telephone calls from his office. He said “no controlling legal authority” prohibited the practice, but he also said he would not do it again. No legal action was taken against Gore.

Where to draw the line for using the White House to raise money and reward donors is tricky business. While I’m a big fan of Reagan and not so much of Gore, I’d have to say that an official dinner thanking donors is a bigger deal than some phone calls. But neither strikes me as over the line. Auctioning off stays in the Lincoln Bedroom to the highest bidder, as Bill Clinton did, offends my sense of propriety. But it’s probably legal.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. EddieInCA says:

    AARGH!!!!!

    This is one of those posts that drive me crazy, James.

    It’s such a “Fox” method of journalism. You load up a headline with a question which sounds very bad, followed by a story that answers the question in a manner opposite the headline?

    The headline to your post could/should have been “The RNC: Hypocritical Hacks or Lying Scumbags?” or “RNC accuses Obama of comitting same crime as Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush?”

    Here’s how Fox does it. They just add a question mark to incendiary statements.

    “Obama has ties to terrorists”?
    “Obama was born in Kenya”?
    “Democrats kill babies, drown puppies, and hate Santa Claus”?

    Well done James.

  2. Jay Tea says:

    @EddieInCA: Well done. Toss in two ridiculous accusations to camouflage the valid one.

    Well, mostly valid one. “Obama had ties to terrorists, like William Ayers and Rashid Khalidi, until they proved inconvenient — at which point they got tossed under the bus” would be more accurate.

    J.

  3. EddieInCA says:

    @Jay Tea:

    Do you mean Professor William Ayers?

    The Professor who worked with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in shaping the city’s school reform program, and was one of three co-authors of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant proposal that in 1995 won $49.2 million over five years for public school reform?

    The Professor who, in 1997, was awarded it’s Citizen of the Year award by the city of Chicago for his work on the Annenberg Challenge?

    The Professor who, since 1999, has served on the board of directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago, an anti-poverty, philanthropic foundation established as the Woods Charitable Fund in 1941?

    That William Ayers?

    (h/t Wikipedia)

  4. Wayne says:

    If the White House say it it must be true. Why not investigate it? If a crime was committed then actions can be taken. If not then it will be dropped.

    @Jay Tea and James
    Have your notice the rating system tends to always hide the conservative post? I’m not sure if that is an indication of how many liberals are here or if the liberals are using it to hide posts that kicks their butts.

  5. Jay Tea says:

    @EddieInCA: Yes, that William Ayers. The William Ayers who was a founder and leader of the Weather Underground. The William Ayers who, after being freed on a technicality on domestic terrorism charges, pronounced himself “guilty as sin, free as a bird.” The William Ayers who co-wrote a political manifesto that was dedicated to, among others, Sirhan Sirhan. The William Ayers who was at least partially involved in a string of bombings and bank robberies that left many Americans dead and injured. The William Ayers who helped plan a bombing at an enlisted man’s dance that only failed because his bomb-making compatriots were so inept, they only blew themselves up in a happy accident. The William Ayers who, to this day, says he was right to do what he did.

    He certainly has lived a busy life, hasn’t he?

    J.

  6. Nikki says:

    Have your notice the rating system tends to always hide the conservative post? I’m not sure if that is an indication of how many liberals are here or if the liberals are using it to hide posts that kicks their butts.

    Why can’t it just be that “conservatives” commenting here are making a lot of arguments with which most readers don’t agree?

  7. MM says:

    @Wayne: I’m sure that you don’t understand the concept of a false dichotomy.

  8. Jay Tea says:

    Nikki, it’s pretty much established that if enough people “dislike” a comment, it gets hidden. So a “dislike” vote is a de facto vote for censorship.

    I, generally, don’t vote one way or another. I will rarely go on a “contrary” voting spree when I see a lot of censorship, voting down liberal comments and up censored ones, but generally I ignore those buttons because I don’t give a rat’s patoot what others think of comments — I make my own judgments.

    Those on the other side of me, though… they seem all too involved in burying things they don’t like.

    J.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: I don’t understand the objection here. The headline asks a question based on an ongoing meme. The post answers the question.

    As is common on the Web, I write headlines with the following things in mind:

    1. Catching reader interest
    2. Getting click-throughs from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook
    3. Getting click-throughs from RSS feed subscribers
    4. Search engine optimization

    These reward being pithy, provocative, and keyword packed.

  10. Wayne says:

    @MM
    Once again a liberal being sure of something that is not true. My two choices are just two that I came up with. If you have another that is more plausible then please state it. Nikki did.

    @Nikki
    Most of the ones being censure are not saying anything in a manner more hostile or vulgar than what the liberal bloggers are posting. They are less so in most cases. So yes it could be that the readers don’t agree with the conservative comments. However why would that be? A independent middle of the road person would most likely be just as disagreeable with the liberal post as they would the conservative post. Therefore it is not that big of leap that it is the liberals that are voting the post to censorship.

    Why is that? Perhaps it is because there are more liberal readers on this site. Perhaps it is because liberals are more likely to vote on such deals. Or perhaps liberals are using it purposely as a form of censorship.

  11. WR says:

    @Jay Tea: Freed on a technicality? You mean because the FBI showed such complete and utter disregard for the Constitution that the courts determined a fair trial couldn’t be held?

    Oh, but I forget — to you and your fellow Republicans, the protections of the Constitution are only meant to apply to people you like. Carry on.

  12. WR says:

    @Wayne: Or maybe because your right-wing sense of self-pity and victimization is so senstive you fail to notice the dislike votes on liberal comments and likes on conservative ones.

  13. MM says:

    @Wayne: You have no idea what my personal politics are. Refrain from assuming in the future. You are now moving the goalposts. Your original quote:

    I’m not sure if that is an indication of how many liberals are here or if the liberals are using it to hide posts that kicks their butts.

    This implies that downvotes are because of “liberals” hating conservative posts or “liberals” hiding posts they find to be butt-kickingly devastating. You provided no window for another option, it must be one or the other.

    The reason that Nikki came up with a perfectly reasonable alternative was because your dichotomy was false. In fact there are multiple reasons why people might down rate a post. Wayne style sloppy writing and/or thinking for one.

  14. Jay Tea says:

    @WR: Ayers himself pronounced himself guilty of the charges. You want to argue for his innocence, take it up with him.

    But then again, Ayers was a left-wing leader. No wonder you have sympathy for a guy who planned on blowing a dance full of enlisted men and their dates, among others.

    J.

  15. EddieInCA says:

    @James Joyner:

    My complaint is that it’s intellectually dishonest.

    Putting Obama and crime in the same question is nothing but pithy keywords.

    Right.

  16. WR says:

    @Jay Tea: Of course you are unable to deal with the facts of the case. The FBI blatantly violated Ayers’ Constitutional rights so badly there couldn’t be a trial. And you’ve got nothing but sympathy for them, apparently, because you like a police state, as long as it’s run by Republicans.

    The Feds blew it with Ayers, and he used the opportunity given him to turn his life around and spent the next decades doing good, valuable work. As opposed to other blatantly guilty felons who got off on “technicalities” — like good ol’ Oliver North, who immediately set about cashing in on his treason by becoming an “analyst” for Fox.

  17. Jay Tea says:

    @WR: “Turned his life around?” Horse crap. He just changed his tactics. He’s NEVER expressed any remorse for anything he did — rather, he’s proud of it. And his “good, valuable work?” Crap. Same goals, same results, less criminal. The Chicago Annenberg Challenge achieved nothing besides give him and Obama a bunch of money they could use to reward their cronies — like Marxist Michael Klonsky.

    Now, please give me a dissertation on the innocence of OJ Simpson, Casey Anthony, Richard Nixon, and Karl Rove.

    North? Been disgusted with him for ages — probably long before you heard of him.

    Fail.

    J.

  18. WR says:

    @Jay Tea: I’m sorry, Jay, I guess I missed all your posts decrying the criminality of Karl Rove and how W was completely corrupt for keeping him around. Because I think even you would have to admit Bush and Rove were a little closer than Obama and Ayers.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: The post came immediately after one titled Can Republicans Govern?. Similarly titled posts on the front page John F. Kennedy The Worst President Of The 20th Century? (answer: No) and Michele Bachmann’s Husband is Gay Meme (thesis of which: there’s no evidence and the charge is therefore slanderous). It’s neither intellectually honest nor partisan.

  20. Jay Tea says:

    @WR: WR, what “criminality” of Rove’s? He’s never even been indicted, not even a TruthOut “double secret sealed indictment.” By your standards, he’s utterly innocent, and your calling him a criminal is downright defamatory.

    J.

  21. Jay Tea says:

    @WR: And as far as Rove and Bush being closer than Obama and Ayers… Obama and Ayers were extremely close at one point. Thanks for the reminder that, to Obama, loyalty is a one-way street and his friendship is purely dependent on how much good you can do for him. The instant you become a liability, you’re history and it’s just plain wrong and racist to bring up the previous association.

    Hey, that reminds me… got anything to say about Obama and Rashid Khalidi? Or did that one slip past your radar?

    J.

  22. mantis says:

    Obama and Ayers were extremely close at one point.

    Thanks Mr. Corsi. Any other nonsense to peddle?

    got anything to say about Obama and Rashid Khalidi?

    You mean the guy whom you’ve decided is a terrorist simply because he is of Palestinian ancestry? What about him? And don’t try to pass any garbage from the NRO WND birther brigade either.

  23. WR says:

    @Jay Tea: Gee, Jay, you’re the one who put in the list along with OJ and Casey Anthony. This was your rhetorical point, and the only way it could make sense in English is if you were calling Rove a criminal as well. Now you’re huffing and puffing and heading for the fainting couch. Please make up your mind, or at least read your comments before you post them.

  24. WR says:

    @Jay Tea: Let me get this right — If Obama were still close with Ayers, that would be proof he pals around with terrorists. Since he’s no longer close with Ayers, that proves he’s a phony who uses people and throws them away.

    If you ever begin to wonder why people don’t take your arguments seriously, you might look back on these messages. Since you have no interest in anything other than attacking a Democratic president, and will use whatever tool you can find to do it, there’s no point in listening to anything you say — it’s all going to be exactly the same nonsense.

  25. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    But then again, Ayers was a left-wing leader. No wonder you have sympathy for a guy who planned on blowing a dance full of enlisted men and their dates, among others.

    Given this level of personal attack, it seems somewhat disingenious to complain about “hostile” rating patterns.

    I would also point to the “bottle of wine” threads for a pretty good proof that “voting down regardless of content” is not exactly an exclusively liberal pastime.

  26. Jay Tea says:

    Gee, mantis, where did Obama launch his political career? Who did he work with closely at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge? Whose book did he single out for praise, writing?

    And Khalidi? Former spokesman for the PLO?

    The old mantis didn’t resort to ad hominems instead of arguing — the Corsi/NRO/WND/Birther crap.

    J.

  27. Jay Tea says:

    @WR: WR, why did he stop palling around with him? Not when he found out about Ayers’ past, but when everyone else did.

    When did he stop praising and following Reverend Wright? Only when other folks found out about him.

    When did he stop working with Tony Rezko? When other folks found out about him.

    Obama doesn’t dump people out of principle. He dumps them out of expedience.

    You wanna argue otherwise? Find an example or two.

    J.

  28. mantis says:

    Gee, mantis, where did Obama launch his political career?

    Corsi nonsense. Obama held an early fundraiser at Ayers’s house. He did not “launch his political career” there.

    Who did he work with closely at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge?

    A lot of people. Obama was on the board of directors, which met quarterly and consisted of 8 – 10 people. Ayers was part of the 23-member Chicago School Reform Collaborative part of the project. Are all of those people complicit in terrorism as well?

    And Khalidi? Former spokesman for the PLO?

    He was not. This is a smear based on no facts, which you of course more than willingly repeat. That’s what you do. Spread bullshit.

    The old mantis didn’t resort to ad hominems instead of arguing — the Corsi/NRO/WND/Birther crap.

    I’m sorry that you rely on known liars for “facts,” and repeat them readily. That reflects poorly on your judgement and credibility, not mine.

  29. WR says:

    @Jay Tea: I don’t want to argue this moronic useless point at all. Only you do, because your sole interest is tearing down the president in any way you can and changing the subject from the disastrous failure of your own party.

  30. An Interested Party says:

    Given this level of personal attack, it seems somewhat disingenious to complain about “hostile” rating patterns.

    Exactly right…although it does make the whining even more amusing to observe…

  31. anjin-san says:

    Have your notice the rating system tends to always hide the conservative post?

    No worries Wayne – we will leave your little whine-fest out for to see.

  32. anjin-san says:

    Yes, that William Ayers.

    Hmmm. Once upon a time Menachem Begin was a terrorist, wanted dead or alive with a price on his head by our closest ally. Pres. Reagan honored him at the White House. Don’t recall the shrill squeals of outrage by the GOP over that one.

    For better or for worse, some people can cross the line yet successfully rehabilitate themselves. Ayers has done so. Grow up Jay, the world needs adults.

    Oh, and get some new material. You have been repeating the same stale crap for years now. It was not really very interesting the first time…

  33. Jay Tea says:

    For better or for worse, some people can cross the line yet successfully rehabilitate themselves. Ayers has done so. Grow up Jay, the world needs adults.

    I would be very much interested in indications that Ayers has “rehabilitated” himself. Last I heard, he was still proud of his accomplishments. He doesn’t like going into specifics about his career as a bomber, and gets annoyed when people ask him about the failed Fort Dix dance nail bomb plot (when his then-paramour was among the terrorists who blew themselves up).

    Also, I take it a bit more personally when it’s an American terrorist who helped kill and planned to kill Americans — especially American servicemen and their dates at a dance. I’m funny that way.

    J.

  34. anjin-san says:

    an American terrorist who helped kill and planned to kill Americans

    This is coming from someone who occasionally reminds us that “my side has all the guns”?

    Go stuff yourself.