Biden White House Didn’t Care About the Hatch Act—Until It Faced Questions About Hunter and Cocaine

Federal law that restricts political activity is 'completely irrelevant' to cocaine question, ethics expert says

Karine Jean-Pierre (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
July 7, 2023

Pressed about a baggie of cocaine found on White House premises, the White House on Thursday invoked a federal law that just weeks ago it said it has no plans to follow.

Asked whether he could rule out the possibility that the drugs belong to Hunter Biden, White House spokesman Andrew Bates told reporters he couldn't comment "because we have to be careful about the Hatch Act," which prohibits federal officials from using their positions to engage in certain political activities that could influence elections.

The Biden administration, however, has repeatedly disregarded the law. Just weeks before Bates's comments, for example, the Office of Special Counsel determined that White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre broke the law by repeatedly slamming "MAGA Republicans" from the White House podium. The White House nonetheless said it had no plans to change its behavior and has continued using the term.

Bates’s Hatch Act excuse baffled ethics experts, who said it wouldn’t apply to questions about the discovery of cocaine in the White House over the weekend. The Hatch Act "has nothing to do with the question of the discovery in the White House," former White House ethics counsel Richard Painter told the Washington Free Beacon. "It’s completely irrelevant."

In response to a Free Beacon inquiry, the White House suggested that Bates cited the Hatch Act because the reporter who asked the cocaine question at one point mentioned former president Donald Trump. The question itself did not mention Trump—the reporter asked Bates if he was "willing to say" the drugs "don't belong" to the president or Hunter Biden.

Jean-Pierre is far from the only prominent Biden administration official to flout the Hatch Act since the president took office in January 2021. Jean-Pierre's predecessor, former Biden spokeswoman and current MSNBC anchor Jen Psaki, also broke the law when she endorsed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, during a press briefing. Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra similarly violated the Hatch Act in April when he endorsed Sen. Alex Padilla (D., Calif.) during a Congressional Hispanic Caucus gala. Becerra praised Padilla as "my brother, my friend and senator, and someone I will be voting for in a little bit more than a month," prompting an aide to exclaim, "No, no, you can't say that."

Jean-Pierre's continued use of the term "MAGA," meanwhile, came after the Office of Special Counsel warned the press secretary that doing so would be seen as "a knowing and willful violation of the law" that could result in "disciplinary action." Both Jean-Pierre and Bates went on to use the term in statements and memos. Jean-Pierre also defended the phrase, saying she merely used it "in the context of talking about [Republican] policies and talking about their values."

Former White House chief of staff Ron Klain was also found to have violated the Hatch Act last October after he retweeted a Democratic political action committee post promoting President Joe Biden and asking people to buy the group’s "Democrats Deliver" t-shirts.

"By retweeting this message, Mr. Klain used his official Twitter account to promote a partisan political group’s interests and, therefore, OSC has concluded that he violated the Hatch Act’s use of official authority prohibition," said the Office of Special Counsel in a letter to the America First Legal Foundation, which filed the complaint.

Biden administration officials have offered shifting stories about where the cocaine was initially found. The Washington, D.C., fire department on Sunday said the substance was discovered in the "library" of the executive mansion, but a Secret Service spokesman later said it was found in the West Wing. Days later, White House officials said the cocaine was actually found near the White House's West Executive entrance.

The various locations all come with different clues as to who may have brought the cocaine into the building. While the West Wing houses the daily work offices for Biden and White House staffers, the library is located in the White House living quarters below, where access is more restricted. The White House's West Executive Entrance, meanwhile, is near where the vice president's limo parks.

Hunter Biden, who was rumored to be living at the executive mansion earlier this spring, has publicly struggled with cocaine addiction for years. The president's son was booted from the U.S. Navy in 2014 after testing positive for the drug, which he blamed on a cigarette he said he bummed outside of a bar from "two men who told him that they were from South Africa." On Friday, not long before the substance's discovery at the White House, pool reporters saw Hunter Biden depart the residence with his father to travel to Camp David.

Update 9:15 p.m.: This piece has been updated to include comment from the White House.