White House Turns to Legally Dubious Tactics To Boost McAuliffe for Virginia Gov

VP Harris, press sec Psaki face criticism over questionable electioneering actions

President Biden and failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe / Getty Images
October 20, 2021

As President Joe Biden looks to avoid a high-profile loss in Virginia, the White House has turned to legally dubious tactics aimed at boosting Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe.

Liberal watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) launched a complaint against press secretary Jen Psaki for violating the Hatch Act, which prevents administration officials from engaging in political activity. During a Thursday press briefing, Psaki said the Biden administration will "do everything we can to help former Governor McAuliffe" and "believe[s] in the agenda he's representing." Psaki later acknowledged her statement's impropriety in an interview with CNN.

The Biden administration just hours later released a video that features Vice President Kamala Harris, who urged viewers to vote for her "friend Terry McAuliffe." While the Hatch Act does not apply to the president and vice president, Harris's video—filmed for hundreds of churches across Virginia—could run afoul of IRS law, which explicitly prohibits churches and other tax-exempt 501(c)3 organizations from "engaging in any political campaign activity."

The Biden administration's questionable campaign tactics come as McAuliffe slips in the polls against Republican opponent Glenn Youngkin—a development that has spooked Biden officials, who worry that a loss in Virginia will spell trouble for Democrats in 2022. While Biden won Virginia by double digits, an October Trafalgar Group poll shows McAuliffe trailing Youngkin by 1 point. McAuliffe has blamed his struggles in part on Biden's unpopularity in the state.

Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust executive director Kendra Arnold called the IRS law related to Harris's church video "abundantly clear," noting "there's no question that the churches cannot engage in political activity, including the publishing and distributing of statements on behalf of any campaign." Arnold argued that while Harris was legally allowed to support McAuliffe in the video, she may not be in the clear from a legal perspective.

"I think there's an ethical question on whether or not our elected officials, for political purposes, can engage with another entity and essentially get them to break the law," Arnold told the Washington Free Beacon. "I would argue that it is not ethical to engage in activities that break the law, whether you're breaking it or enticing someone else to break it."

CREW president Noah Bookbinder, meanwhile, in his Thursday complaint admonished Psaki, writing that the press secretary mixed "official government business with support of a candidate for partisan political office in the weeks before the election" and engaged in "political activity while on duty." Psaki addressed the controversy during a Friday CNN interview, during which she pledged to "be more careful with my words next time." Penalties for Hatch Act violations include removal from federal service suspension and a civil penalty.

The White House did not return a request for comment.

In addition to Psaki and Harris, McAuliffe's liberal allies have employed controversial schemes to hurt Youngkin and promote Democrats. Liberal dark money operative David Brock, for example, has used his "pseudo-news outlet" to send Virginia voters unsolicited mailers that attack Youngkin with debunked claims, including one page that falsely contends Youngkin has a plan to "eliminate the state income tax." The move sparked concern among ethics experts, as Brock's "progressive news" outlet is not subject to campaign finance laws that require political groups to disclose where their funding comes from.

Democratic operatives have also targeted Youngkin through a shadowy political action committee that runs ads designed to look like they came from a Republican outfit. That PAC, Accountability Virginia, took at least $250,000 from Virginia utility company Dominion Energy and went on to release social media spots that question Youngkin's support for the Second Amendment. Dominion CEO Robert Blue asked for the PAC to refund the company's donation on Monday, saying he "failed to vet" the group's "intended activities."

McAuliffe, who took tens of thousands of dollars from Dominion during his 2013 gubernatorial campaign, did not return a request for comment.