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Democrats: White House event promoting John James violated Hatch Act

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Michigan Democrats claim Trump administration officials violated federal law when President Donald Trump used an official White House event in Ypsilanti last month to promote Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James.

In a complaint to be filed Wednesday with the Official of the Special Counsel, the Democrats allege that White House staff and other administration officials violated the Hatch Act, which is the federal law restricting political activity by executive branch employees.

They say the White House event, led by Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, was ostensibly to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, but the Republican president used it as a "photo-op" for the campaign of James, a Farmington Hills resident who is challenging Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Township. 

John James, who is running for U.S. Senate participating in a listening session with African American leaders and President Donald Trump before touring the plant.

"The great John James, who better win, because you would be missing something, Michigan, if you don't vote for this guy," Trump said during the May 21 event. 

At issue in the complaint is a round table session that Trump held with African American community leaders prior to his tour of the Ford Motor Co.'s Rawsonville Components Plant, where the Dearborn-based automaker is making ventilators.

The Democrats note that White House employees organized and staffed the round table, where Trump appeared with senior government aides including Detroit native Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in their official capacity and on taxpayer-funded time. 

“Michiganders are facing unprecedented challenges, but instead of listening directly to those who are struggling, President Trump, John James and White House officials opted to turn a taxpayer-funded event into a political photo-op to try to influence the result of the election,” state Democratic Party spokeswoman Elena Kuhn said.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said the president is not subject to the Hatch Act, so his comments about James did not violate the law. 

"The White House fully complies with the law, and no taxpayer funds, resources or staff were used to promote a political candidate," Deere said. 

James was invited to participate in the round table not because he is a political candidate but because he is a minority business owner, according to a White House official with knowledge of the event’s planning. James is president of James Group International, a Detroit-based automotive logistics company.

The Democrats' complaint does not target Trump but administration officials who planned and participated in the event. 

They list five instances in which Trump allegedly promoted James during the event, which Democrats say appeared on official White House social media channels and which the James campaign later posted on his social media pages and touted in a news release. 

Trump, who endorsed James when he unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 2018, said James is "going to be a senator hopefully soon — he's representing a state that has already fallen in love with him.”

The president also told the audience that James was running for Senate, told James he was doing a "fantastic job," and "if you do come to Washington, you have my ear." 

The complaint also says Trump "attacked" Peters, saying "nobody even knows who he is," and urging James to "finish the job." 

President Donald Trump toured Ford's Rawsonville Components plant in May. He has pushed businesses and schools to reopen, sometimes against the advice of public health experts.

During the event, James referred to his campaign, saying he had repurposed some campaign funds to give a nickel to charity for every dollar raised. 

James‘ campaign responded by accusing Peters “and his liberal Washington allies” of criticizing an event for minority small businesses and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Gary Peters has given exactly nothing to the people of the state of Michigan, while his allies sit on the sidelines and criticize the more than $500,000 dollars James has given to help the people of Michigan,” said James spokeswoman Abby Walls.

mburke@detroitnews.com