The two million people who work for the US federal government got a stern warning this week: Do not talk about impeaching President Donald Trump or about the anti-Trump “#resistance” while at work.
The Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that handles personnel issues (no relation to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation), sent a memo on Wednesday to federal government employees informing them that it considers such behavior to likely be illegal political activity — a violation of the Hatch Act, according to the New York Times.
The guidance represents a broad, sweeping interpretation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from advocating for or against particular political candidates while they are at work. The law has been used to prevent government employees from openly campaigning for a candidate in the workplace or in any other official capacity.
But the new guidance is striking: It extends the ban to specific words that could suggest an employee might be protesting Trump. It’s also striking because the 2020 presidential election is still two years away.
Here’s how the office explained the illegal use of the word “resistance,” according to a copy of the memo obtained by the Times:
To the extent that the statement relates to the resistance to President Donald J. Trump, usage of the terms “resistance.” “#resist,” and derivatives thereof is political activity. We understand that the “resistance” and “#resist” originally gained prominence shortly after President Trump’s election in 2016 and generally related to efforts to oppose administration policies. However, “resistance,” “#resist,” and similar terms have become inextricably linked with the electoral success (or failure) of the president…Now that President Trump is a candidate for reelection, we must presume that the use and display [of these terms] is political activity unless the facts and circumstances indicate otherwise.
The memo says that the guidance is not a blanket ban on the word “resistance,” because there are some scenarios where it may not be about politics — for instance: “I must #resist the temptation to eat another donut from the break room.”
Yes, that’s an actual example included in the new guidance.
The agency said that talk about impeaching Trump is also possibly illegal, because impeaching Trump means he would no longer be able to run for president.
The agency said it was issuing the new guidance because it had received so many questions about whether these discussions violate the Hatch Act.
The special counsel’s office investigates complaints against employees who are accused of engaging in illegal political activity at work, and can recommend disciplinary measures, like firing someone.
The memo was criticized by a union that represents about a third of federal employees: “If they are going to go after anyone who mentions the word ‘impeachment’ in emails to co-workers, that will be overreach,” J. Ward Morrow, assistant general counsel for the American Federation of Government Employees, told the Times.
The email did remind employees, though, that the rules just apply to the discussion of politics at work. Outside of work, when they are not representing the government, employees “are free to engage” in any kind of political activity.”
So all that talk about impeaching Trump must wait until after hours.