WASHINGTON – A government watchdog group said Friday that it had filed an ethics complaint against White House press secretary Jen Psaki for a comment she made about former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who is running for election to his old post.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said Psaki violated the Hatch Act when she appeared to endorse McAuliffe during a White House press briefing on Thursday. The Hatch Act prevents federal employees from engaging in political work while performing their official duties.
In response to a reporter's question about Virginia's Nov. 2 election, Psaki said, "We’re going to do everything we can to help former Gov. McAuliffe, and we believe in the agenda he’s representing.”
Immediately before making the comment in support of McAuliffe, Psaki said she needed to be “careful about how much political analysis” she offered in her official capacity.
After CREW filed its complaint, Psaki said in a CNN interview Friday that she should have used the word “he” instead of “we" in response to the question.
“While the president has publicly expressed his support for McAuliffe, we’ll leave it to the press and the campaign to provide commentary on the race," Psaki said in a statement. “I take ethics very seriously and will choose my words more carefully moving forward."
Early voting is underway in Virginia, where McAuliffe faces Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former top executive at the private equity firm the Carlyle Group. First lady Jill Biden is campaigning with McAuliffe on Friday, and McAuliffe said President Joe Biden was expected to visit in coming days.
During the presidency of Donald Trump, the Office of Special Counsel, which is tasked with enforcing the Hatch Act, officially reported several of Trump's aides for ethics violations and called on the president to fire his senior counselor Kellyanne Conway for repeatedly ignoring the rules. It is up to the president to determine any appropriate disciplinary action for workers who violate the law, and Trump declined to take action against Conway or the others.
In a statement about the Psaki complaint, CREW President Noah Bookbinder noted the flagrant and repeated violations of the Hatch Act by the Trump White House.
“While (Psaki's) conduct does not come close to rising to the level of the outrageous offenses of the Trump administration, that does not mean we should be casual about compliance with an important ethics law,” Bookbinder said. “The Biden administration should not follow the Trump administration down that path.”