Is President Trump guilty of a crime because he has his name on the coronavirus relief checks?
While some might excuse that as an example of Trump’s narcissism, a letter from three prominent lawyers, who represent disparate points on the political spectrum, says it is more serious than that.
The administration’s action, they argue, warrants the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the improper use of government employees and property to promote the president’s reelection campaign. That would be a criminal violation of the Hatch Act.
Checks to individuals and organizations from the $2 trillion relief effort are meant to combat the calamitous economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the first time a president’s name is on an IRS disbursement check.
‘‘President Trump is actively seeking re-election. The signature of President Trump on United States Treasury checks is superfluous to their value, legality, or authenticity. The signature serves no official government purpose,’’ reads the letter to Attorney General William Barr. ‘‘It does serve Mr. Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign by making it appear that he is responsible for a monetary windfall to tens of millions of voters.’’
The letter was signed by Ralph Nader, a progressive icon; Louis Fisher, a constitutional scholar who served both parties for four decades with the Library of Congress and who now is with the College of William & Mary; and Bruce Fein, an attorney who worked in Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department and for congressional Republicans. The Justice Department and the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Nader, Fisher, and Fein requested a special counsel to investigate Trump’s name on the checks because it would be a conflict for Barr’s staff to investigate his boss.
Trump should be investigated, their letter said, ‘‘for allegedly commanding a federal employee to engage in political activity, the unprecedented, gratuitous placement of Mr. Trump’s signature on the memo line of tens of millions of United States Treasury checks disbursed to eligible citizens under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES).’’
Trump’s name, not his signature, is printed on the lower left side of the checks. Be it his printed name or his distinctive scrawl is of no matter, the three said in separate interviews. The impact is the same.
Directing a ‘‘Treasury employee to place [Trump’s name] on CARES checks for the purpose of affecting the 2020 presidential election,’’ Fein said, is a violation of federal law that prohibits the ‘‘use of official authority or influence for the purpose . . . of affecting the result of an election.’’
Meanwhile, Trump has written a gushing letter to almost 90 million people, with his jagged signature in thick black Sharpie-pen.
The one-page letter, with one side printed in English and the other in Spanish, was required by the coronavirus economic package approved by Congress as a record of a deposit from the Treasury Department. The law does not say who should mail the letter.
But in classic Trump style, the letters now arriving in mailboxes across the country carry no shortage of brio, underscoring the president’s penchant to personalize his administration’s response to the pandemic.
‘‘My Fellow American,’’ begins the letter, on a copy of White House letterhead, arriving in an envelope from the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service from Austin, Texas. ‘‘Our great county is experiencing an unprecedented public health and economic challenge as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic. Our top priority is your health and safety.’’
‘‘As we wage total war on this invisible enemy,’’ Trump continues, ‘‘we are also working around the clock to protect hardworking Americans like you from the consequences of the economic shutdown.’’
Trump thanks a bipartisan Congress for fast-tracking $2.2 trillion in economic relief, announces the amount of the check the recipient is getting, and ends by somewhat acknowledging his famous campaign slogan, ‘‘Make America Great Again.’’
‘‘Just as we have before, America will triumph yet again - and rise to new heights of greatness,’’ Trump wrote.