A new indicator of how political Trump’s executive branch had become

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For all of the hand-wringing Donald Trump and his allies have performed over changes made to 2020 voting procedures during the coronavirus pandemic, there was no concern about the administration’s decision to use the White House as a prop in Trump’s reelection effort.

This, too, was ostensibly about the pandemic; prior plans for the Republican convention were scuttled by covid-19 protocols and case surges, allowing Trump to fall back on the executive mansion. But doing so also reinforced the message Trump wanted to present: He was the rightful president and the Democrats since 2016 had been trying to take the White House away from him. Exactly the sort of message that prohibitions about using government resources to campaign — like the Hatch Act — are meant to prevent.

Few moments captured the politicization of the executive mansion better than a naturalization ceremony that took place at the White House complex — and which was televised during the convention’s prime-time programming in late August 2020. It involved acting Department of Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf joining Trump to administer the oath of citizenship to a diverse group of immigrants.

“Mr. President, I want to again commend you for your dedication to the rule of law and for restoring integrity to our immigration system,” Wolf said, as Trump prepared to speak. “Thank you for hosting such a patriotic celebration here at the White House today.” Wolf would later argue that he did not know this event would be used for politics — despite the cameras, despite the conveniently targeted praise for the candidate.

Unsurprisingly, the Office of Special Counsel eventually determined that the event was, in fact, a violation of the Hatch Act. The office and DHS’s ethics official had repeatedly warned the White House against the event and advised against Wolf’s participation, but, in keeping with past practice, the administration ignored the concerns. The event went forward.

This is fairly old history, certainly. But it’s a reminder of how Trump and his team allowed politics to pollute the executive branch during his presidency. It’s also useful context for a new report suggesting another point in the same time-frame at which Wolf allegedly prioritized Trump’s interest over the country’s.

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At issue is a report compiled by analysts at DHS showing with high confidence that Russian actors hoped to undercut Joe Biden’s 2020 candidacy by raising questions about the Democratic candidate’s mental acuity. That analyst told investigators from the office of the DHS inspector general that he “noticed an uptick in Russian state media efforts to question candidate Joseph Biden’s mental health” in the period after Biden informally locked up his party’s nomination in the Super Tuesday contests that spring.

It’s useful to note that this should not be read to suggest that questions about Biden were a function of Russian interference. Fox News had similarly begun raising the subject at that point, and Russia’s established pattern has been to mimic and amplify controversy, not to initiate it.

That said, the analyst moved forward with drafting an intelligence report on the subject, a draft of which was ready by early June. Then it got derailed.

First, a callout was added that expanded the document to include alleged efforts to denigrate Trump by Iran and China. (A later analysis would indicate that China did not try to affect the election’s outcome.) The inspector general interviewed the manager who ordered that the callout (referred to as a “tone box”) be added.

“He told us it was a feature intended to draw a contrast between the actions of Russia and those of Iran and China, but also described the tone box as a ‘blunting feature’ meant to balance the product. When asked whether intelligence products require balancing, he said the addition of the tone box was not politicization, yet also said it showed I&A’s political savviness, as the state and local customers of their products tended to be political.”

It’s an interesting distinction: not political, but politically savvy. The effect, of course, would be to turn a report about Russia helping Trump — an allegation about which Trump had made his views very clear quite often — into a more general one about various countries helping both countries. The title was originally “Russia Likely to Denigrate Health of US Candidates to Influence 2020 Electoral Dynamics.” The final report was titled “Malign Foreign Influence Actors Denigrating Health of US Presidential Candidates.”

The inspector general’s report also assesses a more serious allegation. It centers on a meeting in early July, after the “tone box” was added. There, a whistleblower alleged that Wolf had ordered the report be “killed” — that is, not released — because it “made the President look bad.” That whistleblower, Brian Murphy, provided what he claimed were contemporaneous notes from the meeting.

Those notes read: “AS1” — that is, Acting Secretary Wolf — “will hurt POTUS — kill it per his authorities.”

The report was not released, instead it was sent back for edits. Those were completed a few days later but held until early August, according to the inspector general. It was then being prepared for dissemination, until (the report alleges) Wolf called a senior official, who then emailed the group in charge of its release.

“Why is this going out? I thought we agreed per [the acting secretary’s] comments to hold,” the official wrote in an email obtained by the inspector general. It was finally approved in early September.

That approval came only once the whistleblower’s complaint about politicization within DHS came to light. It’s worth noting that the whistleblower, Murphy, had been removed from his position and reassigned by Wolf following The Washington Post reporting that his group had been compiling “intelligence reports” that tracked journalists and others. There is also no confirmation that Murphy’s notes were, in fact, contemporaneous. But the whistleblower complaint included allegations that preceded Murphy’s reassignment, often by months.

In a statement to The Post, Wolf defended holding the report due to the “lack of professional standards and quality control exhibited at the time.” He added that the inspector general’s report “did not find any credible evidence that I directed anyone to change the substance of the report because it ‘made President Trump look bad.’ ”

“In fact,” the statement continued, “the report found that I had no objection to the substance of the report or its subsequent release.”

The report’s conclusion reads, in part: “The repeated interaction with the product by those with no formal role in its review” — including Wolf — “as well as the addition of specific content in the product, put [the Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A)] at risk of creating the perception of politicization. This conclusion is supported by I&A’s own tradecraft assessment of the product.”

What’s more, the document was only approved after the whistleblower complaint became public. Even then it was not released through standard channels based in part on “a desire to limit distribution of election-related products to relevant election officials,” the report claims. In his statement, Wolf noted that the whistleblower complaint was later withdrawn, though the inspector general’s report notes that the action was taken “pursuant to an agreement with DHS.”

Again, the context is useful to consider. Since even before he took office, Trump objected vociferously to the idea that Russia had been trying to aid his 2016 election. No official (no one in America, really) could pretend not to be aware of that concern. The multiple delays to this particular report on that subject were unusual, as was the acting secretary’s involvement. Wolf’s acting chief of staff told the inspector general that “this is the only product I recall rising to the secretary’s level” during his tenure in that position.

“We concluded that the repeated involvement in the review process of the Acting Secretary, as well as of others in the Office of the Secretary,” the inspector general’s report reads, “was unusual and created the risk of appearing to politicize the product.”

It also quotes an assessment from the I&A ombudsman: “Given the structure, vagueness, and use of a ‘balancing’ tone box, there are some questions about objectivity and freedom from political consideration. … [T]he piece seems to almost avoid the main message that is made explicit in the key judgment — that Russian influence actors are targeting the Democratic candidates in 2020.”

The report on Russia’s interference effort was approved for release on Sept. 4, 2020. Ten days prior, Trump had at last formally nominated Wolf to lead the agency.

The same day Wolf helped facilitate the immigration ceremony at the White House.