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'Illegal and Immoral': Experts Say 'Self-Promoting' Trump Letter in Covid-19 Food Aid Boxes Clear Hatch Act Violation

One hunger advocate said the inclusion of the note "essentially blackmails nonpartisan food charities into aiding Trump's reelection campaign."

A volunteer loads a box of federal food aid into the trunk of his car in Orlando, Florida on August 7, 2020. (Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A volunteer places a box of food aid from the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida into the trunk of a car at a drive through food distribution event at Church in the Son on August 7, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As millions of Americans receive publicly-funded food aid boxes during the Covid-19 pandemic, one particular item is leaving a bad taste in many mouths—a self-promoting letter from President Donald Trump. 

Common Dreams reported early last month that the Trump administration was set to include mandatory letters from the president in packages distributed as part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farmers to Families Food Box program, a $4 billion effort to send 100 million food boxes to needy U.S. families affected by the pandemic.

"It sure looks like political propaganda, and if its goal was to affect the presidential election, then it violates the Hatch Act."
—Kathleen Clark, Washington University

The move was slammed by Democrats as cynical election year self-aggrandizement—and hypocritical, given the administration's efforts to deprive millions of Americans of crucial food benefits. 

More importantly, the letters seen by legal experts as a violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits executive branch employees from using their official capacities to influence elections.

In a letter (pdf) last month to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, 49 House Democrats asserted that "a public health crisis is not an opportunity for the administration to promote its own political interests," and that "a federal food assistance program should not be used as a tool for the president to exploit taxpayer dollars for his reelection campaign." 

Now those food aid boxes are shipping out across the country, as the Chicago Tribune reported Wednesday, and some food pantries are removing the Trump letter before distributing them to families in need.

"It is quite unethical and a misuse of government funds," Dr. Evelyn Figueroa, executive director of the Pilsen Food Pantry, told the Tribune. Figueroa said the pantry plans to remove the letter from the 200 boxes it was expecting to receive.

"I find it highly offensive that we have a letter in here that doesn't add any value and to me it seems very self-promoting," Figueroa added.

Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a nationwide nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, called the letter "absolutely outrageous."

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"It essentially blackmails nonpartisan food charities into aiding Trump's reelection campaign by threatening more Americans to go hungry if these food boxes are not distributed," Berg said in a statement. "This move by the Trump administration is illegal and immoral."

Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, told Politico that in her 30 years of food aid work, she's "never seen something this egregious." 

For its part, the USDA insists that "politics has played zero role" in the food box program. 

In the letter, Trump claims that "safeguarding the health and well-being of our citizens is one of my highest priorities," and that he "prioritized sending nutritious food from our farmers to families in need throughout America."

However, critics note that the administration has repeatedly moved to slash spending on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Affordable Care Act, and other critical social services desperately needed by the nation's most vulnerable people, especially during the ongoing pandemic—even as Trump and Republicans dramatically reduced taxes on corporations and the wealthy and boosted military spending to near-record levels. 

Given the incongruity between this reality and Trump's letter claim about "safeguarding health and well-being," many observers have concluded the president is waging a taxpayer-funded public relations campaign just as the American people begin to render their verdict on his presidency via the ballot box.

"It sure looks like political propaganda, and if its goal was to affect the presidential election, then it violates the Hatch Act," Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told the Tribune. 

While many families are undoubtedly grateful for the much-needed assistance, some recipients of the letter-laden boxes are outraged—and even afraid to the point that they refused the food.

Olga Perez, a South Florida volunteer who delivers the boxes to families without transportation, told the Palm Beach Post that people are angry "because they felt the box and food were being politicized," and that "some were scared that the government was going to take repercussions or would find out where they live."

Perez, who said five families told her they would not accept delivery of the boxes, added that she was "so mad because [Trump] was using people he needs to win this election and win the Hispanic vote."

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