STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now let's talk about social media and federal law. All this week, Dan Scavino, who's president Trump's former caddy turned social media manager, has been getting slammed by ethics watchdogs for a tweet he sent. They say this tweet violated a law dating back to 1939. It's called the Hatch Act. NPR's Sam Sanders tried to figure out if he really broke the law.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: The Dan Scavino tweet in question reads as follows.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) @realDonaldTrump is bringing auto plants and jobs back to Michigan. @justinamash is a big liability. Hashtag #TrumpTrain, defeat him in primary.
SANDERS: Amash is a Republican himself, part of the House Freedom Caucus. That's a group the president has criticized. A lot of experts said Scavino's tweet violates the Hatch Act. That law basically says employees in the executive branch cannot politic on government time or on the government dime. But here's the thing. Dan Scavino sent that tweet from his personal Twitter account on a Saturday. Noah Bookbinder is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. CREW filed a complaint about the tweet with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Bookbinder says they did so because when Scavino's tweet was sent, his personal Twitter account really felt like a professional Twitter account.
NOAH BOOKBINDER: The picture that came up when he used that is him standing in front of the Oval Office with the presidential flag. He also had a picture on his page, which had Donald Trump speaking in front of the presidential seal. And so essentially, the message that is going out is that this is the White House.
SANDERS: The Office of Special Counsel would not comment on the case, but I talked with Kathleen Clark. She's an ethics law professor at Washington University. She has some questions.
KATHLEEN CLARK: I can't actually tell whether it was a violation of the Hatch Act because I don't know where he was when he tweeted about that congressional campaign.
SANDERS: Clark says with the Hatch Act, it's complicated.
CLARK: If Scavino tweeted from a government office or in a government vehicle and arguably from a government communications device or - although that's - I've not - I'm not sure that there's actually...
JONATHAN TURLEY: The problem with the Hatch Act as it often comes down to sort of a reading of "Green Eggs And Ham." If you're in a boat with a goat then perhaps you're in violation but not if only one of those applies.
SANDERS: Jonathan Turley is a law professor at George Washington University. He says now in our device-filled lives, everything is just a bit more blurry. Most of us are constantly mixing professional and personal communications all day, often just from one device and sometimes with multiple social media accounts.
TURLEY: It's very hard for members of the White House staff to always remember that they have to separate platforms.
SANDERS: Both Turley and Clark think the Office of Special Counsel should update the Hatch Act's guidelines for social media use. Even still, Turley says the act was always hard to enforce, even before Twitter.
TURLEY: The Hatch Act is the most cited statute in the news that is never seemingly enforced. It is almost a standard talking point for political opponents.
SANDERS: There are a handful of recent cases where federal employees were punished for violating the Hatch Act. As for CREW, the group that made the complaint about Dan Scavino's tweet, Noah Bookbinder has this advice.
BOOKBINDER: Essentially, tell them to take it outside, right? If they've got a political fight, they've got to take that outside of their official positions.
SANDERS: Figuring out exactly where official ends and outside begins, that is still up for debate. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.