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In the Trump Campaign, Government Agencies and Officials Have Often Provided Help

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, has hit the road in recent weeks — not touring war zones, but promoting Mr. Trump’s record in swing states.

Mr. O’Brien boasted about Mr. Trump’s job-producing push at a shipyard in Kittery, Maine. He delivered remarks at Drake University in Iowa, calling the world more peaceful and prosperous “because of the president’s policies.” And he toured a Wisconsin manufacturing plant and shipyard, telling a local radio host that Mr. Trump is a “peacemaker” but that journalists will not “give him much credit.”

In the days and weeks leading up to Election Day, Mr. Trump has employed every tool at his disposal to win another four years in the Oval Office in a consequential election that is likely to help determine the limits on a president’s ability to bend the government to his whims.

While the national security adviser is a traditionally nonpartisan job, Mr. O’Brien has been part of a sustained effort by the president, members of his cabinet and top aides to use the powers of incumbency in ways that go far beyond his predecessors, harnessing the levers of government power and the authority of Mr. Trump’s office to help him stay there.

Last month, Department of Homeland Security officials gathered reporters, cameramen and photographers in Pennsylvania and Minnesota to highlight the president’s immigration policies, even though the routine arrests they announced took place across various states. The agency has paid for ominous-looking billboards in Pennsylvania, a state crucial to Mr. Trump’s re-election, depicting wanted immigrants charged with violent crimes.

On Oct. 15, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo participated in five call-in interviews with broadcast organizations, four of them in the swing states Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Michigan.

The Office of Special Counsel has opened two investigations into whether Mr. Pompeo has illegally campaigned for Mr. Trump. One is focused on a speech Mr. Pompeo delivered during the Republican National Convention while on a diplomatic trip to Jerusalem, and another on his declaration that the State Department might release new emails from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the election.

“We’ve got the emails,” Mr. Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News, one day after Mr. Trump expressed impatience with the secretary’s inaction. “We’re getting them out. We’re going to get all this information out so the American people can see it.”

The use of government resources to help the president’s political fortunes is taking place in a bitterly polarized country, and the assertion of raw political power by Mr. Trump and his aides has drawn furious criticism from Democrats and ethics experts.

“There’s a reason that secretaries of state and national security advisers don’t campaign,” said Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut. “It’s really important for a handful of national security figures to remain above the partisan scrum, and when they become just another partisan actor it does rob them of some of their credibility.”

Other presidents have embraced the perks of incumbency to their advantage. But no other modern president of either party has so brazenly directed government action toward his own benefit by so many agencies and departments.

In the months leading up to Election Day, the Justice Department represented Mr. Trump in a defamation lawsuit brought by a woman who had accused him of rape. His intelligence chiefs declassified documents central to the president’s campaign rhetoric. Coronavirus aid checks to taxpayers from the Treasury Department prominently featured Mr. Trump’s signature, and food boxes for the poor included a letter from the president. Mr. Trump proposed, though never delivered, a $200 discount drug prescription card for seniors — a gift timed to arrive in the middle of voting.

Mr. Trump and his aides have pressed scientists to approve treatments and vaccines before the election. Attorney General William P. Barr has assailed Democratic-led cities and intervened in ballot cases to benefit Mr. Trump’s campaign. The president has virtually transformed the Department of Homeland Security into an engine of his campaign, confronting protesters in cities even against the wishes of governors and mayors.

And members of the president’s cabinet have fanned out across the country, ostensibly conducting official business, but doing so in places undeniably critical to the president’s personal political fortunes. In late September, Mr. Pompeo gave an official speech in — of all places — the Capitol building in Madison, Wis., a critical swing state that Mr. Trump narrowly won in 2016.

“Robert O’Brien’s presence on the campaign trail, or pseudo campaign trail, is more evidence of how irregular the Trump administration is and how badly things are going for the president in Washington and in the campaign,” said John Gans, the author of “White House Warriors: How the National Security Council Transformed the American Way of War.”

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Mr. Trump’s rival for the White House, has been blunt in his condemnation of the president’s use of the government for political gain, and he described the Justice Department under the leadership of Mr. Barr, a fierce Trump ally, as essentially corrupt.

“The Department of Trump,” Mr. Biden said.

That name could also apply to the Department of Homeland Security.

On the last night of the Republican convention, it was hard to miss the display of the Trump-Pence campaign logo on Jumbotron screens flanking both sides of the White House. But inside, the president and his acting secretary of homeland security, Chad Wolf, held an official naturalization ceremony for a half-dozen new Americans — a solemn occasion turned into a campaign stunt and broadcast to millions of people as part of Mr. Trump’s political convention.

After Mr. Wolf and Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, held an event in the shadow of Mr. Trump’s border wall last week to celebrate the near completion of 400 miles of the project and criticize policies embraced by Democrats, the nonprofit government watchdog American Oversight requested that the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general investigate whether the senior leadership had violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities on the job.

Last summer when Mr. Trump turned the focus of his re-election campaign to protesters damaging statues and monuments during a speech at Mount Rushmore, the Homeland Security Department was also there to help.

That same weekend, Mr. Wolf announced a new task force to protect “historic monuments, memorials, statues and federal facilities” that used tactical agents from various agencies. Some of those agents, specifically from Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were then deployed to Portland, Ore., and suddenly were at the center of the president’s re-election campaign.

After tactical teams from the Homeland Security Department were deployed, the Trump campaign pointed to images of the camouflage-wearing agents clashing with demonstrators as they portrayed cities led by Democrats as settings of crime and chaos.

Mr. Wolf also delayed the release of an intelligence bulletin warning that the Russians were specifically targeting Mr. Trump’s opponent, Mr. Biden, by denigrating his mental health.

Mr. Wolf has said the quality of the product needed to be improved.

But in a whistle-blower complaint filed to the House Intelligence Committee, Brian Murphy, the former head of the homeland security intelligence branch, said Mr. Wolf blocked dissemination of the bulletin because the briefing “made the president look bad.”

Inside D.H.S., some career officials have tried to slow or stop what they say are overly political efforts by the president and his allies. In April 2019, when Mr. Trump’s top aides pressured immigration agencies to release arrested migrants into so-called sanctuary cities represented by Democratic lawmakers, homeland security lawyers and even a top ICE official, Matthew T. Albence, objected, saying that there would be liability issues if a migrant were injured during transport.

Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the acting deputy secretary of the department, dismissed concerns about the agency during a press briefing on Monday.

“We don’t stop doing our job because there’s an election coming or going,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “I make no apologies for being here. This is part of my job.”

While Mr. Trump was accused of politicizing Mr. Cuccinelli’s department from the early days of the administration, the intelligence agencies were mostly spared. But this year, the president installed a pair of political allies as director of national intelligence, who quickly moved to declassify and release information to benefit Mr. Trump.

The president initially made Richard Grenell, then the ambassador to Germany, the acting director of national intelligence. He was later replaced by John Ratcliffe, a Republican congressman who was confirmed by the Senate to take the job permanently.

Mr. Ratcliffe continued Mr. Grenell’s efforts to declassify documents that raised questions about the origins of the inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Republicans had claimed that the documents substantiated the allegations Mr. Trump makes on the campaign trail that his predecessor had spied on him.

Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, condemned the actions of the administration’s national security team to boost Mr. Trump’s campaign.

He said the White House “has bent the national security adviser to mislead the country, has appointed a director of national intelligence who is willing to do the same and has installed an attorney general who has no compunction about deceiving the public in any way the president wishes.”

But with the election approaching, the president’s top aides show no signs of letting up. Last week, Mr. O’Brien attended a mining industry round table in Hermantown, Minn., hosted by a Republican congressman.

In a statement, John Ullyot, a National Security Council spokesman, said that Mr. O’Brien had visited Minnesota to focus on “protecting America’s critical mineral industry and supply chains for national security reasons” and had traveled to Wisconsin to highlight the role of defense manufacturers.

“The important work of protecting our national security continues regardless of domestic political events,” he added.

Mr. Ullyot did not identify any non-swing states Mr. O’Brien had visited in recent weeks.

Julian Barnes contributed reporting.

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