White House trade adviser Peter Navarro speaks during a roundtable discussion with commercial fishermen at Bangor International Airport in Bangor, Maine, Friday, June 5, 2020. Credit: Patrick Semansky / AP

WASHINGTON — A federal watchdog agency on Monday reported that an economic adviser for President Donald Trump repeatedly violated the law during the campaign season with his criticisms of Joe Biden, now the president-elect.

The Hatch Act prevents federal employees from engaging in political work while performing their official duties. The agency charged with enforcing the act said that Peter Navarro, director of the White House Office for Trade and Manufacturing Policy, used his position to influence the 2020 presidential election through his statements in television interviews and on social media.

“His comments were directed at undermining Mr. Biden’s presidential candidacy and persuading voters not to support him in the 2020 election,” the Office of Special Counsel report stated.

White House lawyers have asserted Navarro did not violate the Hatch Act because factual or policy statements do not constitute advocacy for or against a candidate, the report stated. They argued, for example, that Navarro’s statement about Biden “kowtowing to the Chinese” was acceptable for him to make in his official capacity.

But the Office of Special Counsel found that argument lacking. It said federal employees violate the law when they make statements intended to encourage others to vote for or against a candidate for political office or when they promote or disparage a candidate’s campaign.

“Dr. Navarro violated the Hatch Act because he engaged in that very activity,” the report said.

Navarro was the main White House figure in Trump’s 2020 outreach to Maine. During a June visit to the state, the Republican president said he would be the “lobster king” and his point person on the industry. The Trump administration later authorized tariff offset aid to commercial fishermen and inked an agreement with the European Union to end lobster tariffs.

He authored a Bangor Daily News op-ed in October touting a “jobs plan for Maine” put out by his office that touts the effects of Trump economic policies while doing interviews — including with the BDN — in his capacity as a campaign adviser to the president on that general subject.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a private advocacy group, said that it submitted multiple complaints about Navarro to the Office of Special Counsel and that “the referral for action demonstrates the severity of Navarro’s misconduct.”

The watchdog report said it’s up to the president to determine the “appropriate disciplinary action,” showing the limits of the law. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Story by Kevin Freking, The Associated Press. BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.

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