Across the Capitol this week, there were heated debates over using private email accounts for official government work, skirting federal transparency laws and accusations of partisan hypocrisy were heard, in what many see as an unwelcome rerun of the debate over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server. But unlike the last episode, when the GOP showed uniformity in calling for Clinton’s head, this time the party is divided over the issue.
Reports that six senior White House officials, including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, have used private email accounts for government business is receiving mixed reactions in Washington, as many Republicans say it’s no big deal while others are asking if those implicated are trying to get around a requirement that officials preserve White House records.
In a rare moment of bipartisanship this week, the two top lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee penned a strongly worded letter demanding answers from the Trump administration.
“With numerous public revelations of senior executive branch employees deliberately trying to circumvent these laws by using personal, private, or alias email addresses to conduct official government business, the Committee has aimed to use its oversight and investigative resources to prevent and deter misuse of private forms of written communication,” Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy and Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings wrote.
Gowdy made a name for himself leading the Benghazi investigation that eventually led to the uncovering of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server while secretary of state – a fact that has lawmakers wondering whether Trump’s top advisers and family members are devious, doltish or simply ignorant of what’s required of them.
“This all came right after we spent a year or so on Hillary Clinton’s situation. You would think that they would have been educated and felt warned not to do this,” Cummings tells Rolling Stone. “We are entitled to know how they were used, who used them, whether there was classified information – and if there was classified information, whether it was protected. Was any of this information subject or have any relevance to the various investigations, including [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller’s investigation? We want to know that.”
Cummings says the latest controversy is disturbing because in the spring he was assured White House officials were above board when it came to the use of personal email accounts and devices.
“Back in March of this year, we asked the White House, was there anybody using any of these devices? And they said no. … I’m not saying that they were being untruthful, but they clearly were inaccurate,” he says. “We just want to find what was going on there.”
Some senior Republicans are also scratching their heads, noting that everyone working in this new administration should be versed in the Federal Records Act, which requires White House officials to maintain all official government communications.
“I think the rules are pretty clear: You shouldn’t do that, not for official business,” Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate’s number two Republican, tells Rolling Stone. “I think that’s a mistake, and I’m sure it will be addressed.”
But most Republicans are brushing aside the reports.
“I really haven’t followed it, honestly I haven’t,” Sen. John Kennedy, a member of the Judiciary Committee, says.
Pressed on how his party went after Clinton over the issue – and how President Trump, as recently as last week at an Alabama rally, basked in chants of “Lock her up!” – the junior senator from Louisiana demurs.
“I just didn’t see this as a big issue in my state,” says Kennedy, who earlier this year questioned then FBI Director James Comey about Clintons’s email server.
“Who did what, who uses what email, and who tweets whom – I don’t know about all that. I don’t follow that. And, frankly, I don’t much care,” Kennedy says.
Other Republicans say there’s no comparison between Clinton’s server and lost emails to what Kushner’s lawyer now claims is fewer than 100 private emails about his government work.
“It’s much different than a private server and really destroying documents – I see no evidence of that,” Republican Mark Meadows, a member of the House Oversight Committee, tells Rolling Stone. “It’s a common occurrence in the executive branch, as long as they forward it to their official account and we can preserve the documents. That’s what the Federal Records Act requires, and I assume that’s what they’re going to be doing.”
While Meadows, like most of his fellow Republicans, assumes Trump’s inner circle is abiding by the letter of the law, he’s not stomping his feet to force the White House to disclose what’s going on.
“I think at this point there are whole other things that are a lot more pressing than that,” Meadows says with a smile.
But Democrats say this revelation of senior officials seeming to skirt the law highlights their bigger concerns about the administration’s attitude toward ethics. And they say the cool response from these formerly boisterous Republicans is troubling and fits a trend of lax oversight from this Congress.
“It is scandalous … it gives hypocrisy a bad name,” says Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, a member of the Oversight Committee. “It’s a double standard that makes one’s head spin, and I think it’s going to bring the administration grief if they don’t clean it up.”