White House brushes off House investigators over aides' use of personal email
The White House brushed off a bipartisan request from House investigators for details of senior administration officials' use of private email and encrypted messaging apps for government work, including possible violations of federal record-keeping laws, a letter obtained by POLITICO shows.
In a terse letter to Reps. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) — leaders of the House oversight committee — President Donald Trump's congressional liaison Marc Short declined to indicate whether any administration officials had used personal email accounts or messaging services, despite reports suggesting such communications were common in the West Wing.
"The White House and covered employees endeavor to comply with all relevant laws," Short wrote in a two-page reply delivered late last week and obtained Monday by POLITICO.
Short's statement comes despite recent revelations that several senior aides to President Donald Trump routinely used private email addresses and personal devices for government business. Among the current and former aides who POLITICO found at least occasionally relied on private email addresses were Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Gary Cohn and Reince Priebus.
In a similarly brief letter, Short also declined to provide records in response to a separate inquiry by Gowdy and Cummings into the use of costly private air travel by top administration officials.
The White House's limited responses set up a potential confrontation with Gowdy, a hard-nosed prosecutor with subpoena power and a track record that includes sharp criticism of Hillary Clinton's use of private email as secretary of state. Cummings said last week that he hoped the committee would subpoena any information that the White House declined to provide, as have other Democrats.
"These were bipartisan requests to the White House related to the Administration’s private travel and email usage, and the White House has completely blown off the Committee," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the oversight committee. "The Committee needs to assert its jurisdiction and authority immediately to get this information. If the White House won’t provide documents to permit basic oversight, the Chairman should send subpoenas.”
An aide to Gowdy said the lawmakers "are currently in the process of evaluating whether there has been compliance, partial compliance or non-compliance" by the White House and other administration officials.
"We expect full compliance," the aide added.
Gowdy and Cummings had requested details from the White House on the extent of private email correspondence after POLITICO reported that Kushner, in particular, had relied on a private email account to conduct some White House business.
In a Sept. 25 letter to White House counsel Don McGahn, the lawmakers requested the names of any senior officials who "had ever used a personal email account to conduct official business." They also asked for "the individual, cellular number and account used" by any White House officials who communicated using "text-messages, phone-based message applications, or encryption software to conduct official business.
In his answer, Short simply referred to existing federal record-keeping laws and said the administration consults with the National Archives and Records Administration to ensure compliance. He also indicated that there has been no change in policy since the Obama administration pertaining to presidential record-keeping.
In response to Gowdy and Cummings' request for details on the use of charter jets by administration officials, Short contended that the committee's inquiry — initially addressed to chief of staff John Kelly — was misdirected because "not all components" of the West Wing "are under the supervision of the President's Chief of Staff."
"As such, the heads of those components are in the best position to respond to requests for your Committee concerning legal compliance," he wrote.
Gowdy and Cummings had asked for a detailed breakdown of every flight on a government-owned aircraft or a "private, non-commercial aircraft" by senior White House officials. Their inquiry followed a POLITICO investigation into costly flights taken by former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price. Price left his post amid fallout from the reports.
"The White House seeks to ensure employee travel is conducted through the most economic and expeditious means of transportation available," Short wrote.
Since Price's departure, several other cabinet officials have faced scrutiny for chartering jets and taking expensive trips.