WASHINGTON (AP) — White House officials are clearly instructed: Don’t use your personal phones for official business. But some aides appear to have done it anyway, and it’s getting fresh scrutiny along with questions about the use of personal email accounts.
The inquiries into private communication could prove uncomfortable for President Donald Trump, who relentlessly attacked Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email account and server during her time as secretary of state.
Multiple current and former Trump White House officials have used private email accounts and texts from personal phones for private conversations, sometimes using encrypted messaging apps. That’s despite clear directives not to use personal devices for administration business and to save the records if they do.
House lawmakers have requested more information about the use of private email addresses and texting or the use of messaging apps on personal phones. They’re also asking about the oversight and record-keeping policies of the Trump White House. They acted after word surfaced that White House adviser Jared Kushner set up a private email account after the election to conduct work-related business.
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Further, The New York Times recently reported the names of six close Trump advisers, including Kushner, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus, who have used private email to discuss White House matters. Bannon and Priebus no longer work at the White House.
The extent of private communications on personal phones — or whether records were retained— is not clear.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and the top Democrat on that panel, Rep. Elijah Cummings, sent letters Monday to the White House general counsel and the State Department. They said they want more details on whether staffers are using personal emails, texting or encrypted messaging applications, and if they are preserving the records.
The Presidential Records Act requires senior White House staff members to preserve their professional communications, with the records eventually transferred to the National Archives. Electronic communications outside of official channels, such as private email or text messages on a staffer’s personal phone, are supposed to be copied to a government account within 20 days.
White House aides are instructed as part of their training not to use personal devices for official business and are told to save records if they do, said two people with knowledge of administration practices.
A memorandum went out to all White House personnel in February outlining the rules. The memo, provided to The Associated Press, states that records rules apply to “other forms of electronic communication, including text messages.”
The memo adds: “You should not use instant messaging systems, social networks, or other internet-based means of electronic communication to conduct official business without the approval of the Office of the White House Counsel.”
“Legally, the case is clear — you’re supposed to save this stuff,” said Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for transparency and open record keeping in government.
Howard said that White House officials who sent and received messages via private channels did not necessarily violate the law — if they later forwarded those off-the-books communications to an official government account or preserved them in some other fashion.
“People will make mistakes,” he said. “The key is, are those mistakes intentional.”
One reason White House aides text from private phones is simple. They cannot send texts from their official phones, a policy set during the Obama administration. When Blackberry devices were standard, a White House communications system automatically archived those messages.
When smartphones supplanted Blackberries, however, White House information technology administrators adopted a new policy: No texts at all.
“With iOS and text, you could get messages (and malware) from anyone,” said Tony Scott, Barack Obama’s federal chief information officer from 2015 until the end of Obama’s second term. The decision to disable texting was made “more from a security perspective than anything else.”
Trump White House officials aren’t the first to come under scrutiny for private communications. In 2010, the White House deputy chief technology officer, Andrew McLaughlin, was reprimanded for using a Gmail account to communicate with his former colleagues at Google.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday that the use of private email accounts by staff is “to my knowledge, very limited.”
“White House counsel has instructed all White House staff to use their government email for official business, and only use that email,” she said, adding that “we get instructed on this one pretty regularly.”
Kushner’s lawyer, Abbe Lowell, on Sunday confirmed Kushner’s use of a personal email in his first few months of the administration. He said the emails usually involved news articles and political commentary. Lowell also said any non-personal emails were forwarded to Kushner’s official account and “all have been preserved in any event.”
There are considerable differences between Clinton’s email practices and what is known about the Trump administration so far.
Clinton maintained multiple private servers, and an FBI investigation found tens of thousands of emails, including many with classified material. While some Trump officials used private accounts, there is no evidence so far that classified material was transmitted through private email accounts.
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey and Julie Pace contributed to this report.