Updated | Senior Trump administration staffers, including Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon, had until Wednesday active accounts on a Republican National Committee (RNC) email system, Newsweek has learned.
The system (rnchq.org) is the same one the George W. Bush administration was accused of using to evade transparency rules after claiming to have “lost” 22 million emails.
Making use of separate political email accounts at the White House is not illegal. In fact, they serve a purpose by allowing staff to divide political conversations (say, arranging for the president to support a congressional re-election campaign) from actual White House work. Commingling politics and state business violates the Hatch Act, which restricts many executive branch employees from engaging in political activity on government time.
But after then-candidate Donald Trump and the Republicans repeatedly called for “locking up” Hillary Clinton for handling government work with a private server while secretary of state, the new White House staff risks repeating the same mistake that dogged the Democrat’s presidential campaign. They also face a security challenge: The RNC email system, according to U.S. intelligence, was hacked during the 2016 race. “They better be careful after making such a huge ruckus over the private email over at the State Department,” says former Bush administration lawyer Richard Painter.
Since this story was published, the RNC has deleted the emails of Bannon, Kushner and Conway. RNC spokesman Ryan Mahoney told Newsweek Wednesday night that the emails were set up only for distribution lists, “There is nothing wrong with having an RNC account if it is not used for any official government business,” he said. “In this case, the officials previously employed by the Trump campaign never had functional email accounts with the RNC. The RNC has various distribution lists to communicate with state parties or campaigns, and as a byproduct these contact groups are assigned RNCHQ.org addresses that only forward to external accounts at their respective organizations.”
If Trump staffers were using the RNC email addresses, they were subject to the “Disclosure Requirement for Official Business Conducted Using Electronic Messaging Accounts," a law, 44 U.S.C. 2209, that went into effect in 2014. If White House staffers have already used the RNC emails system for White House work, they must copy or forward those communications into the government system within 20 days.
The Disclosure Requirement was passed to prevent presidents from shielding communications that fall under the Presidential Records Act of 1978. The last time White House staffers used the same RNC email system, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington described it as an attempt to circumvent transparency. CREW Director Melanie Sloan charged in 2007 that the Bush White House was using the RNC email system because “they don’t want anyone ever to be able to come back and see what was going on behind the scenes.”
The controversial system was involved in the loss of some of 22 million emails—many from around the time of the lead-up to and the first months of the Iraq War. Private lawsuits eventually forced the Obama administration to find Bush’s lost emails. They have since been turned over the National Archives, but remain under national security shield and have not been made available to the public.
The Office of Government Ethics does not have rules or regulations regarding information technology and the use of private email accounts, and it does not instruct agencies on what servers they may use, although it does cover what government employees view or download on their system, such as porn or communications related to running a personal business.
Some officials at the Obama White House did have unofficial DNC email addresses. But a former Obama staffer said the White House counsel informed employees “on day one” that all work-related email had to be handled on official accounts and that if someone contacted them on a personal account on a work-related matter, the staffers were to forward it into the official White House email, so that the information would be captured by government servers and archived as per the Presidential Records Act. “This was drummed into us constantly,” the former Obama official says.
A former Obama administration lawyer says determining the dividing line between communications regarding official work and politics is determined by the Hatch Act. “We did an enormous amount of training on compliance,” the lawyer recalls. “One reason we were successful in avoiding scandals is that we got people to think, if I stumble on these rules, it lessens public trust in the government. We created a culture so they called [White House lawyers] for guidance all the time. People get very gun-shy about what is FOIA-able [Freedom of Information Act] and they start to default to using nonofficial email. We avoided the Bush problem of people sliding into the attitude of, well if I use this account it won’t be in the record.”
Bush administration lawyer Richard Painter says the problem could be solved if all White House staff only worked for the president: “Keep all email on the White House server, and don’t be moonlighting for the RNC.” Barring that, he suggested trouble is inevitable. “The problem is people are walking around all day with two email addresses. Our people screwed up,” he said.
The rnchq.org email address used by the Bush administration is now hosting active Trump staff email addresses, verifiable through the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. SMTP is the bridge between mail servers. The rnchq.org account is hosted by the same commercial server as it was during the Bush years—smartechcorp.net, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Besides the unfortunate P.R. optics of Trump using a nonofficial email server in his White House after a campaign built on attacking a similar practice, there are other, more serious problems. First, obviously, is cybersecurity. Russian hackers didn’t harvest as much material from the RNC system as from the Democrats’, but the system was still hackable. Second is transparency. Trump and other Republicans throughout the 2016 campaign voiced concerns about the transparency of Clinton’s use of a “home-brew” personal email server in her basement. FBI Director James Comey called her email practices “extremely careless,” and the investigation and lingering taint of suspicion arguably cost her the election.
The chief effect of using the RNC server in the Bush years was to leave investigators who wanted to know more about the origins of the Iraq War in the dark—for years. It remains impossible to determine whether Bush staffers ever sent classified material over the RNC system.
Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a Washington-based government watchdog that requests and collects classified information, sued the Bush administration (along with CREW) over the RNC server and lost emails, and is still waiting to see what was in them. “If senior aides to President Trump were using private RNC servers on the afternoon after the inauguration, they have about 16 days to copy them into the official White House systems. If not, not they are in violation of the law,” he says.
This story was updated to state that the RNC has deleted the emails of Bannon, Kushner and Conway. It also now includes a statement from an RNC spokesman.