President Trump’s objections to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state were never terribly convincing. He didn’t always seem to understand what she had done, and made claims about how she had deleted emails or wiped her server that suggested, at least, a lack of familiarity with technical details. At times, he claimed that Clinton, his Democratic presidential challenger in 2016, had tried to shield unethical activity by using a personal account. At others, he specifically criticized her for having shared classified material through her personal account.
Generally, though, Trump seemed to understand that nearly any sentence that included “Hillary’s emails” or “Hillary’s illegal server” had the same positive effect on his supporters as any other. It became a shorthand for all of the corruption he and his base saw in his rival’s candidacy.
If Trump’s broad criticism was true, that the use of a private account to conduct official business is suspect — if not illegal — and represents an effort to mask illicit activity, then we have bad news for him: An awful lot of that same suspect activity is taking place in his administration.
On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and daughter Ivanka Trump, both advisers to the president, had used either personal email accounts or the messaging application WhatsApp to conduct official business, according to information from the House Oversight Committee. The latter is particularly problematic because messages are encrypted between users, meaning that unless Kushner and Ivanka Trump stored copies of their messages or the recipients turned the messages over to the government, there’s no way to record what was said.
Kushner’s lawyer told House investigators that Kushner “took images of his communications” on a WhatsApp account, then forwarded them to official accounts. Asked whether Kushner had shared classified information over the app, the attorney replied, “That’s above my pay grade.” according to the Journal report.
Imagine Clinton’s attorney having offered that excuse in July 2016.
It wasn’t just Kushner and Ivanka Trump. The committee learned that former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland and former adviser Stephen K. Bannon had also, at times, used personal email accounts for official business. Some of those communications, the Journal reports, dealt with a proposal to send nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. McFarland’s account was through AOL, according to the New York Times.
And these are only the most recent examples. In 2017, the Times reported that other Trump administration officials, including adviser Stephen Miller, former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former National Economic Council director Gary Cohn had all used personal email accounts to conduct official business.
That’s seven officials, past and present, who used personal email accounts: Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Miller, Cohn, Bannon, McFarland and Priebus.
That by itself isn’t illegal, as long as the records are preserved in accordance with the Presidential Records Act. According to House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), Ivanka Trump, at least, may not have been properly preserving all of her records.
The president has had his own issues with using government-preferred communication channels. In May, Politico reported that Trump wasn’t adhering to policies that mandated he swap out his cellphones with regularity, putting his communication at risk. Had Trump shared classified information over his cellphone that might have been intercepted by foreign powers? Well, in May 2017, he shared classified information directly with senior Russian officials in the Oval Office, so it certainly seems possible.
It’s important to remember that much of Trump’s criticism of Clinton’s use of a private server was overwrought and politically motivated. Just as much of Trump’s criticism of former president Barack Obama’s golfing was overwrought or much of Trump’s excoriation about the increase in the federal debt. As president, Trump has often not practiced what he preached on the campaign trail.
At times, in fact, it seems as though he’s practicing specifically what he preached against.