Letter: White House told House panel officials weren't following records law

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) 

Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is asking for the chairman to press the White House on records management.

The White House Counsel's office told staffers of a key House committee that some officials were not forwarding emails from private accounts to official accounts within the time frame required under the Presidential Records Act, according to a letter from a senior member of Congress.

In an Oct. 20 letter to his committee chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, detailed a staff briefing given by three members of the White House Counsel team on Oct. 18.

"The White House officials who provided this week's briefing stated that several White House employees came forward and 'confessed' that they failed to forward official records from their personal email accounts to their governmental email accounts within 20 days, as the Presidential Records Act requires," according to Cummings’ account.

The committee and the White House are engaged in a back-and-forth about records management issues, in light of confirmed press reports that many Trump administration officials use personal email to conduct official business, which is permitted under the law with some constraints. The committee also is pursuing reports that White House staffers may be using encrypted chat apps like Confide and Whisper, which are designed to conceal or destroy all traces of communications.

The briefing on records management issues followed a terse letter from White House congressional liaison Marc Short on Oct. 10 that indicated White House staffers "endeavor to comply with all relevant laws" and that there was no change in existing White House policy for use of encrypted chat apps under the Trump administration.

At the briefing, given by Deputy Counsels Stefan Passantino and Uttam Dhillon and Associate Counsel Daniel Epstein, the officials declined to identify individuals who had failed to comply with the 20-day requirement of the PRA.

"When asked whether Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner complied with the Presidential Records Act, these White House officials replied, 'You should talk to Mr. Kushner's counsel about that,'" according to Cummings's account.

The Oct. 20 letter from Cummings pressed Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to send a follow-up letter to the White House to obtain identities of officials using personal email accounts and encrypted chat apps, or let the committee vote publicly on whether to issue a subpoena for the information. According to the letter, Gowdy has no plans to follow up.

"Based on the record before us, I do not believe anyone can reasonably argue that the White House is in 'full compliance' with our document request," Cummings wrote. "If you decide to follow-through on your proposed course of action, the Committee essentially will be abdicating its oversight responsibilities under the Constitution by walling off the White House from serious congressional scrutiny."

In the letter, Cummings noted that Gowdy did plan to follow up on similar inquiries made to other agencies.

Cummings added, "Unfortunately, this is now becoming a troubling pattern of the Oversight Committee capitulating to the Trump White House rather than exercising its independent authority to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch."

Gowdy's press staff did not immediately respond to questions and a request for comment from FCW.

FCW staff writer Chase Gunter contributed to this report.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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