The Brazenness of Trump's White House Staff Using Private Email

How could six senior presidential aides mimic the strategy for which Trump lacerated Hillary Clinton? Only if they believe they are as immune to the usual rules as he is.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Updated on September 25 at 8:20 p.m.

Late Sunday night, Josh Dawsey of Politico dropped a story that, in any other administration, would have been cause for concern but hardly surprise.

“Presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has corresponded with other administration officials about White House matters through a private email account set up during the transition last December,” Dawsey wrote. “Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, set up their private family domain late last year before moving to Washington from New York, according to people with knowledge of events as well as publicly available internet registration records.”

On Monday, Newsweek reported that Ivanka Trump had also used the domain to communicate with at least one government official, Small Business Administration chief Linda McMahon.* By Monday night, The New York Times had reported that at least six officials, including former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, former strategist Steve Bannon, and aides Stephen Miller and Gary Cohn, had used personal accounts for at least some official business.

Administration officials conducting business on personal accounts raises concerns because it suggests some intention to skirt public-records laws and conceal things from the public. While troubling, this is hardly unusual. Sarah Palin was busted for using one. So were officials in the George W. Bush administration. Lisa Jackson, who ran the Environmental Protection Agency under Barack Obama, used an alias for her email.

Of course, the most famous example of someone using a personal email is Hillary Clinton. The case of the Javanka domain is brazen for its mimickry of Clinton’s actions at the State Department, right down to the use of a domain specifically for the family. The only way it could be more slapstick would be if Kushner and Trump also used BleachBit.

There are significant ways the Kushner-Ivanka domain differs from Clinton’s. Neither of them is a Cabinet secretary. (Trump, despite her title as special assistant to the president, says she doesn’t even want to get involved in politics.) Neither of them is running for office (at the moment). The scale of their usage pales in comparison to Clinton’s, and there’s no indication that they deleted any emails. Nor is there any indication that classified information was sent in the emails.

Yet it takes a special sort of hypocrisy, or dark sense of humor, or lack of self-awareness for Trump’s daughter and son-in-law to do this after watching a race in which Donald Trump campaigned for, and arguably won, the presidency because of Clinton’s imprudent decision to use the private email domain. She was cleared by the FBI and the Justice Department of any crimes, though then-FBI Director James Comey called her “extremely careless” with classified information. It was the political sin of looking like she had something to hide, and was trying hard to hide it, that stuck to Clinton. Somehow, Kushner and Trump still decided to set up their own family domain, and no one convinced them it was a bad idea.

This is only the latest example of the Trump administration committing the very sins for which it crucified its political opponents. Trump assailed Barack Obama for taking vacations and playing golf too frequently; Trump vacations, and he plays golf more often than Obama. Trump assailed Obama for laying down red lines and not enforcing them; Trump keeps doing the same. Trump accused Obama of dividing the nation and of distancing America from its closest allies; Trump is a virtuosic divider, and frequently at odds with allied leaders. Trump vigorously attacked Clinton for having a private email account; a handful of his top advisers did the same.

If everyone does it, why did the email situation stick to Clinton so badly? In part because the public was already primed to view Clinton as ethically dubious. It was an impression fed by her husband’s scandal-plagued tenure as president as well as things like her speeches to Goldman Sachs, and encouraged by a cottage industry created for that purpose. Fairly or unfairly, the email server made for the perfect attack, aided, as my colleague James Fallows recently argued, by a press corps only too eager to amplify it.

So why doesn’t it stick to Trump? After all, he has his own history of ethical and legal shortcomings, one that is more robust and more concretely documented than anything in Clinton’s record. But the same actions don’t necessarily come off the same way. Some of that is simple partisanship: When your guy does it, it’s different from when the other guy does it. Another compelling explanation for why Trump gets away with the things he critiques is that some of his supporters love that he’s a brawler.

Michael Moore laid this line of thinking out in a recent New York Magazine interview. “They loved the brazenness of it. Even when they didn’t necessarily agree with it, they thought, That took balls. They may not personally think McCain’s a coward, but they think, Wow, that’s who I want. Somebody who’s just going to say shit like that,” Moore said. “Americans, they want somebody who stands up for the things that he or she believes in and says it without any apology.”

The extent to which Trump really is the Teflon Don is debatable. It is true that he has survived things that would have killed a lesser politician’s career a dozen times over; it is also true that his approval ratings are record-breakingly low, his administration is nearly devoid of major accomplishments, and he faces a perilous special-counsel investigation. For now, though, he remains standing.

The question is whether that applies to others. Trump’s aides and advisers seem to have come to believe that the force-field of gravity distortion that protects the president will apply to them too. Whether they are right is less clear.

Think of Michael Flynn’s mixing of private- and public-sector work, his decision not to make required disclosures, and his decision to lie to the vice president—and, perhaps, the FBI. Think of Paul Manafort allegedly advising a Russian billionaire even as he ran the Trump campaign. Think of Anthony Scaramucci’s R-rated circus-act of a 10-day tenure as White House communications director. Each of them behaved as though they too were immune to standard pressures. But Flynn was fired and is under multiple investigations. Manafort is too, and his home was raided before dawn by FBI agents; he has reportedly been told to expect to be indicted. Scaramucci was fired before he’d had a chance to get off the ground.

Kushner, so far, is still standing, but it’s easy to imagine that if he were not related to the president, he too might have been shoved out onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Like his boss and father-in-law, Kushner brings serious liabilities from his business career. He has multiple unexplained contacts with Russian officials, from the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting to a disputed meeting with the head of a Russian state-controlled bank, plus a report that he tried to set up a back channel with Russian officials. His clearance forms were highly incomplete, and he offered an implausible excuse. In fact, there were so many worrying moments that, according to The Wall Street Journal, some of the president’s lawyers wanted Kushner removed from the White House this summer. Trump refused.

A common knock on the Clintons was that they behaved as though the rules did not apply to them. Already, some members of Trump’s inner circle are acting the same way. Feeling immune to ordinary strictures can be alluring, but as Hillary Clinton learned, sometimes you only discover too late that it’s an illusion.

* This article originally stated Ivanka Trump used a private email server to communicate with Linda McMahon. We regret the error.