Ivanka Trump Isn’t Fooling Anyone

The presidential aide says she didn’t know personal email wasn’t allowed, even though her father won the 2016 election by railing against Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner pass behind Donald Trump.
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner pass behind Donald Trump. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

The jokes write themselves, though if you search Twitter for “but her emails,” it turns out that hundreds of people write the jokes as well.

As The Washington Post reported Monday evening, Ivanka Trump, the president’s oldest daughter and a senior White House adviser, sent hundreds of emails pertaining to government business using a personal email account in 2017, in violation of federal records laws. As the Post drily noted, “The discovery alarmed some advisers to President Trump, who feared that his daughter’s prac­tices bore similarities to the personal email use of Hillary Clinton, an issue he made a focus of his 2016 campaign.”

This would be extremely embarrassing for the Trump administration were it capable of embarrassment.

A spokesman for Ivanka Trump’s lawyer told the Post that she had not known about the rules, and that once informed she had stopped using personal email. This is, putting it mildly, an implausible excuse. If “Build the wall” was the dominant leitmotif in Donald Trump’s campaign speeches, his lambasting of Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state came in a close second. One would have had to completely tune out the presidential race to not be at least generally aware of the controversy; for Trump’s own daughter, a leading campaign surrogate, to claim ignorance is untenable.

Moreover, ignorance of the law is no excuse—especially given that the president perpetually portrays himself as the defender of “law and order,” the only bulwark against disorder and chaos caused by Democratic “mobs.” Yet whenever the Trump White House has fallen afoul of rules or the president has overstepped his bounds, his defenders say he should be forgiven because he is not a career politician and is still learning the job. The same defense apparently applies to his daughter. It’s unclear what the imaginary statute of limitations is on this imaginary get-out-of-jail-free card.

And yet this is not the first such revelation about Trump administration officials using personal email in violation of the rules. Last fall, it emerged that six White House aides had used personal email—including Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, who is also a senior adviser. The couple even set up their own email server, “ijkfamily.com,” echoing the “clintonemail.com” that Clinton had used.

As I wrote last fall, this was the behavior of staffers who, like the president, know quite well that rules exist but are convinced that they are not bound by them. As it happens, that’s the same charge made against Clinton.

The spokesman for Ivanka Trump’s lawyer sought to draw further distinctions from Clinton. “Ms. Trump did not create a private server in her house or office, no classified information was ever included, the account was never transferred at Trump Organization, and no emails were ever deleted,” he said.

But how can the public know whether those claims are true? Clinton also insisted that she had never sent or received classified information, which turned out to be false. In Trump’s case, Americans are forced to rely on the good faith of the attorney hired to defend her. Trump’s team says it sorted her personal emails, determined which ones were government-related, and handed those over for record-keeping. According to the Post, the White House counsel couldn’t review the emails, because it would risk violating attorney-client privilege covering messages between Trump and her attorneys.

Clinton also relied on her attorneys to sort her emails and hand over the relevant ones. If one thought that was insufficient and raised the specter that she could have hidden (and then deleted) relevant messages—an entirely defensible view, and one that Donald Trump offered during rallies in 2016—it’s hard to see why Ivanka Trump’s situation is more acceptable.

The scale of the Clinton and Trump uses is different. Clinton used a personal server for four years while serving as secretary of state; Trump used personal email for part of a year. The hypocrisy is real, however, and the rules were broken. (Meanwhile, the president himself continues to use an unencrypted cellphone to make calls, despite warnings that he is likely to be surveilled by foreign powers.)

There might be a lesson to be taken from this. Clearly the current regulations on email use are not working. Officials in the Trump, Obama, and George W. Bush administrations have all managed to break the rules. (Clinton cited Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell’s use of personal email to defend her own.) At the very least, there seems to be insufficient explanation of the rules to incoming federal employees, and insufficient, piecemeal, and opportunistic enforcement of them.

Perhaps there are ways the rules should be modernized to account for contemporary email practices, while also guaranteeing transparency and public records. During the Clinton scandal, some observers argued that emails just don’t work the way other communications do and don’t all need to be preserved, though as a journalist, my bias is in favor of the most complete preservation possible, and the quickest access by the public that’s practical.

These are complicated issues that a forward-thinking president could place at the center of a government-modernization effort—like, say, the one that Kushner was supposed to be leading. But making government work is boring and often under-recognized. It’s much easier and politically profitable to demagogue the issue, even at the risk of brazen hypocrisy.