- Alex Wong/Getty Images
- President Donald Trump’s transition team’s lawyer claims special counsel Robert Mueller’s office illegally obtained “tens of thousands” of transition officials’ emails.
- The emails were provided to Mueller by officials at the General Services Administration, the government agency which hosted the transition team’s email accounts.
- Mueller’s spokesman and a top GSA lawyer pushed back on the transition team’s claims that the emails were unlawfully obtained.
- The transition team reportedly plans to send a letter to Mueller asking that privileged emails be returned.
A conflict is brewing over “tens of thousands” of President Donald Trump’s transition team’s emails.
Kory Langhofer, the transition team’s lawyer, sent Congress a letter on Saturday accusing special counsel Robert Mueller of unlawfully obtaining thousands of transition officials’ emails from the General Services Administration as part of the Russia investigation.
Both a GSA lawyer and Mueller’s spokesman have disputed that claim, arguing that transition team emails are government property.
The issue first came to light when Axios reported on Saturday that GSA officials had given Mueller’s team “tens of thousands” of emails from 12 accounts. Those accounts were associated with nine transition team members tasked with overseeing “national security and policy matters,” Langhofer said in his letter.
Langhofer said GSA officials had engaged in “unlawful conduct” by handing all the communications over to Mueller’s team, and that it represented a breach of transition team officials’ Fourth Amendment rights, which protect against unreasonable searches and seizures. He added that they found out about the GSA’s “unauthorized disclosures” to Mueller’s team on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We understand that the special counsel’s office has subsequently made extensive use of the materials it obtained from the GSA, including materials that are susceptible to privilege claims,” Langhofer’s letter said.
According to Axios, the transition team plans to send a letter to Mueller claiming that some of the emails are privileged and should be returned. In turn, per Axios, the transition team is willing to provide Mueller with emails that have been properly vetted.
“What they did is totally illegal, and they need to fix it,” a transition team source told the news website.
Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in a statement Saturday that given Trump’s lawyers’ claims that they are fully cooperating with Mueller, “it is odd that they now suggest they would have withheld key documents from federal investigators.”
Mueller’s office and the GSA push back
Mueller’s spokesman, Peter Carr, pushed back on Langhofer’s claim Saturday night, telling CNN: “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”
That was echoed by Lenny Loewentritt, the GSA deputy counsel whom Langhofer blames in the letter for deviating from assurances that Richard Beckler, the former GSA general counsel, made to the Trump campaign.
According to Langhofer, Beckler told the transition team that it “owned and controlled” all its emails, and that any requests for transition team records would be routed through the campaign’s legal representative.
Beckler was hospitalized in August and has since died. “Career GSA staff, working with Mr. Loewentritt and at the direction of the FBI, immediately produced all the materials requested by the Special Counsel’s Office – and without notifying TFA or filtering or redacting privileged material,” Langhofer continued in the letter.
But Loewentritt disputed Langhofer’s claims in an interview with BuzzFeed News, telling the outlet that Beckler never agreed to that. Loewentritt also said that transition team members were informed that any materials they produced using government systems could be turned over to law enforcement.
Legal experts told Business Insider on Saturday that it was common for prosecutors to get a hold of relevant documents from a third-party, and that Mueller may not have even needed a subpoena or a court order. An administrative request – a legally authorized and judicially enforceable demand for records issued by a government authority – may have sufficed.
Langhofer’s letter to Congress appeared to confirm that Mueller’s office obtained the emails via an administrative request.
“Specifically, on August 23, 2017, the FBI sent a letter (i.e., not a subpoena) to career GSA staff requesting copies of the emails, laptops, cell phones, and other materials associated with nine [transition team] members responsible for national security and policy matters,” the letter said.
Loewentritt told BuzzFeed that though the GSA first suggested that a warrant or subpoena be issued for the emails, Mueller’s office determined that an administrative request was sufficient.
- Aaron Bernstein/Reuters
By outlining his grievances against Mueller in the letter to Congress, Langhofer was likely sending a public signal to Republicans wary of Mueller’s investigation.
Axios reported Sunday that conservative lawmakers who have been raising doubts about the special counsel are gearing up to argue that if the transition team’s emails were illegally obtained, that could indicate the investigation has been tainted.
Trump’s allies in the far-right and right-wing media have ramped up calls in recent weeks that Mueller’s investigation is infected with anti-Trump bias and political corruption. That argument has since trickled into mainstream conservatives’ playbook as well, with many lawmakers questioning the special counsel’s objectivity.
“I have a lot of admiration and respect for Director Mueller, but I would think he would want to eliminate challenges to the integrity of his investigation by eliminating agents who have taken positions, either in text messages or through their political activity, that undermine the integrity of the results of the investigation,” Sen. Majority Whip John Cornyn told ABC’s “This Week.”
Cornyn additionally called for Mueller to “clean house of partisans” on Saturday.
During a House Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month, in which FBI director Chris Wray was testifying, Republican Rep. Steve Chabot called “the depths of this anti-Trump bias” on the special counsel’s team “absolutely shocking.”
“The question really is, if Mueller was doing such a great job on investigating the Russian collusion, why could he have not found the conflict of interest within their own agency?” asked Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina.
Democrats have warned that Trump firing Mueller would trigger swift backlash, and add to the growing obstruction of justice case against the president.