- Thomson Reuters
- An attorney for President Donald Trump’s transition team said he did not confront special counsel Robert Mueller or the General Services Administration before complaining about them in a letter to Congress, which was then leaked to Fox News.
- The attorney said the transition team’s lawyers “will take up our issues with the Special Counsel’s Office and the GSA in due course.”
- Legal experts said the move seemed like an attempt to feed calls to fire or discredit Mueller.
An attorney for President Donald Trump’s transition team said on Sunday he hadn’t directly confronted special counsel Robert Mueller or the General Services Administration, despite alleging in a letter to Congress that they engaged in inappropriate behavior.
The attorney, Kory Langhofer, accused Mueller in the letter – which was provided to Fox News on Saturday – of violating Trump for America [TFA] employees’ fourth amendment rights by obtaining emails hosted on GSA servers without first informing the transition team lawyers.
Asked why he wrote the letter to Congress rather than to Mueller and the GSA, Langhofer replied: “Congress needs to make sure this never happens again. We’ll take up our issues with the Special Counsel’s Office and the GSA in due course.”
Trump for America plans to ask Mueller in a letter to return “thousands of emails” it says are privileged, Axios reported on Sunday.
But Langhofer said the organization’s request to Congress “concerns legislation that would prevent abuses in the future. We’re not asking them to intervene in the Mueller matter; that’s obviously not their job.”
Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti said the letter, and the fact that it was sent to Congress rather than to Mueller, looked like a PR stunt.
“Instead of sending a letter to Mueller, the attorneys sent a letter to Congress,” he wrote on Saturday. “Why? Probably to try to feed the growing effort to fire Mueller and/or try to discredit him to Congressional Republicans.”
“The content of the letter makes clear it’s a PR stunt,” Mariotti said in a later email. “The fact that he is complaining to Congress instead of Mueller helps confirm it.”
A Republican aide to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee – which received the letter from Langhofer along with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee – told The Washington Post on Sunday that the issues raised by Langhofer would be taken “under advisement.”
- Thomson Reuters
Langhofer claimed in his letter that the Trump transition team’s emails were private property and in, some cases, contained privileged communications. By going around the team’s lawyers and obtaining the emails from the GSA directly, he argued, Mueller had bypassed the process by which emails would be vetted before being handed over to the special counsel.
“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 wrote.
Many legal experts were quick to push back against that argument, claiming that the Trump transition team’s use of .gov email addresses – which were hosted on GSA’s servers – meant they should not have had any reasonable expectation of privacy.
Former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer put it bluntly: “This is not a problem,” he said on Saturday.
“The server owner, in this case GSA, properly has the emails and can turn them over if there was a subpoena or court order,” he said, in the same way that internet providers and banks can provide emails and records about clients to law enforcement.
The Trump transition team signed a memorandum of understanding with the GSA that was obtained by the legal watchdog group American Oversight in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
That memo was signed in August by TFA’s executive director Richard Bagger, a former chief of staff to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
- Alex Wong/Getty Images
It is not clear whether that was the only agreement TFA employees signed – a top GSA attorney, Lenny Loewentritt, told BuzzFeed on Saturday that anyone using GSA materials during the transition had to sign a series of agreements, including some that stipulated the devices could be monitored.
“Therefore, no expectation of privacy can be assumed,” Loewentritt told BuzzFeed.
A lawyer involved with the transition team’s complaints said “the wording of the disclaimers at issue is contradictory and equivocal,” but told Business Insider in a text message he did not have the disclaimer language on hand “at the moment.”
The GSA’s Rules of Behavior for Handling Personally Identifiable Information state that “a system manager may disclose your record without your consent under the Privacy Act when the disclosure is to a US law enforcement agency or instrumentality for a civil or criminal law enforcement purpose.”
But the lawyer, who requested anonymity to discuss the organization’s legal arguments, was not convinced.
“So their policy handbook, for GSA employees (not PTT personnel), trumps the Fourth Amendment? Not persuasive,” he said. The lawyer claimed that the transition team’s “individual expectations” or privacy do not apply because they “are different from TFA’s organizational/leadership expectations, which are separately protected.”
In any case, he added, “the subsequent statements from the GSA’s general counsel supersede any questions about privacy that existed when the records were created, at least for TFA as an organization.”
According to Langhofer, former GSA general counsel Richard Beckler told the transition team that it “owned and controlled” all of 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. But Loewentritt, the GSA attorney, told BuzzFeed that Beckler “never made that commitment.”