Key Officials Push Back Against Trump Campaign’s Claim That A Federal Office Illegally Turned Over Emails To Special Counsel
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, a senior lawyer with the GSA disputed the Trump campaign's assertions about the decision to turn over emails written during the presidential transition to the Mueller investigation. The Special Counsel's Office pushed back as well.
A lawyer for the Trump transition team on Saturday accused a federal agency of illegally and unconstitutionally turning over thousands of emails to the Special Counsel's Office.
Specifically, the General Services Administration (GSA) turned over emails written during the transition — the period between Election Day 2016 and Inauguration Day 2017 — and the Trump campaign is claiming in a letter that the decision to do so violated the law.
Officials with both the Special Counsel's Office and GSA, however, pushed back against the Trump campaign lawyer's claims in the hours after the letter was issued.
The GSA — which is responsible under law for providing the presidential transition with office space, supplies like phones and laptops, and "ptt.gov" emails — was instructed after President Trump had taken office to preserve records from the transition in connection with ongoing investigations.
In the seven-page letter, which was sent to congressional committee leaders on Saturday, a lawyer for the Trump campaign, Kory Langhofer, wrote, "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."
According to the letter, the Mueller investigation requested, in a pair of August letters, "the emails, laptops, cell phones, and other materials" for nine transition team members working on "national security and policy matters" and four other "senior" transition team members.
Langhofer argues in the letter that the decision by GSA officials went against what he calls "the GSA's previous acknowledgement concerning" the Trump campaign's "rightful ownership and control of" transition team materials.
Langhofer claims the production of transition materials to the Special Counsel's Office by GSA violated "GSA's duties to" the Trump campaign, a Presidential Transition Act requirement that "computers or communications services" to the transition team be "secure," and the Fourth Amendment. (At the same time, however, Langhofer makes clear he believes the current law should be changed "to protect future presidential transitions from having their private records misappropriated by government agencies.")
The letter also makes a specific claim about communication between the government and the campaign — that Richard Beckler, then the general counsel of the GSA, "acknowledged unequivocally to [the Trump campaign's] legal counsel" in a June 15 discussion that the Trump campaign "owned and controlled" emails, and that "any requests for the production of PTT [Presidential Transition Team] records would therefore be routed to legal counsel for [the Trump campaign]."
Langhofer puts much of the blame for the move on a career government employee, GSA Deputy Counsel Lenny Loewentritt, who he says was present for those assurances. (Beckler "was hospitalized and incapacitated" in August, according to the letter, 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 — without notifying TFA [Trump for America] or filtering or redacting privileged material," Langhofer writes.
In a phone interview with BuzzFeed News on Saturday night, Loewentritt — whose LinkedIn represents that he has worked at the agency since 1972 — disputed the claims made in the letter sent by the Trump campaign.
"Beckler never made that commitment," he said of the claim that any requests for transition records would be routed to the Trump campaign's counsel.
Specifically, Loewentritt said, "in using our devices," transition team members were informed that materials "would not be held back in any law enforcement" actions.
Loewentritt read to BuzzFeed News a series of agreements that anyone had to agree to when using GSA materials during the transition, including that there could be monitoring and auditing of devices and that, "Therefore, no expectation of privacy can be assumed."
Loewentritt told BuzzFeed News that the GSA initially "suggested a warrant or subpoena" for the materials, but that the Special Counsel's Office determined the letter route was sufficient.
As to whether the Trump campaign should have been informed of the request, Loewentritt said, "That's between the Special Counsel and the transition team."
Asked about Langhofer's letter and Loewentritt's statements — and after publication of this story — a spokesperson for the Special Counsel's Office, Peter Carr, told BuzzFeed News, “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.”
This story was updated with comment from the Special Counsel's Office.