Frustrated with West Wing aides’ rampant use of personal communications devices for official business, former chief of staff Reince Priebus tried over the summer to stop — or at least limit — the practice.
During a July senior staff meeting, Priebus asked aides to either store their personal phones in secure lockers in the White House or leave them at home during the workday, according to people who attended. The administration subsequently installed additional lockers, typically found only outside secure rooms, in the West Wing, as part of an effort to force aides to use their White House accounts for communications.
But the request was largely ignored, according to six current and former administration officials, advisers and others who correspond with the White House. Aides laughed about Priebus’ request, and senior officials — including Priebus — continued to use their personal phones for phone calls, text messages and emails for White House matters.
Now, as congressional committees launch investigations into Jared Kushner’s use of a private email account to sometimes conduct government business, more information is emerging about the widespread nature of West Wing aides’ reliance on private devices — a controversial practice that raises record-keeping, cybersecurity and political concerns.
A number of top aides, including Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, and Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, have also maintained private email accounts from which they have occasionally corresponded with other White House officials and Cabinet members.
Ivanka Trump’s account was set up with her husband, Jared Kushner, last December on a family email account, according to public records, while Cohn created a private account in December before joining the White House.
Former chief strategist Steve Bannon and Priebus have also used personal email accounts to occasionally email about government matters, according to people familiar with their correspondence.
Kushner and Ivanka Trump used a domain called IJKFamily.com, and Cohn used a domain named CohnOffice.com. Bannon was said to use a private domain from a previous job, while Priebus used a Gmail account.
People close to Kushner said Monday that Kushner never used a transition or campaign email account, instead relying on his real estate company’s account for political and business emails as he helped manage his father-in-law’s campaign.
Kushner decided to create the personal account and domain last December, shortly before he was named to a formal White House role, according to these people. He mainly uses the account to message family members including his father, a real estate tycoon in New York, his lawyer and some friends and acquaintances, these people said.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that aides were frequently warned about using private email accounts.
“To my knowledge, it’s very limited,” Sanders said during the press briefing.
In a later statement to POLITICO, Sanders said: “All White House personnel have been instructed to use official email to conduct all government related work. They are further instructed that if they receive work-related communication on personal accounts, they should be forwarded to official email accounts.”
No one in the White House has been accused of sharing classified or sensitive material on personal email accounts. And no officials have exclusively used a private email for government work as Hillary Clinton did as secretary of state, according to White House officials and others with knowledge of the correspondence.
Trump has been a harsh critic of Clinton’s email practices, leading chants of “lock her up” during campaign rallies as recently as last weekend in Alabama.
A top House Republican investigator on Monday demanded details on any senior aides to Trump who have used private email addresses or encrypted software for government business. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, along with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, called for the White House to disclose by Oct. 9 the names of any top administration officials who use a private email address for government work and to identify any accounts or cellphone numbers that may have been used to transmit encrypted messages.
POLITICO reported in February that administration lawyers and then-press secretary Sean Spicer admonished staff members that using encrypted messaging apps like Confide or Signal would be a violation of the Presidential Records Act.
House Democratic investigators earlier Monday said they intended to probe Kushner’s use of a private email address, a development that threatens to escalate the Russia-related controversies already surrounding President Donald Trump’s son-in-law.
Cummings sent a separate letter to Kushner, a White House senior adviser, asking him to preserve all his personal emails. The Maryland Democrat also suggested he will eventually request copies of all work correspondence that passed through Kushner’s personal account.
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist and former campaign manager for Sen. Marco Rubio, said criticism from the right may have been muted because Kushner’s defense seemed plausible. And, he said, in 2017, many people understand that communications happen via text, apps or other ways.
“The optics of this aren’t great, and I assume you’ll see these accounts shut down and people transition over to their official accounts,” he said.