A lawyer with US President Donald Trump‘s transition team has accused the special counsel that is probing alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election of illegally obtaining “tens of thousands” of emails during its investigation.
Kory Langhofer, counsel for Trump for America, Inc (TFA), submitted a letter to the primary Senate and House oversight committees on Thursday, outlining how “career staff at the General Services Administration (GSA) … unlawfully produced TFA’s private materials, including privileged communications, to the special counsel’s office”.
The GSA is responsible for managing and supporting federal agencies.
In the letter, published by Politico, Langhofer argued that the special counsel’s office “was aware that the GSA did not own or control the records in question” and that the documents and “tens of thousands of emails” have been “extensively used” during the investigation.
The letter and accusations have been swiftly discounted by Democrats and other legal experts as an attempt to discredit the Russia-Trump investigation.
So far, four people, including Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, have been charged as part of the investigation.
Langhofer maintains that although the TFA undertakes “executive or quasi-executive functions … they are not federal agencies” and therefore their communications are private and some are “privileged”.
The lawyer said the TFA had learned of the disclosure last week.
According to the letter, the FBI requested the copies of the emails, laptops, mobile phones and other materials associated with nine transition members “responsible for national security and policy matters” on August 23.
Langhofer requested that “Congress act immediately to protect future presidential transitions from having their private records misappropriated by government agencies”.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel’s office, said in a statement to Reuters news agency that “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”.
The GSA had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment at the time of publication.
Democrats and other legal experts have criticised the letter, saying the accusations are another attempt to “smear the Mueller investigation”.
Courts generally unwilling to find reasonable right to privacy for .gov emails. Also, since Trump lawyers don't know what leads Mueller is investigating, they won't know which emails may be important. This seems like another desperate attempt to smear the Mueller investigation. https://t.co/Z8o64Q6q6E
— Ted Lieu (@tedlieu) December 17, 2017
Former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti tweeted that it is not “inappropriate or even unusual” for prosecutors to obtain emails from a third party.
Of course Mueller obtained emails from a third party. Prosecutors in most white collar criminal investigations do that. It’s not “inappropriate” or even unusual. Anyone who claims otherwise has no idea what they’re talking about. https://t.co/1JKNobvKJd
— Renato Mariotti (@renato_mariotti) December 16, 2017
Congressman Eric Swalwell, a Democrat from California, questioned how “private documents” can be kept on a government email system.
He tweeted: “‘Private documents’ on a US government public email system? What are they afraid was found? Baloney. This is another attempt to discredit Mueller as his #TrumpRussia probe tightens.”
“Private documents” on a US Government, public email system? What are they afraid was found? Baloney. This is another attempt to discredit Mueller as his #TrumpRussia probe tightens. https://t.co/VZTkwiGmoB… https://t.co/q0HTbwpQRK
— Rep. Eric Swalwell (@RepSwalwell) December 16, 2017
Norm Eisen, who worked as a lawyer on former President Barack Obama’s transition team in 2008, said he warned “everyone” within his team that “there is NO expectation of privacy in … transition emails”, adding that the “clue [is] emails are ‘name [at] ptt.gov’.
He also tweeted: “Executive privilege does not apply until you are the executive; these documents are from the transition, before Trump became the executive [demonstrating] no executive privilege.”
I was the Deputy GC of a Transition (Obama-Biden 08). I warned everyone: there is NO expectation of privacy in your transition emails. The clue: emails are "firstname.lastname@example.org." The whining letter from the Trump Transition tacitly admits this: it ends by asking for a legislative fix https://t.co/RfBJPSMmlt
— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) December 17, 2017
Trump and the White House have repeatedly said that “absolutely no collusion” has taken place nor has been proven by Mueller’s investigation.
Former National Security Advisor Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI earlier this month in relation to his contact with the Russian ambassador just before Trump took office.
He is said to be cooperating with Mueller’s team.
George Papadopoulos, an adviser during the campaign, also pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI in October.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and his business associate Rick Gates, were charged with 12 counts, including conspiracy against the US, money laundering and other financial charges, as part of the investigation. They pleaded not guilty in October.