Was it wrong for Melania Trump to use her private email for White House business?
- Melania Trump used her private email accounts instead of her White House email to discuss government business according to Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, her senior adviser from 2017 to 2018. In the emails, she discussed government contracts, schedules for Israeli and Japanese state visits, the Be Best initiative, the White House Easter Egg Roll, and presidential inauguration finances.
- During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump leveraged the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server usage during her time as secretary of state under President Barack Obama.
- “A first lady is not a federal employee and not subject to the same law as those working for the President or vice president restricting the use of a personal email account to conduct official government business.”
- Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff’s new book, was published on Tuesday. In her “Trump tell-all,” she provides revealing details of the First Lady during her time in the White House.
The use of personal email accounts for government business is a 'legal grey area,' but as pointed out by Michael D. Pepson and Daniel Z. Epstein in regards to an older, unrelated case, 'Until Congress or the courts definitively clarify whether these work-related communications are subject to FOIA's disclosure provisions, a dangerous loophole enabling unscrupulous agency employees to intentionally evade the light of public scrutiny may exist.' According to former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter, 'Although a first lady is not a government official, she should be using a White House email for government business.'
Considering how much of an issue Trump made out of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server during the 2016 campaign, Melania's use of personal email certainly seems hypocritical, to say the least. Then-candidate Trump referred to the Clinton email fiasco as '[worse than Watergate]' at the time. This isn't the first time that a member of Trump's family or staff has come under scrutiny for such actions, either. In addition to a handful of aides, both Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are on that list, as is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Such open disregard for the rules seems doubly hypocritical when you further consider how Trump is campaigning as the 'law and order' candidate. As David A. Graham writes in The Atlantic, the behavior of the Trump family and their staff is that of people who 'know quite well that rules exist but are convinced that they are not bound by them.'
Melania Trump was not wrong to use her private email for White House business first and foremost because she doesn't have a security clearance. Without clearance, she doesn’t have access to classified information. Any White House business that she would be involved in or communicating about has no bearing on national security interests.
Further, Trump is not a government employee, does not receive a salary, and is not bound by the same laws and regulations that govern White House staff for official communications. However, as mentioned by Trump's spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, '...the First Lady and her staff have taken steps to meet the standard of the Presidential Records Act, relating to the preservation of records that adequately document official activities.' This act allows for the use of personal accounts.
Melania Trump's use of a personal email account is based on hearsay from her disgruntled former advisor, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff. Notably, Wolkoff's disclosure of this information is conveniently timed to coincide with the release of her book that chronicles her tenure at the White House. Wolkoff left her role in 2018 after a New York Times article revealed that her company, SWW Creative, benefited financially due to her involvement in inauguration activities. Moreover, Wolkoff has admitted that she 'secretly recorded conversations with the First Lady for her book.'
For all the reasons cited above, Melania's use of her private email for unclassified White House business falls squarely in the category of “fake news.”