In an effort to plug White House leaks, press secretary Sean Spicer checked his staff’s government-issued and personal cell phones, according to CNN and Politico, and he warned staff members that using encrypted texting apps, such as Signal and Confide, was a violation of The Presidential Records Act.
Keeping track of presidential communications in the digital age is an ever-changing challenge.
By most accounts, President Trump rarely emails. His White House staff, however, emails each other hundreds if not thousands of times a day. Each of those written communications is the property of the American public but they will remain private for five years after Trump leaves office.
Not surprisingly, there are multiple roadblocks a former president can use to stop the public from seeing his staff’s correspondence for decades to come. President Richard Nixon’s communications were kept private through legal proceedings and were only released beginning in 2007. The final tapes were made available to the public in 2013, nearly 19 years after his death.
Current White House staff members are required by law to use their official White House email accounts for all official government communication. If they use a private form of communication, such as private email or text, those must be copied or forwarded to their official government accounts within 20 days. Failure to do so is punishable by law, although no White House staffer has ever been prosecuted for failure to do so.
With widespread hacking across the federal government, executive branch employees create alternative ways to communicate with each other, thus bypassing federal requirements. Telephone calls and in-person meetings aren’t covered by the President Records Act, but any kind of written communication, old or new, is covered.
There have been recent reports that Trump White House staff has begun downloading the Confide app that erases a communication immediately after being read. That means it would be almost impossible for staff to comply with the federal law requiring them to forward those communications to their government accounts within 20 days, which is example of the law struggling to keep up with technology.
This is not the first time White House staff have found creative ways to avoid federal requirements. Former President George W. Bush’s top White House staff used personal emails to conduct much of their professional business. Those emails were housed on a private server located at the Republican National Committee. Obama White House staff also used personal emails to conduct political business and those emails were housed at the Democratic National Committee.
But, like a game a whack-a-mole, this latest effort to crack down on leaks from the White House, was leaked to the media.
Jimmy Williams is the host of the DecodeDC podcast.