The Trump Transition Team Emails—Everyone Has It Wrong

Political pundits disagree about whether Robert Mueller “illegally” obtained thousands of Trump transition-related emails from the U.S. General Services Administration (or the “GSA”).   Each pundit’s opinion predictably falls along political lines: Pro-Trump pundits argue that Mr. Mueller acted “illegally”, while anti-Trump pundits defend Mr. Mueller’s actions with equal but opposite vigor.

Listen up: This issue has nothing to do with Mr. Mueller.  Nothing.  Nada.  And anyone who focuses on Mr. Mueller is missing the issue entirely—or, perhaps (and more likely) trying to make a political issue out of something that is inherently non-political.

The real issue involves privacy and the GSA.  More specifically, the question is whether the Trump transition team had any reasonable right to privacy in its emails that were both administered by the GSA and stored on GSA-owned equipment.  (Spoiler alert: No right to privacy existed.)  If the transition team didn’t have a right to privacy in its emails (again, read my spoiler above), then the GSA would have been well within its rights to release those emails to any investigatory agency—including  Mr. Mueller’s team.  No warrant required.  No formality required.  No Jacket Required.  (Ok, that was a Phil Collins reference.  I’m just making sure you’re still reading).

I’m going to cut through the political haze and tell it to you straight: If you (or Mr. Trump, or his transition team) store your email on a third party’s computer servers, and if that third party does not provide you with any guarantee of privacy, then generally that third party is free to disclose your information to law enforcement if requested to do so.  Again, no warrant required.

In this case, the GSA was in control of the Trump transition team’s emails.  Unless there was some agreement between the GSA and the Trump transition team that granted the transition team privacy in its emails—something that general counsel for the GSA has expressly denied–the GSA was under no obligation to keep the Trump team’s emails private, and did nothing wrong by turning them over to Mr. Mueller’s investigators.

Now, some pundits say that the disclosure of the emails violated the Presidential Transition Act of 1963.  To those pundits I ask, have you read the Act?  I have.  It has nothing to do with privacy.  All it says, in relevant part, is that the GSA is authorized to provide a presidential transition team with communication services.  (Want to read it yourself? Click here.  No privacy rights are guaranteed, provided, or required under that Act.)

Other pundits say that the disclosure violated the Stored Communications Act.  To those pundits I again ask, have you read the Act?  I have.  That Act only applies to stored electronic communications held by third-party internet service providers, and the GSA is not an internet service provider.  ‘Nuff said.

Not convinced yet?  Let me break it down for you another way.  Let’s say you give your buddy a manuscript and you tell him to hang on to it for a few days.  A short time later, the police ask your friend if you gave him your manuscript.  Your buddy replies, “yes.”  Then they ask your friend, “Mind if we take a look?”  Your friend says, “Sure, here you go,” and hands your manuscript over to the cops.  Have the cops done anything wrong?  No.  Has your friend broken the law?  No.  Might you be disappointed that he did that?  Sure enough—but that’s life.

Folks, this is not even a close call—this is settled law, which is being muddled by facts spun by political pundits with transparent agendas.  Enough already—let’s focus on the content of those emails and the merits of the investigation, and not the legal means by which the emails were obtained.