Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., demanded information on GSA's handling of the document request.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., demanded information on GSA's handling of the document request. Susan Walsh/AP

Senator Expresses Concern About GSA Handing Over Transition Emails to Mueller Probe

Johnson demands documents, citing agency’s “failure” to honor privacy while helping Mueller probe.

The attorney for the Trump for America organization won a powerful ally on Tuesday in his challenge to the General Services Administration’s decision to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of ties with Russia by turning over emails from the Trump presidential transition.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, sent a letter to newly installed GSA Administrator Emily Murphy demanding agency documents on relations with transition teams and training of staff on related privacy issues.

“An incoming administration must be ready to govern on day one,” the chairman wrote. “Any threat to the close coordination between the transition and outgoing administration could create vulnerabilities to governance, readiness and national security.”

Last Friday, Kory Langhofer, counsel to the nonprofit organization Trump for America, wrote to Johnson and House counterpart Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., seeking congressional action to counter GSA’s “unlawful” accession to a request from Mueller for tens of thousands of emails from Trump transition operations without alerting the Trump for America group. Calling the documents “private materials” and “privileged,” Langhofer accused Mueller of knowing that GSA “did not control” the documents. The FBI also took cellphones, laptops and iPads from the transition.

Johnson backed the Trump for America position—one not shared by GSA’s acting general counsel and many legal specialists who commented—saying, “These allegations raise concerns that GSA personnel disregarded federal statutes governing presidential transitions, thereby potentially undermining the framework for future presidential transitions.”

Johnson repeated the Trump team’s points that a presidential transition is a private nonprofit and not an agency, saying, “GSA acts merely as a facilitator of office space, supplies, and services.” The agency “does not have authority over the transition’s operations, its employees, or its records,” Johnson wrote.

The acting GSA counsel, the letter argued, “allegedly did not review the material for privilege or relevancy before providing records to the Special Counsel’s Office.  In addition, according to the allegations, the Special Counsel’s Office failed to implement methods—such as ‘taint teams’ or ‘ethics walls’—to protect any privileged material” when it turned over the documents on request, rather than in response to any subpoena or search warrant. 

He warned that GSA’s actions “could discourage future transitions from trusting GSA to secure its confidential information.”

The chairman asked that GSA officials, by Jan. 2, provide a description of steps taken to “determine the appropriateness of providing privileged TFA documents to the Special Counsel’s Office, including the identity of the GSA staff member who authorized the production of TFA documents to the Special Counsel’s Office, and the identity of the GSA staff member designated as the Federal Transition Coordinator.”

Johnson is also seeking the memorandum of understanding between Trump for America and GSA for executing the transition; descriptions of training or guidance for GSA staff on transition team privacy; and communications between GSA, the Justice Department, and the office of the Special Counsel. It also asked for “all documents and communications between GSA employees or contractors referring or relating to the production of records generated during the presidential transition for President-elect Donald J. Trump.”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who serves on Johnson’s committee, doesn’t agree with the chairman, his aide said. “What Special Counsel Mueller is trying to get at is the truth,” Carper said in a statement to Government Executive. “The American people need to know the truth. It’s imperative that Mueller and the team he’s leading have what they need to complete their investigation.”