At this point, there is little doubt that President Trump has been met with unprecedented opposition at almost every turn both before and during his presidency. Unfortunately, it has been revealed that his transition team process was met with the same kind of resistance.
Republicans, led by Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee as well as the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance Majority Staff released a majority staff report on Friday documenting extensive, corrupted processes with regard to the records of Trump transition team.
How the GSA and FBI Undermined the Presidential Transition Process by secretly sharing private Trump transition records with the Mueller Team ????
— CiceroConsultancy (@CiceroConsulta1) October 24, 2020
The Executive Summary elucidates the significance and scope of the abuse. During this process, the “presumption of good faith” is key. A memorandum of understanding is signed between the General Services Administration (GSA) and the transition team for the president and vice president. That agreement lays out the logistics and dispatch of documents, equipment, and records. The GSA did, indeed, agree to terms with the Trump administration and one of those terms was that the records that “were the transition teams private property would not be retained at the conclusion of the transition.” Unfortunately, those terms were breached:
“Instead, on February 15, 2017, after GSA officials saw news reports about the resignation of then-national security advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the GSA proactively contacted the FBI about preserving all remaining Trump transition team records. After conferring with the FBI, the GSA immediately began to preserve those records. Notably, around that same time, GSA officials also decided that they would not inform either the White House or the Trump transition team about the decision to preserve records contrary to the express terms of the memorandum of understanding. Regardless of the propriety of preserving all remaining transition records because of concerns regarding one former transition official, the decision not to inform the Trump transition team–the lawful owner of those records–deprived that team of the opportunity to make timely and meaningful decisions about how to protect its interests in those records.”
Emails in February of 2017 between GSA’s Senior Assistant General Counsel Seth Greenfeld and IT lead, Erik Simmons, indicate that the “‘White House Counsel’s Office is aware’ that the GSA continued to store GSA equipment containing Trump transition records.” However, the investigating committee could not “determine when or how the GSA informed White House Counsel about the preservation of transition team records and whether that awareness included the full range and scope of the several different preservation requests from the FBI.”
Furthermore, an email from GSA official Aimee Whiteman to Simmons and Greenfeld asked, “‘Any responsibility for us to inform the [White House] that this request has been made? I ask because their understanding of the situation is that everything gets deleted/destroyed when equipment is turned in and the transition ends.’ Mr. Greenfeld replied, ‘At this time, I would recommend against briefing anyone at the White House.’” The General Counsel for the IG was also made aware of his “position” at the time.
On April 11, 2017, Trump for America Counsel, Kory Langhofer, contacted the GSA for “possible preservation of certain Trump for America records.” He was told by GSA official Anne Marie Davis, that they would not delete any information from the date of his request through the following Monday. However, what Ms. Davis did not share was that the GSA was already preserving all transition team records. This led Mr. Langhofer to falsely believe that the GSA was “destroying Trump for America Records pursuant to the terms of the memorandum of understanding, even though GSA decided two months early to preserve all remaining Trump for American records.” Mr. Simmons also later told Mr. Langhofer the GSA “‘had wiped 80% of the hardware…'” Thus, he willfully “misled its counsel by suggesting that the destruction of records …was ongoing and nearly complete.”
Regrettably, there were multiple and ongoing instances of officials misleading Mr. Langhofer and the transition team about wiping devices and deleting records. Requests were stonewalled and copies of records significantly delayed. For example, in mid-May 2017, the Trump transition team requested copies of its own records. However, it wasn’t until 5 weeks later that the team received their copies. Furthermore, the team would not learn of the production of those records to the FBI or to Special Counsel Robert Mueller until late 2017. “Finally, in August 2017, the Special Counsel’s office requested and received access to the transition records for 13 transition officials, four of whom were then-current officials in the Trump administration, including then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Jared Kushner.” For months, the transition team was kept in the dark regarding the sharing of their own private records.
In addition, throughout August, Assistant General Counsel Kevin Clinesmith sent several memoranda requesting records to be provided to the FBI for transition officials, including Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, Stephen Bannon, and Marshall Billingslea. However, the Committees discovered that there was “only one court-ordered disclosure of records…related to the transition records of Lt. General Flynn, K.T. McFarland, Michael Flynn’s son, and Daniel Gelbinovich.” In other words, while there was back and forth discussion of subpoenas and legal procedures among GSA and FBI officials, the Committee could not find any evidence of the FBI having actually followed the proper legal processes to obtain records for the majority of the individuals requested-nor was there any follow-through by the GSA to ensure legal compliance.
The manipulative actions by the GSA and the FBI cast significant doubt on their ability to be a “neutral provider of services” for incoming administrations. In response to the malfeasance detailed above, Congress “has enacted one piece of legislation to address these issues.” However, it is important to note that a principal reason the committees investigated the GSA was to provide transparency- with the purpose of “[s]hining a light on how the process was corrupted against the Trump transition team” with the hope that “areas of weakness” could be corrected as well as a “stark warning so that it will never happen again.”