Democrats say Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner used WhatsApp to contact foreign leaders

Mr Jared Kushner is a senior White House adviser and the son-in-law of President Donald Trump, overseeing the administration's Middle East policies among other issues.
Mr Jared Kushner is a senior White House adviser and the son-in-law of President Donald Trump, overseeing the administration's Middle East policies among other issues.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - A key House Democrat is renewing demands that the White House turn over documents about the use of private texts or e-mails by Mr Jared Kushner, saying Mr Kushner's lawyer acknowledged that the senior aide used the non-secure WhatsApp application to communicate with foreign leaders.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Elijah Cummings said in a letter sent on Thursday (March 21) to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone that the administration has failed to produce documents tied to Mr Kushner and other officials despite requests from the committee since 2017. Mr Cummings also sought a briefing on how the official messages are being preserved.

Mr Kushner's lawyer, Mr Abbe David Lowell, disputed Mr Cummings' description of what Mr Lowell said during a December meeting with oversight panel leaders. In a letter to Mr Cummings on Thursday, Mr Lowell said he told the leaders he did not know any details about Mr Kushner's use of a private communications application, and that he told them to ask the White House counsel about it.

"I never said his communications through any app was with foreign 'leaders' or 'officials'," Mr Lowell wrote, adding that Mr Kushner has many friends and contacts overseas.

"I said he has used those communications with 'some people' and I did not specify who they were," Mr Lowell said.

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But in another stand-off with House Democrats, Mr Cipollone on Thursday rejected a request renewed last week from Mr Cummings and two other committee chairmen for information on President Donald Trump's communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

WHATSAPP

Mr Cummings, to underscore his concern about whether unsecured White House communications have included classified information, said in his letter that Mr Lowell acknowledged during the December meeting that Mr Kushner had used WhatsApp to communicate with foreign leaders.

Mr Kushner is a senior White House adviser and the son-in-law of President Trump, overseeing the administration's Middle East policies among other issues. Mr Cummings said he and then-Oversight chairman Trey Gowdy, a Republican who has since retired from Congress, met Mr Lowell in December.

 
 
 

Mr Cummings's letter said Mr Lowell said that Mr Kushner has been in compliance with the law, and that he takes "screenshots" of communications on his private WhatsApp account and forwards them to his official White House e-mail account or to the National Security Council.

Mr Cummings wrote that when asked whether Mr Kushner ever used WhatsApp to discuss classified information, Mr Lowell replied: "That's above my pay grade."

The focus on Mr Kushner and others follows the earlier investigations by the Justice Department and Republican-controlled congressional committees of Mrs Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server when she served as secretary of state during the Obama administration.

'ALTERNATIVE MEANS'

In Thursday's letter, Mr Cummings said the White House's refusal to turn over documents is "obstructing the committee's investigation into allegations of violations of federal records laws" and potential breaches of national security. He demanded that the White House say by March 28 whether it intends to comply voluntarily with the renewed requests.

"If you continue to withhold these documents from the committee, we will be forced to consider alternative means to obtain compliance," Mr Cummings said.

"In fact, as you know, the White House has not produced a single piece of paper to the committee in the 116th Congress - in this or any other investigation," Mr Cummings wrote, referring to the current session of Congress, when Democrats took control of the House.

Mr Cummings said Mr Lowell told the committee that Mr Kushner's wife, Ms Ivanka Trump, continues to receive e-mails related to official business on her personal e-mail account but does not forward them to an official account unless she replies to it. That would appear to violate the Presidential Records Act, Mr Cummings said.

Mr Lowell said, in his letter, that the discussion of Ms Trump not forwarding e-mails to an official account unless she responded to them referred to the time period before September 2017.

"Now she always forwards official business to her White House account," Mr Lowell said he told the committee leaders in December.

K.T. MCFARLAND

Mr Cummings also wrote that his committee has obtained new information about other White House officials that raises additional security and federal records concerns about the use of private e-mail and messaging applications.

 
 

His letter said others may have been involved in the practice while they worked at the White House, including former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland and former chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Mr Cummings said the committee obtained a document that "appears" to show that Ms McFarland conducted official business on her personal e-mail account. He said the document was related to efforts by Ms McFarland and other White House officials to transfer sensitive US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia "in coordination with Tom Barrack, a personal friend of President Trump and the chairman of President Trump's inaugural committee".

The chairman said another document appeared to show that Mr Bannon received documents "pitching the plan from Mr Barrack through his personal e-mail account", at a time Mr Bannon was at the White House and working on broader Middle East policy.

Regarding Mr Trump's communications with Mr Putin, Mr Cummings, House Intelligence chairman Adam Schiff and Foreign Affairs chairman Eliot Engel say they are examining the substance of in-person meetings and phone calls, the effects on foreign policy, and whether anyone has sought to conceal those communications.

In a written response on Thursday, Mr Cipollone wrote: "While we respectfully seek to accommodate appropriate oversight requests, we are unaware of any precedent supporting such sweeping requests."

The Constitution gives the executive branch exclusive power to conduct foreign relations, Mr Cipollone said.

"Congress cannot require the president to disclose confidential communications with foreign leaders."

In a joint statement on Thursday night, Mr Cummings, Mr Engel and Mr Schiff said that the Obama administration had "produced records describing the president and secretary of state's calls with foreign leaders".

The congressmen added that "President Trump's decision to break with this precedent raises the question of what he has to hide".