Republicans have been accused of trying to discredit Trump-Russia investigator Robert Mueller by inventing a claim that his inquiry inappropriately gained access to emails from the president’s transition team.
The complaint from the Trump for America group comes a day after a warning from Adam Schiff, a senior Democrat, that top Republicans are manoeuvring to shut down the House intelligence committee’s Trump–Russia inquiry and weaken Mueller. Some reports suggest Donald Trump is considering firing Mueller, whom he appointed as special counsel to oversee the FBI and justice department investigation of contacts between the Russian government and Trump’s election campaign.
On Saturday it emerged that Mueller’s investigation has gained access to thousands of emails sent and received by officials on Donald Trump’s transition team, which operated between his election and swearing-in.
Kory Langhofer, general counsel for the transition group, has written to the Republican chairs of the House oversight committee and the Senate homeland security committee about what the transition contends was an “unauthorized” disclosure of its emails by the General Services Administration (GSA).
The GSA is a government agency that has supported presidential transitions in recent years and typically houses electronic transition records in its computer system. The transition team says the GSA did not get its permission to hand over the emails.
But Eric Swalwell, a Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said: “This is another attempt to discredit Mueller as his Trump–Russia probe tightens.
“‘Private documents’ on a US government, public email system? What are they afraid was found? Baloney.”
In a series of tweets, Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, said the Republicans were “playing politics – but this is a bad sign for them”.
“Of course Mueller obtained emails from a third party,” he said. “Prosecutors in most white collar criminal investigations do that. It’s not ‘inappropriate’ or even unusual. Anyone who claims otherwise has no idea what they’re talking about.”
In an interview with Buzzfeed News, the GSA deputy counsel, Lenny Loewentritt, said the Trump transition team were told when they were given access to GSA facilities that any material “would not be held back in any law enforcement” situation. “Therefore, no expectation of privacy can be assumed.”
A spokesperson for Mueller told Buzzfeed: “When we have obtained emails in the course of our ongoing criminal investigation, we have secured either the account owner’s consent or appropriate criminal process.”
Among the officials who used transition email accounts was former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to a count of making false statements to FBI agents in January and is now cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. Flynn was fired by Trump in February for misleading senior administration officials about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the US.
On Friday, Trump added to perceptions he is trying to undermine Mueller’s investigation by declining to rule out a pardon for Flynn.
It’s unclear how revelatory the email accounts maintained by the GSA will be for Mueller. Several high-level Trump advisers sometimes used other email accounts to communicate about transition issues between election day and the inauguration.
Jay Sekulow, an attorney on Trump’s personal legal team, referred questions to the transition group. Neither GSA representatives nor Flynn attorney Robert Kelner were immediately available to respond to emailed requests for comment.
The media site Axios first reported on the transfer of the emails to Mueller’s team.