Rove Got Mail
(Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
I am titillated and tantalized by the RNC mailserver (or "Mehlserver", or "Melserver", depending on your timeframe). It sits, quietly and inscrutably humming, its secrets known only to a chosen few. What mysteries are concealed there? Is there enough dirty electronic laundry in its e-hamper to bring down a President, or at least an Attorney General and Deputy Chief Of Staff? I must know! Unfortunately, I don't have subpoena power. But Henry Waxman does, and he shares my fascination with The Unknown.
The All-Seeing Eye Of Froomkin, who is a national treasure by the way, has a very thought-provoking roundup in today's column, which has, um, provoked some thoughts (emphasis added):
As John D. McKinnon writes in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "The widespread use of private email accounts by some top White House officials is sparking a congressional probe into the practice and whether it violates a post-Nixon law requiring that White House deliberations be documented.
"A top Democratic lawmaker says outside email accounts were used in an attempt to avoid scrutiny; the White House says their purpose was to avoid using government resources for political activities, although they were used to discuss the firing of U.S. attorneys."
Most of the e-mail accounts at issue are on Republican National Committee servers. For instance: "Susan Ralston, until recently presidential adviser Karl Rove's assistant at the White House, appears to have used at least four outside email accounts: a 'gwb' domain account, a 'georgewbush.com' account, and an 'rnchq.org' account — all run by the RNC — plus an AOL account. She once emailed two associates of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, 'I now have an RNC blackberry which you can use to e-mail me at any time. No security issues like my WH email.' . . .
Wow. So the White House admits that the RNC e-mail accounts were used to talk about the US Attorneys. Maybe laying groundwork for an executive privilege claim? IANAL, but it seems to me it would pretty tough to argue that RNC e-mails are covered by executive privilege since, the last I checked, the RNC was not formally part of the executive branch. They would either have to argue that the Mehlmail should be protected because everything the White House does is political (it's not a bug, it's a feature!), or that cheating in defense of executive privilege is no vice. It also begs the question, just how confident are they in their overall claim of executive privilege if they're afraid to conduct Executive White House Business over Executive White House E-Mail?
Also, wasn't Abramoff supposed to be cooperating? Shouldn't he have a lot of those e-mails at his end? If he was so hungry for revenge against the people who turned their back on him, why didn't he nudge anyone to take a look at the RNC, since he obviously knew that was where all the dirt was? Is he really cooperating, or is that just a smokescreen to get him a lighter sentence in exchange for his silence on the really important stuff? Maybe I'm cynical, but it's been over a year and I'm still waiting for all those High-Profile Indictments (why, it's almost like Alice Fisher has no interest in prosecuting anyone!). But I digress.
Will these e-mails ever see the light of day? McKinnon writes: "The White House and RNC said the RNC is preserving the emails generated by White House officials on the RNC's computers, and that they are exempt from the RNC's normal policy of erasing emails after 30 days."
This is brilliant news if true, and if both the White House and the RNC say it, it must be so. It also leaves no wiggle room: the purge exemption doesn't just apply to Official White House Business, but to any e-mails from White House officials, regardless of what they're up to. What isn't so clear is the timeframe: the use of present tense implies that perhaps they've only just started to exempt WH e-mails from deletion, which wouldn't buy us anything at all.
Christy has been emphatic about the importance of preserving those e-mails, and has hinted at severe criminal consequences if they should be deleted (if Christy or someone can point me to that post so I could link it, I would be very grateful), but what if the purge exemption was not always in place, and the incriminating e-mails were automatically purged as a result of negligence, rather than deleted deliberately as part of a coverup? (My suspicion is that the 30-day purge policy was purposely designed as a sort of auto-coverup mechanism, so no-one is ever personally responsible for deleting anything.) It would be interesting to know when that purge policy was instituted.
So what are the criminal penalties for deleting evidence, or allowing evidence to be deleted automatically? And which is worse optics, a tacit admission of unspecified wrongdoing a la Nixon's missing 18 minutes, or the revelation of specific offenses? I guess it depends on the offenses, really. My prediction: RNC will say, "Oops, so sorry, we only started preserving WH e-mails after the investigation started. Everything from last year is gone, we had no idea anyone would need it. Our bad." I'm not sure what happens after that, other than a lot of smirking by Karl.
UPDATE: The purge exemption for WH e-mails has been in place since 2004. Thanks, cbl!