White House to give phones to senior advisers for political calls

The White House will allow as many as a dozen senior advisers to receive additional cell phones so that they can contact the Republican National Committee (RNC) regarding the fall midterm elections, officials said Thursday. 

A White House official, who was granted anonymity to describe the plan, said the arrangement was made in order to allow certain senior advisers to “conduct political activity during core working hours,” when personal devices are not permitted inside working areas of the White House. 

Advisers could begin to receive the devices in a matter of days, according to the official. The White House isn’t saying which staff members will have an RNC phone. 

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The unusual decision to hand out separate devices suggests the White House is closely and frequently coordinating with the RNC for the upcoming midterm elections, when Republicans are facing stiff political headwinds. 

The move is designed to allow top aides to coordinate political activities with the RNC without breaking federal ethics and record-keeping laws or the White House’s recent ban on personal devices in the West Wing. 

Democrats are feeling emboldened about their chances of retaking control of Congress, something that Trump and his GOP allies fear will stall his agenda and accelerate investigations into the president. 

The official told The Hill that the phones will be “heavily regulated” in order to “ensure we are not using official devices for political purposes and to ensure that we are doing this above board.”

The phones are owned by the RNC and come equipped with committee email addresses, but the official said aides will be barred from discussing official business on the devices in order to comply with the Presidential Records Act.

The arrangement is likely to come under scrutiny from ethics watchdogs, who have repeatedly criticized the White House for blurring the sometimes fine line between political and official activities. 

Trump on Monday spoke at length about the November midterms during a speech in Ohio that the White House billed as an official, and not a political, event.

“You win the presidency and you take it easy, and then they come and surprise you in the midterms,” Trump said. “But we're not going to let it happen to us.”

The official said the devices would be limited to commissioned officers — the top rung of staff that includes assistants to the president, deputy assistants and special assistants — who are allowed to conduct some political activities under the the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from partisan political acts. 

Banned activities include participating in a partisan political campaign, making speeches and distributing materials on behalf of a candidate.

If official White House business is discussed on the devices, advisers will be instructed to email the messages to their White House email accounts so they can be archived under the Presidential Records Act.

Aides who use the devices will be required to receive a written and in-person briefing from the White House counsel’s office on the terms of use and must sign a waiver allowing the counsel’s office and the RNC to take the phones at any time to inspect them for possible violations.

The counsel’s office will also do periodic checks of the devices to ensure the rules are being followed, the official said. 

The White House counsel’s office has been working on the plan for months and has been in contact with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent federal agency that enforces the Hatch Act. It is separate from the office run by Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE, who is overseeing the Russia probe. 

“As part of OSC’s regular Hatch Act advisory role, the White House consulted with us on a concept for the issuance of RNC phones to some White House staff.  OSC is ready to assist with further Hatch Act guidance as the White House begins to implement its program,” OSC spokeswoman Jill Gerber said in a statement. 

Presidents are exempt from the Hatch Act but White Houses typically receive reimbursements from political committees like the RNC for political events to limit the amount of taxpayer dollars spent on campaign travel. 

Some Trump aides have been accused of violating the Hatch Act, which has seldom been enforced. 

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The White House also came under fire last year for potential violations of the Presidential Records Act. 

The watchdog groups Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the National Security Archive sued Trump and the White House last fall, alleging that staffers’ reported use of encrypted messaging apps violated the law’s requirement that presidential records be kept and archived. 

The Washington Post reported this week that White House lawyers have reminded staff not to use the apps for official business as they seek to dismiss the lawsuit. 

The official who spoke to The Hill said staffers have received repeated ethics training sessions since Trump's inauguration, which include updates on the Hatch Act and Presidential Records Act.

The White House insists the cellphone arrangement is meant to promote maximum transparency. 

Officials are looking to avoid a repeat of the email scandal that engulfed the George W. Bush White House in 2007. 

Congressional investigators found that White House officials were using private email addresses hosted on an RNC server to discuss official business, including the controversial firing of U.S. attorneys. 

Officials were accused of improperly using personal email accounts to skirt the Presidential Records Act. 

It was later revealed that 22 million emails from the accounts went missing, including years' worth of messages belonging to top White House adviser Karl Rove. 

The emails were later discovered in 2009 after the White House was sued by CREW and the National Security Archive.