Kushner and Other Senior Trump Officials Used WhatsApp to Conduct Official Business

Lock them up.

One of the dangers we were warned about early and often after Donald Trump was elected President was that we would soon “normalize” outrageous conduct. That has certainly come to pass and I’ve been guilty of it myself. While I’m continued to decry violations of longstanding norms, I’ve long since tired of blogging about them because it’s become very much a sense of same stuff, different day. Since I have very little that regulars haven’t already heard many times to add, a couple of tweets tends to slake whatever enthusiasm I have left.

So it went with a story that broke yesterday. In reaction to learning that several top White House officials, including the President’s daughter and son-in-law, violated security rules, I shot off a snarky tweet:

And later re-tweeted a fellow former Republican national security professional:

That this is not only outrageous but particularly galling coming from an administration that came to office partly by stoking outrage over Hillary Clinton’s disregard for the rules of handling sensitive communications while Secretary of State goes without saying. But, again, it didn’t surprise me one bit. Indeed, I’ve just assumed this was kind of baked in. We’ve had similar reports going back to at least September 2017.

In fairness, I’m not the only one. In preparing to write this post, I scanned the front pages of both the New York Times and Washington Post websites. Neither had this story on the home page—even though it only broke yesterday afternoon. Less than a day after the story broke, it’s literally yesterday’s news.

The only story referencing the issue at all was a WaPo analysis piece by Joseph Marks titled “The Cybersecurity 202: Kushner’s WhatsApp habit raises security concerns” that required considerable scrolling to find.

A top government official is using personal accounts for government business and Congress is worried hackers could spy on sensitive or classified communications.

Sound familiar?

This time, it’s presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner who’s in Congress’s crosshairs for using the messaging tool WhatsApp – including, possibly, communicating with world leaders on the app — according to a Thursday letter to the White House from House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

And Kushner isn’t the only one creating a security headache by using insecure tools for communications — first daughter and presidential adviser Ivanka Trump uses and continues to use her personal email account for official business, the letter states. Oversight has also obtained documents showing that then-deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland and then- White House strategist Steve Bannon used personal email accounts during their time in office, the letter states.

The committee is asking the White House for a full accounting of all official business conducted on personal accounts by April 4 – and threatening subpoenas if it doesn’t get it.

The controversy highlights how cybersecurity precautions that are perfectly sufficient for average citizens can still fall short when it comes to highly sensitive information held by top government officials.

WhatsApp, for example, is widely viewed as one of the most secure commercial messaging systems because it uses end-to-end encryption by default – that means the messages are scrambled into gibberish during the journey between the sender and the recipient and no one can unscramble them, including the company itself.

But no company’s security is perfect, and top hackers could discover an unknown bug that allows them to get around the WhatsApp encryption system. Indeed, on Thursday, cybersecurity reporter Brian Krebs revealed a security flaw at WhatsApp parent Facebook that left hundreds of millions of user passwords exposed to Facebook employees.

There are also other ways a highly sophisticated hacking group could spy on Kushner’s WhatsApp messaging.

For instance, if hackers compromised his phone through another channel, they could install a tool that recorded everything he typed into it. That would make hacking into the app itself unnecessary, Tom Suder, a specialist in government mobile technology and president of the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center, a government-industry partnership, told me.

Or, someone could steal the device itself. If Kushner is using WhatsApp on a personal device, that would make it unlikely that security officials could remotely wipe its contents to ensure thieves didn’t get access to sensitive information contained within, Nabil Hannan, managing principal for financial services at the software firm Synopsys, told me.

“Tools like WhatsApp can be pretty effective for providing solid and secure end-to-end encryption for private citizens,” Richard Ford, chief scientist at the cybersecurity company Forcepoint, told me. “However, the people we’re talking about here are not your average Joes, but face a very different threat profile.”

The security concerns are the same as when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a personal email server while in office, experts told me. President Trump made Clinton’s private email server a persistent theme of his 2016 campaign, calling for an investigation and prompting supporters to yell “Lock her Up!” at the former first lady. [highlighting in original]

Which, obviously, was the inspiration for my snarky Twitter reaction.

Like Tom Nichols, I both found Clinton’s handling of her official communications outrageous and yet still thought her more fit for the presidency than Donald Trump. And, like him, I think the use of WhatsApp by senior Trump officials here was actually far worse than Clinton’s transgressions.

First off, while some later-classified materials may have wound up being forwarded by her because of her lax practices, I have no doubt that she at least intended to safeguard sensitive communications. Second, she was actually deemed qualified to access classified materials; Kushner had to be personally waived by the President.

Beyond that, it’s rather clear that Kushner and others were communicating with hostile foreign governments using other than official channels. That’s far more egregious than being lazy about one’s internal communications with trusted staffers.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, National Security, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    The Bulwark ran a pretty damning (well sourced) piece on Kushner today that touched upon this and a number of other issues that would normally sink any other individual in a normal administration:

    https://thebulwark.com/the-crown-prince-of-trumpistan/

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  2. An Interested Party says:

    That this is not only outrageous but particularly galling coming from an administration that came to office partly by stoking outrage over Hillary Clinton’s disregard for the rules of handling sensitive communications while Secretary of State.

    As is so often the case with this crowd, it’s nothing but projection…whenever they criticize anybody for anything, you can be sure they are doing it themselves…

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  3. KM says:

    It’s all projection with them – every. damn. thing. If they’ve accused somebody of doing something, it’s cause they’ve already gone there and were too cheap to buy the shirt.

    Outrage over “unsecured” emails? Pfft, they use a common app and Trump won’t use a secure phone that would reveal his dirty dealing.

    Outrage over Pizzagate and Mexicans turning left at the border with rolls of blue duct tape? Pfft, Trump hangs out with a woman who peddles access to him to the Chinese, owned a spa that she sold to sex traffickers (and still hasn’t been definitively ruled out as not-involved btw) and a ton of his buddies got caught having happy endings with women held against their will. That’s not even outing the stories out before the election of Trump’s perversions….

    Outrage over “crooked deals”? Pfft, we can’t even keep count anymore of the blatant corruption this Administration has pulled. It would be easier to list all the above-board things they done instead.

    Every time Trump opens his mouth to accuse others, he’s admitting to something they’ve done. I’m starting to think “Lock her up” was an unconscious acknowledgement of his eventual fate and the repetition is helping him come to terms with the concept he and his family could be going to jail. It certainly seems to be more real to him now then it was at the start of this sh^tshow, not that it’s stopped any of them from criming their little black hearts out…..

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  4. gVOR08 says:

    You’re right, James, that the outrageous thing about this story is the lack of outrage.

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  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Yup…egregious.
    Yup…no one is going to do anything about it.

  6. alanstorm says:

    Apples and oranges.

    I note your post contains no references to any classified communications being handled this way. Due to the tenor of the post, the reasonable conclusion is that there’s nothing there.

    “Pfft, we can’t even keep count anymore of the blatant corruption this Administration has pulled.”

    Then certainly you can list some, right? I keep reading things like this, but no one ever gives any citations. Probably because they can’t name any.

    And the icing on the cake, some of your final paragraphs:

    “Like Tom Nichols, I both found Clinton’s handling of her official communications outrageous and yet still thought her more fit for the presidency than Donald Trump.”

    How? In what way? Or do you simply dislike Trump? How can any sane individual think Hillary was in any way qualified for the presidency?

    “And, like him, I think the use of WhatsApp by senior Trump officials here was actually far worse than Clinton’s transgressions.”

    How so? Give examples. Nome are apparent.

    “First off, while some later-classified materials may have wound up being forwarded by her because of her lax practices, I have no doubt that she at least intended to safeguard sensitive communications.”

    Your confidence in Hillary is misplaced. Have you been asleep for her entire career?

    ” Second, she was actually deemed qualified to access classified materials; Kushner had to be personally waived by the President.”

    She proved quite conclusively that she was not qualified.

    I get it. You don’t like Trump. What I DON’T get is liking Hillary. We dodged a big bullet in 2016.

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  7. Kylopod says:

    @An Interested Party:

    As is so often the case with this crowd, it’s nothing but projection…whenever they criticize anybody for anything, you can be sure they are doing it themselves…

    In fairness, it hasn’t been discovered that Trump faked his birth certificate. Yet.

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  8. Kit says:

    This isn’t projection and it’s not hypocrisy. At best, the Right is trying to undermine a certain conception of this country, namely the one based universal rights, in order to replace it with a country based on race, sex and wealth. At worst, elements are trying to undermine the country full stop.

    These people will say and do anything to bring about the new order, and the content of their words only matter in that they advance their cause. That Hillary should be locked up is not a conclusion but an axiom.

  9. SenyorDave says:

    @alanstorm: What we know about Trump is horrible. A lifelong corrupt, con man who set up a scam university, cheated contractors, has no personal or professional morals. He lies constantly to the point where almost nothing that comes out of his mouth is truthful. His cabinet is loaded with corrupt, unqualified sycophants. As president he has no command of almost any issue, has a bizarre fascination with ruthless, murderous dictators (he called Kim a “great leader” – this is a man who has intentionally caused famines killing several hundred thousand of his people, by many estimates). He is horrible, totally unqualified for any office, much less POTUS. HRC was a weak candidate who has the qualifications for POTUS, most people believe she would have appointed qualified to important roles.

    And Trump is probably much more corrupt than we know (that’s how things generally work – it’s like when they catch a rapist, its probably not his first rape).

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  10. CSK says:

    @mattbernius:

    I read that piece early this morning, and it’s great. The thing about Trump and his repulsive spawn and spawn-in-law is that they’ve never really been held accountable for anything, so they walked into the White House prepared to ride roughshod over custom and the law.

  11. MarkedMan says:

    I agree with James that this is no surprise.

    But…. There is actually a discussion here that should happen. For the first two centuries of the Republic it was the norm that senior public officials would routinely decide which of their correspondence was government business and which was personal. When the telephone was introduced it was completely up to that official to decide whether the conversation needed to be recorded in a memo or official diary. And it goes without saying that in-person conversations followed that same protocol. They were prohibited from discussing highly classified material over a public phone line, or speaking of such things in a public place. The actual offense was not simply using a public phone line or talking outside a secure room, but of doing so with highly classified information.

    And today, wrt telephone and in-person conversations the exact same policies are followed. There is no expectation that every word spoken is accounted for. The exception, for some reason, is email. Why do we have perception that we cannot accept someone’s own judgement about whether an email is relevant or not, but can for a phone call or an in person conversation.

    In fact, the crucial element should be: did they make the right judgement. In the case of Kushner, he was negotiating transferring highly classified US nuclear technology to a country whose officials later bailed out his company to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s what is relevant.

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  12. Moosebreath says:

    @Kylopod:

    “In fairness, it hasn’t been discovered that Trump faked his birth certificate. Yet.”

    But was Trump born in Kenya?

  13. MarkedMan says:

    @alanstorm:

    I note your post contains no references to any classified communications being handled this way.

    This comes across as the typical refusal of a Trumper to even process reality. As stated in many sources as well as in one off my comments above: . In the case of Kushner, he was negotiating transferring highly classified US nuclear technology to a country whose officials later bailed out his company to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

    I guess I should challenge you on how you could have missed this. And perhaps should ask if you would have said there was nothing there if Hillary Clinton had been discussing nuclear technology on a private account. You know, just generally call out the rampant hypocrisy, goal post shifting and ignorance. But what’s the point? You are a Trumper. And given the fact that as near as I can tell this is your first blog post here, you are probably a paid Trumper to boot.

    I suspect you an American (or Russian) version of what my Chinese colleagues call the “Wu Mao Dang“, the low paid internet serfs of the Chinese government paid to anonymously police the Chinese web for correct thinking.

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  14. Kylopod says:

    @Moosebreath:

    But was Trump born in Kenya?

    No, Jamaica.

  15. CSK says:

    OT, but Trump just announced that he’s reversing the sanctions his administration imposed on North Korea yesterday. Sarah Sanders explained that this is because Trump “likes Kim.”

  16. Teve says:

    @CSK: Trump did say he and Kim “Fell in love”, you know.

  17. Gustopher says:

    I’m guessing ignorance of the law isn’t going to be a valid excuse here.

    Can these twerps be impeached? Cabinet officials can, but I honesty don’t know whether nebulously defined roles are impeachable.

    This fits high crimes and misdemeanors, and they are a danger to national security. We should get rid of them, and we can force the Republicans to decide if they want to defend them.

  18. CSK says:

    @Teve:
    Yes, I know; they’re enacting a true-life romance novel, aren’t they? I’m waiting for a Trumpkin to come along and explain that this is just another example of Trump’s master of 64-dimensional chess.

  19. Teve says:

    @CSK: alanstorm may have done that in a comment above, I don’t know. When a comment is so brain-damaged that the audience here gives it several dozen downvotes, I skip it to avoid being made more stupider.

  20. Kathy says:

    @Moosebreath:

    But was Trump born in Kenya?

    Trump wasn’t born.

    He spawned from a witches’ brew in a bubbling cauldron.

  21. Monala says:

    @CSK: Waiting for the Trumpers to tell us that this is all part of Trump’s “delicate negotiations.”

  22. Gustopher says:

    @alanstorm:

    I get it. You don’t like Trump. What I DON’T get is liking Hillary. We dodged a big bullet in 2016.

    We dodged a big bullet by walking in front of an artillery round.

  23. Monala says:

    @Monala: Yup, here was Florack on March 2nd:

    The Warmbier situation, tragic as it is, and as important as it is, pales in comparison to the prospects of denuclearizing North Korea, particularly when you consider the amount of lives that would be saved by that.

    How far would you go for the one individual? Would you like it better if Trump’s had declared war on North Korea and invaded the place? I mean, what precisely are your limits, here?

    There is a delicate negotiation going on here and brinkmanship is the coin of that realm. It’s not pretty, but it’s called reality.

    Had Trump gone to the mat on this one, and spoiled the delicate negotiations that have been going on, it would have provided you one more opportunity to call Trump a failure.

    Given some of the comments here I can’t help but believe that that’s precisely what you’re after

  24. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Stephen Moore nominated to the Fed?!?!?!
    WTF?
    That guy is wrong about EVERYTHING!!!
    And now he is going to have a direct effect on the economy?
    We are just royally fuq’d.

  25. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @alanstorm:
    Who wants to bet that alanstorm has a red hat and yells “Lock Her Up” at Dennison pep-rallies.

  26. SenyorDave says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Moore is a partisan hack whose life’s work is cutting his taxes and destroying all of the social safety net.

  27. PJ says:

    @Gustopher:

    I’m guessing ignorance of the law isn’t going to be a valid excuse here.

    Can these twerps be impeached? Cabinet officials can, but I honesty don’t know whether nebulously defined roles are impeachable.

    This fits high crimes and misdemeanors, and they are a danger to national security. We should get rid of them, and we can force the Republicans to decide if they want to defend them.

    There’s literally no chance that Republicans in Congress would agree to do this. Party before Country 100%.

    New York can take care of him and his father-in-law after Trump exits the White House.

  28. SenyorDave says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: Stephen Moore nominated to the Fed?!?!?!

    For those who may have forgotten, Obama nominated Peter Diamond to the Fed in 2010. He withdrew his name in 2011, after 14 months because he knew his nomination would never even be brought to the Senate floor because he was a liberal. In 2010 Diamond won the Nobel Prize for economics. Richard Shelby decided that Diamond lacked monetary policy experience. I’m sure he’ll have no problem with a complete hack like Moore, who probably has less qualifications for being on the Fed than junior professor of Economics at any top-rated university. People like Shelby should rot in hell for making this country dysfunctional. And no, it is not both sides do it. This is the stock and trade of the modern Republican party. Expertise and ability mean nothing. Imagine for a second if Obama had given security clearances to Michelle Obama by over-ruling the intelligence community.

  29. Teve says:

    @Kathy: he wasn’t born, he was found on a fuckin’ train.

  30. Gustopher says:

    @PJ: I think using a private email server, or WhatsApp, or other obviously poor email practices might be a bridge too far to shamelessly ignore, after months of “Lock Her Up”. It was as much of a campaign slogan as the wall.

    Does the Senate have to take up impeachment? It might be fun to just use this as a wedge to make them demonstrate their complicity. It won’t split the Senators from Trump, but it may split the mild Republicans (13% do not approve of Trump) and independents from the Republican Senators.

    And with a country that is divided as evenly as it is, that’s where we need to strike.

    Good governance can be used as a wedge to split the Republican Party, just as the Republicans are trying to use a lack of unconditional support for Israel in all things to try to split the Democrats. But, with the advantage that good governance is good.

  31. de stijl says:

    This is just going to be the latest entry in the norm-breaking, corruption, ineptitude, and malfeasance pile that is the Trump administration.

    Trump can easily outpace outrage. You can’t wind up an outrage campaign when the new thing uncovered today is even worse than the one yesterday; and that continues day after day. Trump and pals are so outrageous so often that the news cycle is essentially overwhelmed. Resources assigned today to story X will report on it two weeks from now, and that report will have been superseded by new outrages and thus dismissed as yesterday’s news.

    And news consumers have been utterly overwhelmed by the sheer awfulness and just decide to tune out and say, “Well, that’s just Trump being Trump. Ho hum. What’s the weather for tomorrow.”

    —–

    Two or three times a month, one could truthfully say “If this had happened under Obama’s watch, this would have been the biggest scandal / constitutional crisis since Watergate. Bar none.” For every month Trump has been in office.

    Trump and his administration is basically too corrupt and inept too often for today’s news cycle to handle properly.

  32. Gustopher says:

    @de stijl: This is kind of why I want to see the House impeaching people — make the daily scandals just pile up into a mountain that cannot be ignored.

    Will we remember Jared Kushner using WhatsApp in three weeks? No, probably not.

    Would we look askance at a news report that the Republicans in the Senate have failed to take up the trial for 43 different impeachable offenses against 18 people? Yes. And next week it is 46 offenses against 19 people. You can draw a pretty graph.

  33. de stijl says:

    @Gustopher:

    Yeah. I was thinking the same thing.

    Get a House committee with a wide enough purview and just pitch staff at it and investigators to document it all properly.

    Seriously, Trump waivered in Kushner to his previously denied security clearance, and that was like the fourth most outrageous thing that happened that week and it got buried. In any normal time, that would have been an enormous story.

    We’re experiencing outrage chaos overload.

  34. An Interested Party says:

    @alanstorm: You silly troll…the onus is on you to prove how Hillary Clinton is allegedly so much worse than Donald Trump…I suppose you could use lies and fantasies to make that case, but certainly not reality…

  35. Andy says:

    Not sure I agree that WhatsApp is worse than putting all emails on an unsecured private server, but to know for sure we’d need an investigation. Much would depend, obviously, on the actual content of the communications.

    I hear some guy named Mueller might be looking for a job – maybe he could find out what the Trump kids were up to?

  36. Matt says:

    @Andy: It was a secured email server. If it wasn’t secured you know damned well the Russians would of dumped every email on the server…

    Then again nothing is truly secure….

  37. Andy says:

    @Matt:

    It was a secured email server.

    Well, we know it didn’t have a domain site certificate for its first six months or so of operation which is a major vulnerability, which overlapped with Clinton’s first visit to China.

    And we also know that somehow a huge portion of her email traffic ended up on the personal laptop of a pedophile, which was only discovered after many months of investigation.

    We know the physical servers and drives themselves were not maintained or disposed of according to the regulations used in government IT systems.

    We also know that server records were not kept, making it impossible to forensically analyze if there were successful hacks or any other leakage of information outside of authorized channels. We don’t know how often the software received security patches, or even what security measures it had implemented.

    And , we know the server was managed part-time by one guy on Clinton’s staff who was not an IT security expert and that guy admitted that the server had been subjected to hacking attempts.

    So, what is objectively true is that her email arrangement did not meet even minimal government security standards (or even basic commercial IT security standards), much less the standards that would be required for the second or third most important official in the entire US government.

  38. Matt says:

    @Andy: Where do you know all this from?

    Cause a lot of this sounds like outright bullshit.

    BTW servers with large IT staffs are compromised regularly. From Sony to the US government itself. Meanwhile Trump is running around with unsecured phones and his family can’t even pass security checks.. But sure get upset over an email server that had nothing of real consequence on it. The only “classified” emails found were post hoc classified or only classified till she read it. So your argument doesn’t even matter.

    Hacking attempts is something that occurs all the time with internet connected devices. Your home network has most likely been the target of attempted hacks.

    We know it wasn’t successful as nothing has been released…