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The Ivanka Trump email controversy, explained

If Hillary Clinton’s emails mattered so much, why shouldn’t Ivanka’s?

Ivanka Trump walks into a meeting in Washington, DC in October 2018.
Ivanka Trump walks into a meeting in Washington, DC, in October 2018.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Concern over private email use while in public office is still a thing. Just swap out Hillary Clinton for Ivanka Trump.

President Donald Trump’s daughter and an adviser to the president has found herself at the center of a controversy over her digital communication habits.

The firestorm kicked off in mid-November, when Carol Leonnig and Josh Dawsey at the Washington Post reported that Ivanka Trump sent hundreds of emails to aides, Cabinet officials, and her assistant using a private email account she shares with her husband, Jared Kushner. It was reported last year that Kushner had used a private account to conduct government business as well.

Revelations about Trump’s email use immediately drew comparisons to Clinton, who during her 2016 presidential campaign was dogged by questions about her use of a private server for emails as secretary of state. Donald Trump’s supporters on the campaign trail and to this day often chant, “Lock her up!” in reference to Clinton’s emails.

Ivanka Trump says her case has nothing to do with Clinton and that concerns about her email use are unwarranted. In an interview with ABC News’s Deborah Roberts aired on Good Morning America on Wednesday, Trump said there was “no equivalency” between her actions and Clinton’s.

It may well be true that Trump’s email use wasn’t some nefarious plot to skirt government record-keeping and instead an oversight as she got adjusted to life in government. The chatter about it now may be overblown — but the same goes for Clinton.

Given all the focus on Clinton’s emails, it’s hard to imagine Trump might not have had some sense her actions were a bad idea. Trump’s email use — and her excuse — exemplify the flip-flopping role she tries to play in public life: She’s a shrewd political adviser when convenient, and a political novice and dutiful daughter when not.

Ivanka’s emails, briefly explained

According to the Post, aides to President Trump were alarmed by the volume and nature of Ivanka Trump’s email use when she joined the White House in 2017, fearing that her practices were similar to Clinton’s.

When asked about the matter, Trump told aides she wasn’t familiar with federal records rules barring such practices. That’s what her representatives told the Post as well.

Peter Mirijanian, a spokesperson for Trump’s attorney and ethics counsel, Abbe Lowell, told the publication that while transitioning into government — but after she was given a White House email account — Trump “sometimes used her personal account, almost always for logistics and scheduling concerning her family.” That took place, he said, “until the White House provided her the same guidance they had given others.”

Mirijanian said Trump has turned over all of her government-related emails already so they can be stored with White House records.

Trump told ABC’s Roberts something similar in the interview aired on Wednesday.

“All of my emails that relate to any form of government work, which was mainly scheduling and logistics and managing the fact that I have a home life and a work life, are all part of the public record,” she said. “They’re all stored on the White House system.”

When Roberts pushed back, so did Trump. “The fact is that we all have private emails and personal emails to coordinate with our family, we all receive content to those emails, and there’s no prohibition from using private email as long as it’s archived and as long as there’s nothing in it that’s classified,” she said.

Trump also took some indirect hits at Clinton, saying that she had no “intent to circumvent” the White House email system and that she didn’t engage in “mass deletions” after a subpoena was issued.

As PolitiFact explains, an employee for a company managing Clinton’s email server deleted 33,000 of her emails in 2015, a few weeks after the Benghazi committee issued a subpoena requesting her emails related to the 2012 attack in Libya, after realizing he had been requested to do so in 2014 and didn’t. The FBI found no evidence that the emails were deliberately deleted to circumvent the subpoena.

House Democrats have signaled they plan to investigate Trump’s email use when they take over the majority in Congress next year. As the New York Times notes, members of Congress last year engaged in a bipartisan inquiry into the use of private email by multiple White House officials, including Kushner. But they didn’t get very far.

Ivanka’s emails matter — and they don’t

Many observers have cried foul over Ivanka Trump’s email use and noted the hypocrisy of the situation: President Trump and his allies to this day claim Clinton committed criminal activity by using a private server (despite the FBI’s conclusion that she did not), but when it comes to Ivanka Trump, they say it’s no big deal.

President Trump said last week his daughter “did some emails” in a timeframe he described as “early on and for a little period of time.”

“It’s all in the presidential records. Everything is there. There was no deleting. There was no nothing,” Trump continued. “What it is is a false story.”

Clinton’s email use was a huge point of focus during the 2016 election, even after the FBI said there would be no charges brought against her, though the bureau also deemed her actions “extremely careless.” The matter often dominated the news cycle and is still often featured on Fox News and invoked by the president.

One study earlier this year focusing on the New York Times’s election coverage found that in the span of just six days during the final leg of the 2016 campaign, the Times ran as many cover stories about Clinton’s emails they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.

Ivanka Trump apparently didn’t learn the lesson of Clinton’s email use and apply it to her own actions. She’s not the only one in the Trump administration to have fallen short on that front — the Times last year reported that multiple others, including Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Gary Cohn, and Stephen Miller also occasionally used private email addresses for government business.

If Clinton’s emails mattered so much, why shouldn’t Ivanka’s? Or, conversely, if we’re now recognizing that Ivanka’s emails aren’t that big of a deal, doesn’t that shed light on the possibility that Clinton’s probably weren’t, either?

Late night hosts were quick to point out the hypocrisy when the emails story first broke.

“This is really damaging — if anything mattered anymore,” the Late Show’s Stephen Colbert quipped.

“Hillary, meanwhile, is having a good laugh today,” Jimmy Kimmel at Live! said.

Colbert’s team also put together a segment comparison Fox News’ breathless coverage of Clinton’s email with its silence on Ivanka Trump.

Ivanka Trump wants to have her cake and eat it too

Ivanka Trump has sought to cast herself as a reluctant member of the Trump administration, as a figure who has been swept up in her father’s surprise political ascendance and is just there to lend a hand.

She took an official role at the White House in March 2017 and over the summer closed her eponymous fashion brand, signaling she’s moving more in the direction of politics. Still, she tries to play the other side when convenient.

In June 2017, months after joining the White House in an official capacity, Trump said in an interview with Fox & Friends that she really tries to “stay out of politics” and that she’s not a “political savant.”

In September of that year, Trump told the Financial Times that people have “unrealistic expectations” of her as a moderating force for her father. “That my presence in and of itself would carry so much weight with my father that he would abandon his core values and the agenda that the American people voted for when they elected him,” she said.

In a February interview with NBC News’s Peter Alexander, she scolded the interviewer for asking about the multiple women who have accused her father of sexual harassment and assault. She said it was a “pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter.”

Trump has positioned herself as a fierce advocate of families and women, but during the family separation crisis, she was publicly silent, speaking out only after the president said he would put an end to it.

But at other times, Trump acts as though she knows exactly what she’s doing.

She sat in for her father at the G20 summit last year, and this year, there were rumblings she might replace Nikki Haley as US ambassador to the United Nations (Trump shot down those rumors). In the same interview where Trump chided Alexander for asking her about the allegations against her father, she discussed US-North Korea relations.

In November, Trump appeared at a campaign rally with her father in Cleveland. When he mentioned Clinton, the crowd chanted, predictably, “Lock her up.”

Roberts in the ABC interview asked Ivanka Trump whether the “lock her up” mantra applies to her, given her email use.

“No,” Trump replied, laughing.