Records obtained by Cause of Action Institute (“CoA Institute”) through the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) reveal that Ambassador Robert Lighthizer, the United States Trade Representative (“USTR”), and Stephen Vaughn, General Counsel to the USTR and former Acting Trade Representative, used their personal email addresses to conduct official government business in 2017 and 2018. Considering the Administration’s aggressive trade policy that is increasing costs on American consumers and businesses, transparency is of paramount importance.

The documents CoA Institute received indicate Lighthizer’s and Vaughn’s use of personal email accounts for agency business was common from May 16, 2017, the day after Lighthizer was sworn in, up to November 7, 2018, the day CoA Institute submitted the FOIA request. In other words, records of personal email use span for the entirety Lighthizer’s tenure covered in our FOIA request, and CoA Institute found nothing in the records that would lead us to believe Lighthizer or Vaughn discontinued use of their personal email accounts to conduct business after the FOIA request was submitted.

The pair used their personal email accounts to communicate about several of the Trump administration’s most important trade initiatives including, 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum, automobile imports, trade deficits, and relations with China. Lobbyists also contacted Lighthizer directly via his personal account regarding USTR business.

USTR Instruction 511.2, which articulates the policy governing the USTR Records Management Program, requires that USTR offices “maintain electronic correspondence in [Executive Office of the President] enterprise-wide electronic systems[.]” Ironically, Vaughn’s duties include records management responsibilities as the same instruction document charges the General Counsel with “determining what records are needed to provide adequate and proper documentation of USTR activities and in specifying appropriate disposition for USTR records.”

The Presidential and Federal Records Act Amendments of 2014 prohibits officers and employees of executive branch agencies from using non-official electronic messaging accounts to create or send a record unless they copy their official account at the time or forward the record thereto within 20 days. However, none of the records CoA Institute received reflect this practice. No records included emails from Vaughn’s or LIghthizer’s personal accounts that were forwarded to their official account, nor are there emails from Lighthizer’s or Vaughn’s personal accounts that cc’ed their official accounts. If such records do exist, they should have certainly been produced in response to our FOIA request. In fact, Ambassador Lighthizer’s official email account does not appear even once in the records USTR produced.

In fact, Ambassador Lighthizer’s official email account does not appear even once in the records USTR produced

The records created and sent by Lighthizer’s and Vaughn’s non-official accounts were undoubtedly preserved because they were captured by other USTR employee’s official accounts; but, the public cannot assume that all records created and sent by Lighthizer’s and Vaughn’s personal accounts were captured and preserved in this way.

The federal trade policies reflected in these records have a significant impact on Americans’ economic opportunities—and safeguarding those opportunities requires executive agencies’ compliance with the Federal Records Act that is so vital to ensuring transparency and accountability in government.

Thomas Kimbrell is an Investigative Analyst for Cause of Action Institute.