It was Feb. 18, 2017, and the “lock her up” crowd in Orlando was in full-throated exuberance.
Just a month after being inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president, Donald Trump was back in campaign mode, and his jubilant followers, some wearing “Hillary for Prison” buttons, chanted the three words that had become a Trump campaign staple.
Lock. Her. Up.
The chant had its roots in the fact that as Secretary of State, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had used private email for public business, and had destroyed at least some of those emails.
One day earlier, thousands of miles away, newly elected Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley was doing the same thing.
Hawley had ridden Trump’s coattails to his first elected office, and already, he was plotting his next campaign move. In a meeting that was set up using personal email, Hawley’s state-paid staff met with the new campaign consultants he brought on board just 11 days after being inaugurated himself.
The meeting was to discuss public business, but it was run by his campaign consultants, at least the third such co-mingling meeting between Hawley’s state and campaign staffs. Those staffs, including Hawley’s top aides, would use personal email for public business. Some of them even used a mobile phone app called Confide that would destroy text messages before they could be retained as required in state law.
The detailed documentation of Hawley’s use of private email to conduct state business is outlined in an audit released Thursday by Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat. The audit had been requested by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft after his office received a complaint alleging that his fellow Republican was using state resources for campaign purposes.
“(Attorney General’s Office) staff engaged in in-person meetings and phone conferences during regular state working hours with representatives of political campaign consulting companies paid from Josh Hawley’s state campaign funds,” wrote Galloway. “The purpose of the meetings were not always documented. These meetings and conference calls were sometimes coordinated by AGO staff using private email accounts and text messages.”
The audit does not end with a “lock him up” conclusion, in part because Hawley’s staff didn’t retain the emails and records that might have proven a violation of state law.
Hawley, of course, calls the audit tainted by pointing to an email sent accidentally by one of Galloway’s employees to the attorney general’s office, in which she suggests she might “beef up” a section of the audit that deals with the use of personal email to conduct public business in Hawley’s office.
That one-line email hardly erases the hundreds of pages of sworn testimony and other evidence Galloway included in her audit. In fact, that evidence is not in dispute.
Hawley’s office and campaign staff coordinated their efforts while working on state business, they used private emails and texts to do so, and they didn’t retain some of those documents.
But in pointing to the email sent by Galloway’s employee, Hawley inadvertently highlights why this audit matters so much:
Taxpayers and voters can see that email, and judge it for themselves, because it was sent on public servers and retained as required by open records laws.
Because this is 2020, and everything is seen through a deeply partisan lens, Republicans who back Hawley might be inclined to ignore the mountain of evidence and toss the audit to the side because of that one email. Democrats who back Galloway, who is running for governor, will see the audit for what it is, an indictment of our political times, where ladder-climbing politicians treat public accountability laws as nothing but an obstacle to their unbridled ambition.
When Democrats like Clinton and Republicans like Hawley use private emails to evade public disclosure, it’s an affront to the cause of good government. That’s what makes Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s response to the audit such a shame. Schmitt, who replaced Hawley, accuses Galloway of a felony by daring to make public transcripts from interviews with Hawley employees in which they admit using private email to coordinate with campaign operatives and state employees.
Yes, the man whose job it is to enforce the state Sunshine Law doesn’t seem particularly upset about his predecessor destroying emails and texts, but rather about Galloway showing her work to taxpayers as she proved the case.
Lock her up, suggests Schmitt, who owes his office to Gov. Mike Parson, Galloway’s opponent in the coming election. It’s like Trump said just after that 2017 rally in Orlando:
“Life is a campaign.”