February 21, 2019
In January, White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah announced that he was leaving government service to join the lobbying firm Ballard Partners. According to Shah’s LinkedIn page, he began working at the firm later in January and is currently listed on the firm’s website as a Partner and Chair of Ballard’s Strategic Communications Practice. The firm’s website also notes that its clients include U.S. companies such as Amazon, H&R Block as well as foreign states including Qatar and the Dominican Republic. While Shah’s departure to the private sector is hardly remarkable for a senior White House aide, it is curious that Shah still has access to and has used an official government Twitter account since leaving the Trump administration.
During his tenure at the White House, Shah used the verified @RajShah45 Twitter account for official government purposes. Like several other Trump White House aides, in January 2017, Shah created a Twitter account for official White House business, with the “45” signifier for the 45th President of the United States and a note that “@WhiteHouse Tweets may be archived http://whitehouse.gov/privacy.” This fact was highlighted last November when Shah was found to have violated the Hatch Act “when he used his official ‘@RajShah45’ Twitter account to post a message that linked to the RNC website.” This violation was particularly troubling because Shah also maintains a personal Twitter account, @rajshah84, which was created in 2011 that could have been used to share the political message. That distinction is perhaps even more relevant now that Shah is no longer in government.
Last week, on February 13, 2019, despite having left the White House nearly a month prior, Shah tweeted from the “official” @RajShah45 Twitter account promoting a USA Today article he authored in his capacity as a partner at Ballard. The tweet states, “My op-ed in @USATODAY on how people who judge @realDonaldTrump by conventional standards are totally missing the point, and ignoring his strengths.” USA Today identifies Shah in the piece as “a former White House principal deputy press secretary and chair at Ballard Media Group. Follow him on Twitter: @RajShah84.”
While there is no reason to believe that Shah used the @RajShah45 account intentionally, the tweet still raises a number of important questions about the Trump administration’s policy for official social media accounts. For example, it remains unclear why a former White House employee still has access to a Twitter account that was created for and used on behalf of the federal government. There are some Twitter handles, such as @POTUS or @PressSec which appear to change hands during the White House transition. Obviously, the @RajShah45 account would not fall into this category, but any tweet coming from the account could leave its nearly 35,000 followers with the impression that Shah is still speaking for the White House. That platform could also be a very powerful and highly inappropriate asset benefitting Shah’s private sector clients.
Public resources, including social media accounts, should not be used for the benefit of private companies. It seems obvious that if Shah has left government service and maintains a separate personal Twitter account, he or someone in the White House should have deactivated or changed the settings on the @RajShah45 account. One problem, of course, is that the White House does not appear to have clear rules in this area. Another problem is that this practice could persist without corrective action.
Earlier this week, White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters announced from the verified @LWalters45 Twitter account that she will be leaving the Trump administration to join Edelman Public Relations as Vice president of U.S. Affairs. This account was created in January 2017, is routinely used for official White House business, and notes that “Tweets will be archived.”
Walters also appears to have maintained a personal Twitter handle @LWalters since 2009, but did not announce her future plans via that account. Media reports indicate that Walters’ last day in government will be in April and it remains unclear whether she will be allowed to access her official Twitter account from the private sector.
It is fair to say that one area where President Trump has surpassed his predecessors is in greatly expanding the federal government’s social media footprint. President Trump is a prolific communicator via Twitter and his White House communications team has featured at least ten staffers with verified Twitter accounts commenting on behalf of the government. However, social media has also been the source of many headaches for this administration including numerous violations of federal law by White House staffers using Twitter. If former White House employees are allowed to maintain the Twitter accounts they used for government purposes after leaving government, even more legal and ethical problems could arise.