American Oversight’s 2019 in Review: Nine Important Stories We Uncovered

A recurring theme of 2019, a year that began with a new House majority and a record-long partial government shutdown, was President Donald Trump’s disdain for constitutional checks and balances, specifically his blanket obstruction of congressional oversight. In January, the administration was making excuses and blaming its failure to respond to requests on the shutdown. By the end of the year, the House of Representatives was voting to impeach the president for obstruction of congressional investigations.

In the meantime, American Oversight has been exposing governmental corruption and misconduct at the federal, state and local levels. And as the administration has refused to comply with congressional document requests, we’ve forced the release of thousands of pages of documents through the Freedom of Information Act, including, notably, records that had been withheld from congressional investigators in the impeachment inquiry against the president.

More evidence of the Trump administration’s efforts with regard to Ukraine will surface — and American Oversight will continue to receive and analyze public records from the nearly 1,600 FOIA requests and multiple lawsuits we filed in 2019. The paper trail of the Trump administration gets more detailed every day; here’s where that trail led us this past year.

IMPEACHMENT

1. Giuliani Communications with Secretary Pompeo and White House in March 2019

Late on a Friday night in November, the State Department provided American Oversight with nearly 100 pages of documents in response to our lawsuit for Ukraine-related records. Among the records were emails indicating that Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani talked with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo multiple times in the spring of 2019, right around the time that Giuliani was unleashing a smear campaign against then-Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. According to the documents, Oval Office gatekeeper Madeleine Westerhout even helped put Giuliani’s assistant in touch with the secretary’s office.

These records don’t just reveal a paper trail from Giuliani to the Oval Office to Pompeo; they are also further evidence of the administration’s unprecedented obstruction of Congress. In its impeachment inquiry, the House requested that the administration turn over related documents, but the Trump White House directed agencies not to comply with those requests. That American Oversight was able to obtain these records — just as we were able to obtain related Defense Department records on Dec. 20 — through Freedom of Information Act litigation indicates that the administration has no legal basis for withholding them from the legislative branch.

NATIONAL SECURITY

2. Nikki Haley Sent Classified Information on an Unclassified System

Back in July 2017, North Korea launched a test missile, alarming U.S. national-security officials. That same week, then-Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley apparently lost her password for her classified email system, leading her to send classified messages over her regular, non-classified system. We know this because the records we obtained in response to our FOIA request and lawsuit contained redactions that fall under the FOIA exemption for information classified for national-security reasons. The emails also include a message from a journalist for a Russian state-run media organization regarding Haley’s offer to share intelligence information with Russia.

Given the intense focus on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s email during the 2016 presidential campaign, the Trump administration’s frequent issues with official email practices have continually raised serious concerns — and Haley’s use of a less-secure system during such a sensitive time is no exception. 

See also: In December, a federal judge denied the government’s motion to dismiss our lawsuit alleging that Pompeo and the National Archives and Records Administration had committed a serious violation of federal record-keeping law by allowing Trump to seize an interpreter’s notes after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017. 

IMMIGRATION

3. The Trump Administration Scrapped a Question Asking Asylum-Seekers Whether They Are Afraid to Be Returned to Mexico

This year, the administration began implementing its Migrant Protections Protocol policy, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” in which migrants seeking asylum at the southern border are sent back to Mexico to await their court dates (often for months and in dangerous border towns). We uncovered records, reported on by Buzzfeed, showing that Department of Homeland Security officials had initially planned to ask asylum-seekers whether they feared being returned to Mexico, but the question was ultimately cut. And asylum-seekers of course might not know they should, or can, express that fear.

Among other significant concerns, American Oversight also obtained internal communications indicating that immigration officials often don’t supply translation or language interpretation for asylum-seekers who speak only indigenous languages.

4. Kris Kobach Sent Nebraska Residents’ Names to ICE

During his unsuccessful run for governor in 2017, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach had sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement a list of names of people who had applied for occupancy licenses in Fremont, Neb. Years before, Kobach, who in 2017 served on Trump’s now-defunct “voter fraud” commission, had helped devise an ordinance in Fremont making it illegal for landlords to rent to undocumented immigrants. But that ordinance had been proving hard to enforce, and Kobach wanted ICE to “verify the immigration status” of all the 289 people on the list.

Kobach also suggested that ICE use the information they might collect for “ICE enforcement operations” — including deportation. Kobach, who is running for Senate in Kansas, has long been an alarmist about undocumented immigrants voting, and in this instance, as American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers said, “he used the power of government to compile a list of individuals and, if he had his way, to have ICE just sort of rummage through them.”

TRUMP’S CABINET AND ADVISERS

5. Secretary Chao and Sen. McConnell’s Coordination

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao is being investigated — by both American Oversight and Congress — for potentially using her office to aid her family’s international shipping business. We also uncovered records that showed Chao’s office coordinating with the office of her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell, meeting with Kentucky-specific interests a number of times at the behest of McConnell’s office, and creating a separate communication channel for Kentucky requests.

6. Secretary Ross’s Confusing Maze of Finances

The billionaire commerce secretary entered the administration with a host of complicated financial holdings, which has made parsing his ethics agreements and checking for compliance a difficult undertaking. But watchdogs have managed to learn a fair amount. For instance, his calendars have revealed multiple meetings that raise concerns about conflicts of interest, including a meeting with recently ousted Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg in March 2017 while his wife owned $3 million worth of stock in the company.

7. Stephen Miller’s Cross-Agency Network of Anti-Immigrant Officials

White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller, the man behind some of the administration’s cruelest immigration policies, notoriously has taken pains to avoid putting much of his work in writing. At the same time, Miller has installed hand-picked, like-minded advisers across the administration to help him carry out his extremist views. American Oversight recently obtained emails that provide a glimpse into how one of those advisers — ICE Senior Adviser Jon Feere — worked with Miller to strategize, recommend hires, and provide updates.

TRUMP’S GET-RICHER PRESIDENCY

8. The President’s D.C. Hotel Remains Corruption Headquarters

Way back in January, national parks and other government sites across the country remained shuttered. But not the Old Post Office Tower in Washington, D.C., the site attached to the Trump International Hotel, which sits on government property. The tower remained open, leading to frustrations, as we found in emails, among the General Services Administration officials who had to explain why. Also in January, the GSA’s inspector general issued a report that found that the agency had failed to consider constitutional issues — i.e., emoluments — when it leased the property to the Trump Organization.

Trump’s refusal to financially divest from his real-estate business has meant that he has profited off events with and visits by government officials, from Attorney General William Barr’s $31,000 holiday party booking to former Ky. Gov. Matt Bevin’s stay that, as American Oversight discovered, was initially paid for by Kentucky taxpayers. And earlier this year, we reported that no federal agency had provided official guidance on spending taxpayer money at Trump properties. As the Trump Organization toys with selling its lease for that hotel, the president’s profit-making from his properties around the world remains a serious concern.

THREATS TO DEMOCRACY IN THE STATES

9. Georgia Voting Devices with ‘1234’ Password

This year, American Oversight launched our State Accountability Project, bringing our experience in open-records litigation to expose corruption at the state and local levels. The project began with a focus on Florida, Georgia and Texas, and in December, we obtained records indicating that voting devices in Georgia used “1234” as their default password, “an exceptionally weak security measure that makes the devices easy prey for hackers looking to disrupt voting in key precincts or sow chaos en masse.” State officials have said the passwords have been changed.

We may not know what 2020 will bring, but we do know that American Oversight will continue to uncover the facts and hold government — both federal and state — accountable. Thank you for your support.

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News
March 13, 2019

Two Years of American Oversight

News
March 12, 2019

Investigating the Trump Administration’s Efforts to Sell Nuclear Technology to Saudi Arabia

Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, International Trade Administration, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
News
March 8, 2019

News Roundup: Lawsuits Against Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services

News
March 4, 2019

FBI Headquarters Investigation: Agencies Refusing to Search for Records of Trump Interference to Protect Hotel

Investigation Update
February 15, 2019

News Roundup: Citizenship, the Census and the Constitution

Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice
News
February 5, 2019

Lawsuit: Why Did Government-Run Site Attached to Trump Hotel Stay Open During the Shutdown?

General Services Administration, National Park Service, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
February 1, 2019

News Roundup: More Troops at the Border Means More Questions for the Administration

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security
News
January 18, 2019

News Roundup: Two Troubling Inspector General Reports

Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, General Services Administration
News
January 11, 2019

News Roundup: The Administration’s Misleading Claims About Terrorists at the Southern Border

Department of Homeland Security
News
January 9, 2019

Investigating the Acting Defense Secretary’s Ties to Boeing

Department of Defense
News
January 3, 2019

Government Site Attached to Trump Hotel Stays Open Despite Shutdown and We Want to Know Why

News
December 27, 2018

Countdown to Oversight in 2019

News
December 12, 2018

Audit the Wall: No Plans, Funding or Timeline — And No Wall

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State
Investigation Update
December 5, 2018

American Oversight Sues Administration for Records of Family-Separation Policy

Administration for Children and Families, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, HHS Office of Inspector General, Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Investigation Update
November 19, 2018

Ivanka Trump Email Investigation Sparked by American Oversight FOIAs

Department of Commerce, Department of Education, Department of Labor, Department of the Treasury, Small Business Administration
Investigation Update
November 8, 2018

American Oversight Sues State Department for Trump Organization, Kushner Companies Records

Department of State
Investigation Update
October 23, 2018

New Lawsuit Seeks Details of White House, Trump Organization Involvement in FBI Headquarters Decision

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
May 3, 2018

Court Rules in Favor of American Oversight in Trump Hotel Lawsuit

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
February 9, 2018

New Lawsuit Seeks DHS Border Wall Emails with White House, Fox News, Border States

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security
Investigation Update
December 17, 2017

Trump Transition GSA Emails and Memorandum of Understanding

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
December 11, 2017

State Department Emails Show How Embassy Websites Promoted Mar-a-Lago

Department of State
Investigation Update
November 2, 2017

FOIA In Action: Helping Journalists Expose Questionable Behavior By Trump’s Appointees

Department of Education, Department of Labor, Small Business Administration
News
October 31, 2017

American Oversight Sues State Department for Records Showing Efforts to Compel Mexico to Pay for Border Wall

Department of State
News
October 24, 2017

Texts Show SBA Staff Tried to “Crop the Opulence” from Trump Hotel Event

Small Business Administration
Investigation Update
October 17, 2017

5 Questions for Attorney General Sessions

Department of Justice
September 2, 2017

DOJ Confirms Trump Lied in “Wiretap” Tweets

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
August 4, 2017

Ethics 101: Twitter Ads Follow President Trump to Bedminster, NJ

Investigation Update
August 1, 2017

American Oversight Obtains Attorney General Sessions SF-86 Signature Page

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
August 1, 2017

Statement on Waiver of Environmental Regulations for Border Wall

Investigation Update
July 24, 2017

American Oversight Launches “Defund Trump” Investigation

Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Council on Environmental Quality, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
Investigation Update
July 21, 2017

American Oversight Calls for Resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
News
July 13, 2017

DOJ Releases Redacted Page of Sessions’s SF-86 to American Oversight

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
June 28, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Sues GSA for Trump International Hotel Lease Records

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
June 16, 2017

Watchdog Group Files Lawsuit on Trump Border Wall

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
May 24, 2017

After American Oversight Lawsuit, DOJ Confirms that Sessions Lied about Russian Contacts

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 16, 2017

American Oversight Demands Release of Comey-Trump Memos

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 12, 2017

Letter to Burr and Warner: Senate Should Request Trump-Comey Tapes

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 10, 2017

Statement on the Firing of FBI Director Comey

Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 10, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Calls for IG Investigation of Sessions for Violating Recusal

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 3, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Calls for Investigation into Pattern of Promoting Trump Family Ventures on Government Websites

Department of State
News
April 25, 2017

American Oversight Files IG Complaint over State Department Promotion of Mar-A-Lago

Department of State
Investigation Update
April 19, 2017

American Oversight Sues DOJ for Release of Trump Tower Wiretap Records, Russia Investigation Documents

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, White House
Investigation Update
March 29, 2017

Call for GSA Inspector General to Review Trump Hotel Lease Decision

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
March 28, 2017

Statement on Trump Administration Proposal to Build Border Wall South of Rio Grande

Department of the Interior
Investigation Update
March 24, 2017

American Oversight Launches Investigation of President Trump’s Border Wall

Department of Homeland Security
Investigation Update
March 22, 2017

Statement on Intelligence Committee Chairman Nunes’ Actions

Investigation Update
March 17, 2017

American Oversight Calls on Congress to Investigate Trump Aide’s Reported Ties to Nazi Group

Office of Government Ethics, White House
News