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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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