Behind the Scenes: How American Oversight Forced the Release of State Department Ukraine Records

Since the State Department’s release of nearly 100 pages of records last Friday — including emails showing contacts between Rudy Giuliani and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in March 2019 — there have been a number of questions about how we made it happen.

Some have wondered, for instance, how American Oversight managed to obtain documents that the administration has refused to give to Congress. Others have asked when we anticipate more records being released. Answers to those questions, plus a timeline of the whole process, are below.

Why did American Oversight and the public get the documents before Congress did?

The first and simplest part of the answer is that the Trump administration is engaged in wholesale obstruction of congressional oversight. It has released none of the records requested by the Intelligence Committee in the House’s impeachment inquiry, and officials like former Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), have refused to testify.

The second part is that we requested the documents under the Freedom of Information Act, which can move much more quickly than enforcing congressional subpoenas. The months-long, still-ongoing fight for President Donald Trump’s tax returns is one notable example, and another is the government’s appeal this week of the order that former White House Counsel Don McGahn testify in front of Congress.

The Trump administration has taken advantage of the fact that historically, courts have only rarely weighed in on ordering the executive branch to give documents to Congress, thanks to the assumption that the different branches of government will act in good faith through the “accommodations” process. The result of the courts’ reluctance is that it would be extremely time-consuming to sue to enforce Congress’s subpoenas. Trump administration lawyers would likely appeal every court order all the way to the Supreme Court — as, for instance, they did just this week — leading to months, even years, of delay. FOIA, on the other hand, creates a clear right for citizens to request the release of public documents and empowers courts to order the release of those documents.

Are more documents coming? When?

We expect that more records will be released and the paper trail will get longer. The set of documents released on Friday represents just a few categories of records that were requested in our first lawsuit against the State Department, and some records were missing (specifically, any formal directive recalling Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from her post and any readouts from Trump’s July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelensky). Still to come in that same lawsuit are internal communications — i.e., Pompeo’s communications with other State Department officials, like Kurt Volker or Gordon Sondland, about Giuliani’s efforts or Yovanovitch’s recall. We’re pushing for the government to release those records before the end of the year, but won’t know more until the court makes another ruling.

And of course, we have five other lawsuits against the administration for records, including two others against the State Department, one against the Department of Energy, one against the Justice Department, and one against both the Defense Department and OMB. Here are some of the documents we’re asking for:

  • In our second lawsuit against the State Department, we’re asking that Volker’s calendars from March to September be produced before the end of the year, as well as his text messages and WhatsApp communications with or about Giuliani or about any effort to pressure Ukraine. We will file our joint status report to the court on Dec. 2.
  • The Defense Department and OMB are due to answer our complaint on Fri., Nov. 29; we are looking for of the emails of Russell Vought, the acting head of OMB, and Michael Duffey, another OMB official who has been subpoenaed by the House, as well as for those of top Defense Department officials like acting Secretary Mark Esper and Deputy Secretary David Norquist. 

What was the process that ultimately led to American Oversight getting the State Department documents?

It all started with Freedom of Information Act requests. The first ones, filed with the State Department, eventually led to the documents that were released last week. But since those first FOIA requests in May, we’ve filed more than 60 additional requests and five additional lawsuits.

MAY 2019

Back in May, news reports indicated that Giuliani was planning a trip to Ukraine to, in his words, “meddl[e] in an investigation.” Yovanovitch had been recalled from her post as ambassador to Ukraine in late April after a smear campaign pushed by Giuliani. And though Giuliani did end up cancelling that particular trip to Ukraine, he continued to defend his actions on behalf of the president.

American Oversight filed two Freedom of Information Act requests with the State Department, one for records related to Yovanovitch’s recall and another for communications with Giuliani or about his efforts to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son. We scoured news reports and drew upon our knowledge of people with influence at the State Department to identify the officials and private individuals who might be involved in the reported attempt to solicit foreign interference in our elections, from Giuliani associates Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova to officials like Pompeo ally T. Ulrich Brechbuhl. Those names were all included in our requests for communications.

AUGUST – SEPTEMBER 2019

More State Department FOIAs: A few months later, we filed additional FOIA requests. News reports in August indicated that Giuliani had renewed his efforts and that Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, had helped arrange talks between Giuliani and a Ukrainian official.

More FOIA requests were filed in September after news broke about the intelligence community whistleblower complaint related to Trump’s communications with Ukraine. That news also prompted American Oversight to ask that the FOIA requests be processed on an expedited basis, and a number of additional requests were filed as more news continued to surface.

Also in August and September:

OCTOBER 2019

On Oct. 1, the State Department had still failed to produce records in response to our initial FOIA requests from May, so American Oversight sued. Three days later, we filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction, citing an urgent need to inform the public given the rapidly moving impeachment inquiry. 

A federal judge called for a hearing on the emergency motion, and on Oct. 25 the court ordered the State Department to work with us to begin producing records by Nov. 22. A week later, the State Department agreed to release by that deadline senior officials’ external communications with Giuliani or about the Ukraine effort or Yovanovitch smear campaign, as well as directives recalling Yovanovitch.

Also in October:

  • New DOJ and Energy FOIAs: We filed a number of FOIA requests throughout the month with the Departments of Justice and Energy.
  • Second State Department lawsuit: We sued the State Department on Oct. 12 for Volker’s communications with Giuliani or about the Ukraine pressure campaign. 
  • Energy Department lawsuit: We sued the Energy Department on Oct. 22 for records requested in our August FOIAs, and asked for expedited processing of the additional requests made earlier in the month.
NOVEMBER 2019

Late on Fri., Nov. 22, the State Department released the first set of documents in our initial lawsuit against the agency. The records showed contacts between Giuliani and Pompeo in the months before Yovanovitch’s recall, as well as an email indicating that Trump’s Oval Office gatekeeper helped put them in touch.

We filed a joint status report on Tues., Nov. 26, and asked the department to prioritize the release of communications between Pompeo and top officials like Sondland and Volker before the end of the year.

Also in November:

  • OMB and Defense Department lawsuit: We sued both agencies for directives and communications related to the effort to pressure Ukraine or to the withholding of congressionally approved military aid for the country.
  • Third State Department lawsuit: In this lawsuit, we’re suing for Sondland’s communications and his calendar entries.
  • Justice Department lawsuit: Our lawsuit against the DOJ seeks Ukraine-related communications of top officials.
  • New FOIAs: We also filed a number of new requests for records from various agencies, including the Departments of Commerce and the Treasury.
DECEMBER 2019

Stay tuned — as with the first set of documents last week, we’ll be posting records as soon as we get them. We’ll also be updating our website and our social media when we receive information about new deadlines. Like our executive director Austin Evers said last week, “Now that we have extracted these documents, they belong to the American public. They are public records, anyone can read them, and they belong to you.”

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Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State, DOD - National Security Agency, DOI - Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Investigation, Florida - Hillsborough County, Florida - Leon County, Florida Department of State, HHS - Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Office of the Director of National Intelligence
February 21, 2020

New State Department Ukraine Documents Released

Department of State
February 21, 2020

News Roundup: The Post-Impeachment Purge and the Knock of Authoritarianism

Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, DHS - United States Secret Service, DOI - Fish and Wildlife Service, HHS - Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, HHS - Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, White House - Office of Management and Budget
February 21, 2020

New Lawsuit Seeks Records of Mitch McConnell’s Influence at Transportation, Energy, State Departments

Department of Energy, Department of State, Department of Transportation
February 21, 2020

When the Government Uses Redactions to Hide Evidence of Wrongdoing

Department of Defense, Department of Justice, White House - Office of Management and Budget
February 14, 2020

News Roundup: Trump Has Learned His ‘Lesson’

Central Intelligence Agency, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, DOJ - Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, DOJ - Office of Information Policy, Federal Reserve, Florida House of Representatives, Florida Senate, Georgia - Cobb County, Georgia - DeKalb County, Georgia - Fulton County, Georgia - Gwinnett County, Georgia Secretary of State, HHS - Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Kentucky Office of the Governor, U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Wisconsin Senate, Wisconsin State Assembly
February 14, 2020

New Lawsuit Seeks Records of Complaints About Mike Pompeo’s Conduct

Central Intelligence Agency, Department of State
February 11, 2020

The Facts Are Still Coming Out

Department of Defense, White House - Office of Management and Budget
February 11, 2020

The Ukraine Investigation’s Unanswered Questions

Congress, Department of Energy, Department of Justice, Department of State
February 10, 2020

Ukraine Investigation Update: Volker Text Messages

Department of State
February 7, 2020

News Roundup: Acquittal Isn’t the End

Department of Energy, Department of Justice, Department of State, Florida Department of State, Georgia - Cobb County, Georgia - DeKalb County, Georgia - Fulton County, Georgia - Gwinnett County, Georgia Secretary of State, White House - Office of Management and Budget
February 6, 2020

The Investigation Continues: New Lawsuit Seeks Pence Ukraine Records

Department of State
February 5, 2020

Statement on Senate Impeachment Vote: Oversight Must and Will Continue

Congress
February 4, 2020

Energy Department Releases New Batch of Ukraine Documents

Department of Energy
January 31, 2020

News Roundup: Hear No Evil, See No Evil

Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, DOJ - Executive Office for Immigration Review, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons, HHS - Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Texas - Harris County, Texas Office of the Governor
January 31, 2020

Lifted Redactions Reveal August 2019 Esper Communications About Zelensky, Ukraine Assistance

Department of Defense, White House - Office of Management and Budget
January 28, 2020

Energy Department Releases Ukraine Documents to American Oversight

Department of Energy
January 27, 2020

American Oversight Is Investigating Impeachment Adviser Pam Bondi’s Communications with State Department Official

Department of State
January 24, 2020

News Roundup: Evidence of Obstruction

Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Transportation, DOT - Federal Aviation Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Communications Commission, Georgia - Clayton County, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority, Texas Attorney General, Texas Office of the Governor, Texas Secretary of State, Texas Senate, White House - Office of Management and Budget
January 22, 2020

OMB Releases 192 Pages of Ukraine Records to American Oversight

White House - Office of Management and Budget
January 17, 2020

News Roundup: The Evidence Continues to Mount

Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Justice, Department of State, Environmental Protection Agency, Georgia - Clayton County, Georgia - Hancock County, Georgia - Jefferson County, HHS - Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services
January 15, 2020

Updated Timeline: Messages About Yovanovitch Surveillance Happened Same Week as Giuliani-Pompeo Calls

Department of State
January 13, 2020

Energy Department Agrees to Release Ukraine Documents This Month

Department of Energy
January 10, 2020

State Department’s Release of Volker Calendars and Text Messages Raises Further Questions

Department of State
January 10, 2020

News Roundup: Presidential War Powers and New Impeachment Documents

Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, Florida - Hernando County, Florida - Nassau County, Florida - Okaloosa County, Florida - Seminole County, Florida Department of Corrections, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida Department of State, Florida Office of the Governor, HHS - Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, White House - Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
January 10, 2020

In the Documents: Investigating the Trump Administration’s Legal Analyses for Potential Use of Force Against Iran

Department of State
January 8, 2020

State Department Releases Additional Ukraine Documents to American Oversight

Department of State
January 7, 2020

Did the Trump Administration Abuse the Redactions Process?

Department of Defense, White House - Office of Management and Budget
December 27, 2019

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

December 21, 2019

Defense Department Ukraine Documents Released to American Oversight

Department of Defense
December 20, 2019

News Roundup: Beyond Impeachment — The Investigations Continue

Congress, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of Transportation, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DOL - Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, Federal Communications Commission, Government Accountability Office, HHS - Administration for Children and Families, HHS - Food and Drug Administration, White House - Office of Management and Budget
December 18, 2019

Why Trump Has Met the Standard for Obstruction of Congress

Congress, Department of Defense, Department of State
December 13, 2019

News Roundup: Stephen Miller’s Extremist Network

Congress, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DOI - Bureau of Land Management, DOI - Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Environmental Protection Agency, Georgia - Carroll County, Texas Attorney General, Treasury - Office of Foreign Assets Control, White House - Office of Management and Budget
December 12, 2019

American Oversight Sues for Treasury Communications About Russian Investment in Kentucky Plant

Department of the Treasury, Treasury - Office of Foreign Assets Control
December 11, 2019

Lawsuit over Administration’s Unlawful Seizure of Trump-Putin Meeting Notes Moves Forward

Department of State, National Archives and Records Administration
December 6, 2019

News Roundup: Impeachment Report, Border Wall Contracts, and Pompeo’s Meeting with GOP Donors

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State
December 3, 2019

House Committee Impeachment Report References State Department Documents Obtained by American Oversight

November 27, 2019

News Roundup: Thankful for FOIA

Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Kentucky Office of the Governor, USDA - Food Safety and Inspection Service
November 25, 2019

American Oversight Sues Justice Department for Ukraine-Related Communications

Department of Justice
November 22, 2019

State Department Releases Ukraine Documents to American Oversight

Department of State
November 22, 2019

News Roundup: Fiona Hill’s Warnings, Nikki Haley’s Emails, and Matt Bevin’s Stay at Trump’s Hotel

Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DOJ - Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Kentucky Office of the Governor
November 21, 2019

Nikki Haley Sent Classified Emails on an Unclassified Email System

Department of State
November 20, 2019

Sondland’s Testimony Highlights State Department Obstruction

Department of Energy, Department of State
November 15, 2019

News Roundup: Impeachment Inquiry Goes Public

Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Department of Veterans Affairs, Florida House of Representatives, Georgia - Bartow County, Georgia - Carroll County, Georgia - Decatur County, Georgia - Lowndes County, Georgia - Paulding County, Georgia Secretary of State, HHS - Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Texas - Dallas County, Texas - Harris County, Texas - Travis County, White House - Council on Environmental Quality
November 14, 2019

How ‘Sharpiegate’ Turned a Simple Misunderstanding into a Media Frenzy — and Headache for NOAA Employees

Commerce - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce
November 8, 2019

News Roundup: Ukraine-Related Documents, Hurdles for Asylum-Seekers, and Chad Wolf’s Involvement in Family Separation

Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, DOJ - Office of Information Policy, DOJ - Office of Legal Counsel, Environmental Protection Agency, Florida Office of the Governor, White House - Office of Management and Budget
November 7, 2019

What We Learned from the Yovanovitch and McKinley Transcripts

Congress, Department of State
October 31, 2019

State Department Agrees to Produce Ukraine Records to American Oversight by November 22

Department of State
October 25, 2019

News Roundup: Court Chips Away at Trump Administration Obstruction

October 24, 2019

Research Tool: Ukraine-Trump Key Figures and Documents

Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of State, Department of the Treasury
October 23, 2019

Federal Judge Says He Will Order State Department to Begin Turning Over Requested Ukraine Documents

Department of State
October 22, 2019

New Lawsuit Seeks Perry and Brouillette Ukraine Documents and Communications about Biden Investigation Effort

Department of Energy
October 18, 2019

News Roundup: Corruption, Plain and Simple

Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
October 18, 2019

Court Calls for Hearing on Emergency Motion for Ukraine Documents

Department of State
October 11, 2019

News Roundup: Impeachment, Obstruction, and More Questions about Rick Perry

Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, HHS - Administration for Children and Families, HHS - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
October 4, 2019

News Roundup: The Public Needs Answers

Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State
October 4, 2019

Pompeo’s Obstructionism Won’t Work

Department of State
October 2, 2019

Pompeo’s Letter Is the Trump Administration’s Opening Salvo of Obstruction

Department of State
October 1, 2019

We’re Suing the State Department for Giuliani-Ukraine Documents

Department of State
September 27, 2019

News Roundup: From the Top Down

Commerce - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, DOI - Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Florida - Collier County, White House - Council on Environmental Quality, White House - Office of Management and Budget
September 25, 2019

Release of Trump–Zelensky Call Readout Raises Questions About Justice Department Involvement

Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, U.S. Agency for International Development
September 20, 2019

News Roundup: Trump, Giuliani, and Ukraine

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Investigation, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Federal Reserve, HHS - Administration for Children and Families, HHS - National Institutes of Health, HHS - Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Texas - Starr County, Texas Attorney General, Texas Secretary of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
September 12, 2019

New Lawsuit Seeks State Department Records of Jared Kushner’s Middle East Trips

Department of State
June 7, 2019

News Roundup: Investigating Outside Influence and Political Appointments at the State Department

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Transportation, DHS - Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration
March 12, 2019

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

Commerce - International Trade Administration, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, White House - Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
January 9, 2019

Investigating the Acting Defense Secretary’s Ties to Boeing

Department of Defense
December 12, 2018

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

Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
February 9, 2018

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

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
December 17, 2017

Trump Transition GSA Emails and Memorandum of Understanding

General Services Administration
October 31, 2017

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

Department of State
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, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Investigation
August 1, 2017

American Oversight Obtains Attorney General Sessions SF-86 Signature Page

Department of Justice
August 1, 2017

Statement on Waiver of Environmental Regulations for Border Wall

July 21, 2017

American Oversight Calls for Resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Department of Justice, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Investigation
July 13, 2017

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

Department of Justice, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Investigation
June 16, 2017

Watchdog Group Files Lawsuit on Trump Border Wall

Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, White House - Office of Management and Budget
May 24, 2017

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

Department of Justice, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Investigation
May 16, 2017

American Oversight Demands Release of Comey-Trump Memos

Department of Justice, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Investigation
May 12, 2017

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

Department of Justice, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Investigation
May 10, 2017

Statement on the Firing of FBI Director Comey

DOJ - Federal Bureau of Investigation
May 10, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Calls for IG Investigation of Sessions for Violating Recusal

Department of Justice, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Investigation
April 19, 2017

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

Department of Justice, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Investigation, White House
March 28, 2017

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

Department of the Interior
March 24, 2017

American Oversight Launches Investigation of President Trump’s Border Wall

Department of Homeland Security
March 22, 2017

Statement on Intelligence Committee Chairman Nunes’ Actions

March 17, 2017

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

Office of Government Ethics, White House