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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Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Kentucky Office of the Governor
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, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 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

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

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

Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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, Environmental Protection Agency, Florida Office of the Governor, Office of Information Policy, Office of Legal Counsel, 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

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State
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

Administration for Children and Families, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security
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

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

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

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

News Roundup: Trump, Giuliani, and Ukraine

Administration for Children and Families, Agency for International Development, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Customs and Border Protection, 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, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Reserve, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Institutes of Health, Starr County - Texas, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Texas Attorney General, Texas Secretary of State, 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, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration
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
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

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State
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
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, 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, Federal Bureau of Investigation
July 13, 2017

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

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
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
May 24, 2017

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

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

American Oversight Demands Release of Comey-Trump Memos

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

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

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

Statement on the Firing of FBI Director Comey

Federal Bureau of Investigation
May 10, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Calls for IG Investigation of Sessions for Violating Recusal

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
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
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