In a year that began with the administration shutting down its “voter fraud” commission and ended with the president shutting down the government over an ill-conceived border wall, American Oversight submitted more than 1,000 Freedom of Information Act requests, filed 56 lawsuits, and published tens of thousands of pages of documents.
The new year brings with it a new Congress prepared to aggressively investigate the administration, and American Oversight will be continuing its work to uncover governmental misconduct, scrutinize conflicts of interest, and expose corruption. As 2018 comes to a close, here’s a look back at what was uncovered and a look ahead at what comes next.
In early January, weeks after a federal judge ordered the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity to release records to Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, a commission member, President Trump disbanded the commission. American Oversight, which was representing Dunlap in his lawsuit, didn’t stop fighting for the records — and months later Dunlap finally received them. They revealed that contrary to what Trump and Commission Vice Chair Kris Kobach had claimed, no evidence of widespread voter fraud had been found.
A $31,000 dining set for Housing Secretary Ben Carson. A secret $43,000 phone booth for former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Bear and bison heads around the office of outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. American Oversight’s suite of FOIA requests seeking records of money spent on office renovations, sent to agencies across the administration, revealed the true cost of Pruitt’s phone booth and caught Carson in a lie about his pricey new furniture. According to emails we received the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the exposure of Carson’s spending may have deterred agency officials< from similar lavish spending sprees.
Loyalty over qualifications, and ethical conflicts over experience — American Oversight has been investigating political appointees across the government since the beginning of the Trump administration. Records have revealed that political loyalists with limited or no relevant political experience got top jobs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and we’ve continued to dig out the resumes of political appointees, from the White House climate adviser with no experience in energy to Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s “strong computer skills.” When officials have any relevant experience, it is often because they used to work for the industries they are now tasked with regulating.
After the 2016 presidential campaign, you’d think they would have learned. In 2017, American Oversight filed FOIA requests and eventually a lawsuit seeking emails between Ivanka Trump and senior officials at five federal agencies, leading to the discovery of several emails Ivanka Trump had sent from her personal email system using the address email@example.com. In November 2018, the Washington Post reported that our lawsuit had triggered a White House investigation of Ivanka Trump’s private email use, an investigation that ultimately found the first daughter used personal email on hundreds of occasions while working in the White House.
Federal employees have received their share of mixed messages when it comes to the Hatch Act, which places restrictions on their political activity. Recent guidance from the Office of the Special Counsel (not Robert Mueller) bans employees from discussing the “resistance” or presidential impeachment (though under unclear circumstances), but apparently this abundance of caution doesn’t apply to certain members of the administration. American Oversight called for an investigation after news broke that Acting Attorney General Whitaker had accepted campaign contributions while working as a federal employee, and the OSC confirmed that it had opened a case file to look into it. And earlier in 2018, we called for an investigation of FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who promoted the Trump campaign while appearing in his official capacity.
Throughout the year, our FOIA requests and investigations at dozens of federal agencies uncovered numerous examples of misconduct, conflicts of interest, and questionable behavior — from Ben Carson allowing his son to play a key role at HUD to Interior Secretary Zinke’s wife joining him on travel and arranging private VIP tours of national parks. American Oversight has also been investigating the influence that three members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club have on policy at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Trump’s use of immigration as a rhetorical tool to inflame his political base began during his presidential campaign and has seeped into policy. The administration officially ended its zero-tolerance immigration enforcement policy this past summer, but news reports indicate that families have still been separated at the border and that minors have died in custody. American Oversight’s investigation of the administration’s family-separation policy is ongoing, with multiple lawsuits still open. We’re also investigating the extent to which the president politicized the so-called migrant caravan in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections, and have requested records related to the use of tear gas on migrants at the border in late November.
In the fall of 2017, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol tweeted out a photo of arrested undocumented immigrants alongside the hashtag #CatchOfTheDay — a phrase, of course, usually reserved for fish. American Oversight immediately filed a FOIA request for records of the hashtag’s use, eventually filing a lawsuit. Documents we obtained in 2018 include an email, sent by a CBP media officer just a couple of days after our FOIA request, reminding employees to treat people “with dignity and respect.” But emails we received in November 2018 showed that when a diversity officer at the VA wanted to issue a statement condemning the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, she was blocked by a senior Trump administration appointee.
The president has repeatedly called for the DOJ and the FBI to investigate his perceived enemies, and there are serious concerns about attempts to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Acting Attorney General Whitaker has refused to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation, despite publicly criticizing the investigation in the past, and Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr, has also made statements in opposition to the investigation. An American Oversight FOIA request uncovered that Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski, who has ties to a large Russian bank, had recused himself from the investigation, and we’re still investigating ethics determinations and past communications for Whitaker and Barr.
The year 2018 is ending with a government shutdown, as Trump refused to sign any spending bill that didn’t grant $5 billion for his promised wall along the southern border. One problem (among many): The administration has made next to none of the necessary preparations — legal, diplomatic, logistic — for building a wall. Our “Audit the Wall” report reveals his calls for a wall (and his political hostage-taking) to be little more than another rhetorical tool used to rally his political base.
Many of these investigations aren’t going away in the new year. We’re still looking at how cabinet officials spend taxpayer dollars; who’s getting plum political appointments despite inexperience or financial conflicts; who used personal email for government business; what went into the development of the administration’s immigration policies; and who can be involved in the Mueller investigation.
The difference in 2019, of course, is that there is a new Congress and a new House majority that plans to use its subpoena power to obtain this information as well. Incoming House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings will be demanding information about the administration’s family-separation policy as well as records of the misuse of government aircraft or using chartered jets at taxpayer expense. Congress also has its investigative sights on personal email use among White House officials, the Mar-a-Lago crowd’s influence on the VA, and FEMA’s botched response to hurricanes.
With our Parallel Investigations initiative, American Oversight is ready to file FOIA requests that mirror what Congress is asking for, and we’re prepared to go to court to prevent the administration from ducking accountability.
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