Investigations Update: Vote-by-Mail Disinformation Campaigns, Drug Coupons for Seniors, and 2020 Census Interference

Here’s a look at the investigations our team has been pursuing through public records requests and the Freedom of Information Act in the last week:

Outside Influence in Judicial Nominations Process
This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee began four days of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Throughout the duration of the Trump administration, news reports have pointed to powerful conservative outside influences in the judicial nomination process, including for Supreme Court seats. Previously, we filed FOIA requests for Attorney General William Barr’s visitor logs to learn more about the people and groups that have personal access to key Justice Department officials. This past week, we filed more requests with the Justice Department for the visitor logs of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Assistant Attorneys General Beth Ann Williams and Eric Dreiband.

Drug Coupons for Seniors
In late September, Trump announced that 33 million seniors on Medicare would receive $200 drug discount cards in the upcoming weeks. “Nobody’s seen this before, these cards are incredible,” the president said, regarding what many have criticized as being akin to a bribe for seniors’ votes. According to reporting by Politico, officials at the Department of Health and Human Services were caught off-guard by the initiative and are being pressured by the White House to roll out the program before Election Day. We filed FOIA requests with HHS and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for communications regarding the drug coupons. 

Foreign Disinformation Campaigns Against Voting by Mail
On Sept. 3, lawmakers were reportedly briefed on an unclassified analysis from the Department of Homeland Security concerning foreign disinformation campaigns aimed at the upcoming presidential election. The analysis, which members of Congress have requested be made public, shows that those campaigns are trying to undermine Americans’ confidence in voting by mail — and that their rhetoric echo comments made by Trump and other members of his administration. We filed a FOIA request with DHS for a copy of the analysis. DHS-20-2494 

Meddling with the 2020 Census
Late Tuesday afternoon, the Supreme Court granted the Trump administration’s request to cut short the census count weeks early, suspending a lower court’s order that it maintain its deadline of the end of October. This is one of multiple attempts by the administration to interfere with the operations of the 2020 census for political reasons, including efforts to exclude undocumented residents from the final tally for congressional re-apportionment. We filed FOIA requests with the Census Bureau and the Commerce Department for recent communications and directives regarding the census, including records about counting immigrant residents, cutoff dates, and related policies. 

White House Considers Social Media Bias Probe
On Sept. 23, Trump delivered remarks about anti-conservative bias on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and urged state attorneys general to open their own investigations into the matter. The president has repeatedly, and without evidence, claimed that social media companies have censored or otherwise targeted conservative activists or viewpoints. We sent records requests to attorneys general in Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas for records regarding investigations into alleged political bias on social media platforms.

Non-Disclosure Agreement of Former Melania Trump Aide
Earlier this month, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, former senior adviser and “close friend” to Melania Trump, released controversial recordings of the first lady complaining about White House Christmas preparations, Stormy Daniels, and the media’s coverage of the administration’s family-separation policy. According to new reports, prior to the release of the recordings, the Justice Department attempted to block a tell-all book written by Wolkoff about her time as the first lady’s adviser. We filed FOIA requests to the Justice Department for records and communications about Wolkoff, including for a copy of a non-disclosure agreement she reportedly signed.  

State-Level Preparations for the Election

American Oversight continues to investigate threats to democracy on the state level as well as potential Trump administration interference in election operations. We filed the following state-related requests over the past week: 

  • Politico recently reported on a heated meeting between state election officials and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy after the U.S. Postal Service started sending informational notices about voting by mail to residents across the country — despite those mailings containing information that was not accurate in every state. We filed records requests with multiple secretaries of state for records concerning the meeting. 
  • A series of lawsuits between state officials and voting advocates have complicated where (and how many) official ballot drop boxes will exist in each Ohio county. Most recently, a federal appeals court ruled to temporarily reinstate Ohio’s limit on ballot drop boxes until a permanent decision comes on the case. We filed a records request with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office for communications about the use of ballot drop boxes in the 2020 presidential election. 
  • In August, the New Republic reported that a staffer for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who last week was accused of abusing his office and taking bribes — worked with Republican operative Aaron Harris and the group Project Veritas in an effort to uncover evidence of voter fraud. Project Veritas is a right-wing activist group founded by James O’Keefe, and is known for releasing deceptively edited videos to advance claims against liberal groups and individuals. We filed a request with the Texas Attorney General’s office for communications with Project Veritas.