American Oversight Challenges Excessive Redactions in Health Care Negotiation Documents Released by HHS and OMB in Response to FOIA Lawsuit
Washington, DC – New documents released today by nonpartisan ethics watchdog American Oversight show the Trump administration taking extraordinary steps to hide the details of its health care reform negotiations with top congressional leaders including House Speaker Paul Ryan.
The heavily-redacted records include emails between senior Trump administration officials and congressional leaders, including Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney, White House legislative director Marc Short, Speaker Ryan, aides to Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and a number of other Republican lawmakers and staff. American Oversight has filed a report with the court challenging the redactions.
“After repeatedly failing to pass health care reform, the Trump administration wants to ensure the American people never see how the sausage wasn’t made,” said Austin Evers, Executive Director of American Oversight. “Secrecy has governed the Obamacare repeal process from its inception all the way to last week’s defeat, so it is sadly not surprising that the administration is going to extraordinary lengths to hide the paper trail of its failed negotiations. What is it they don’t what the public to see?”
American Oversight today posted 1,400 pages of documents received from OMB and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reflecting health care reform communications with Congress. The documents were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by American Oversight seeking communications between those agencies and Congress about the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. This is the second of three sets of documents that a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to release this summer.
Despite redactions, the documents indicate that Mulvaney, Ryan, and other senior officials were directly involved in negotiations over the various versions of health care reform legislation. In one example, Mulvaney responds to a long, totally redacted email from Ryan’s policy director Austin Smythe, with the question: “Austin.. [sic] help me. What specifically are you asking us to do?” Smythe’s answer is redacted.
The Trump administration improperly redacted the contents of the majority of the emails released today. Longstanding practice and black and white case law require the release of communications of this kind between agencies and Congress. Under FOIA, agencies may redact some internal agency or interagency deliberations, but emails such as those between an agency head like Mulvaney and Speaker Ryan or his staff may not be withheld.
Evers continued, “The Freedom of Information Act doesn’t allow the Trump administration to hide its communications just because they might be embarrassing to the president or his cabinet. We’ll be asking the court to order the government to comply with the law and release these emails in full.”
American Oversight has asked the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to review the improperly redacted documents as quickly as possible. In a status report filed on August 2, 2017, American Oversight wrote that the redactions “are without legal support and are directly at odds with the plain text” of FOIA.
Despite heavy redactions, the records released today by American Oversight clearly show coordination and negotiations between senior Trump administration officials and congressional leaders regarding health care reform.
Select excerpts of the documents are highlighted below. The full sets of documents released by HHS and OMB can be found here:
Emails between Speaker Paul Ryan and senior administration officials:
Email between OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and Speaker Ryan’s policy director Austin Smythe asking for guidance:
OMB Director Mick Mulvaney forwarding an email from what appears to be a non-governmental email account:
Communication between Speaker Ryan’s Chief of Staff and White House legislative aide Marc Short, regarding Rep. Wittman’s opposition to a health care bill:
Redacted text of a Social Security reform bill from a Santander Bank lobbyist who was previously Mick Mulvaney’s congressional Chief of Staff:
Communications between administration staff and an aide to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:
A calendar entry for a call with Senator Lisa Murkowski:
Email exchange between HHS official and aide to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy regarding a health care war room:
Email exchange regarding a call with Senator Shelley Moore Capito:
Part of Investigation: