News Roundup: DeVos, Mnuchin, Barr Testify in Congress

This week was packed with high-profile hearings on Capitol Hill. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Attorney General William Barr, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Deputy Attorney General nominee Jeffrey Rosen — all testified before Congress.

During his appearance before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, Mnuchin said that Treasury lawyers had consulted with White House lawyers about the potential release of President Donald Trump’s tax returns, which were requested by Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal last week. Neal had given Mnuchin a deadline of Wednesday, April 10, which Mnuchin missed — House Democrats were invoking a law stating that the treasury secretary “shall furnish” the records to Congress upon request of the Ways and Means chair.

On Wednesday, DeVos appeared before the House Education and Labor Committee and faced questions about Education Department policy that favors for-profit institutions and charter schools. We obtained resumes of Education Department political appointees that mirror DeVos’ prioritization of charter and private schools over traditional public education: only a fraction of the appointees hired by DeVos when she took office listed any experience in public schools on their resumes.

Barr spent two days on Hill answering lawmakers’ questions, but it was his second day that garnered the most attention. On Wednesday, Barr told a Senate subcommittee that he believed that FBI spying on the Trump campaign “did occur,” though he provided no evidence. It was an inflammatory statement to make at the same time that Congress and the public are awaiting the attorney general’s release of the Mueller report.

Barr has said that he intends to release the report next week, but questions remain about how much of it he will redact both for the public and for Congress. But it’s not just Mueller’s report that should be shared — Congress must also see the Mueller team’s extensive investigative work. And setting the precedent for this legislative branch oversight were none other than congressional Republicans, as American Oversight’s chief oversight counsel Molly Claflin explains over at the Daily Beast.

Here’s what’s been going on outside Capitol Hill hearing rooms:

Purge at Homeland Security: The week began with an alarming spate of firings at the Department of Homeland Security, as the president’s frustration with officials reportedly resisting his hardline anti-immigration proposals led to the ousting of Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Secret Service Director Randolph Alles as well as the withdrawal of Trump’s nomination of Ron Vitiello to head Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The shakeup has sent Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Patrol, to the top of DHS, and career official Matthew Albence to the top of ICE — but our investigation of Nielsen’s role in the administration’s family-separation policy isn’t going away.

“We Have Direct Access to Him”: A spokesperson for David Bernhardt — who on Thursday was confirmed as the new interior secretary — said that Bernhardt has had no contact with two officials from the International Petroleum Association of America who can be heard boasting of their “direct access” to Bernhardt on a recording published by the Center for Investigative Reporting. We want to know if the spokesperson’s claim is true, and are asking for communications that could shed light on what if any relationship Bernhardt has had with IPAA since he joined the administration.

New “Religious Freedom” Division: The Department of Health and Human Services created a new division within its Office of Civil Rights, known as the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division. Critics have argued that the office’s creation represents a win for conservative religious groups and could lead to discrimination. We want to know who is staffing the division, and have asked for records of any decision memos or policy documents.

“So Be Careful”: Back in October 2017, the director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Scott Angelle, provided his cell phone number to a meeting of an energy industry organization, instructing attendees to call him and warning them that texts and emails are public records “so be careful.” He added, “This is a business opportunity to engage with me on what you believe we ought to be about.” We’re asking for Angelle’s phone logs to find out about any calls that have taken place thanks to his advice on how to avoid public records laws.

Chemical Safety: In January, senators sent a letter to the EPA inspector general, calling for an investigation into allegations that Trump administration officials had impeded inspections at facilities in EPA Region 5 that emit ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing chemical. We filed a FOIA request for communications that EPA officials had about ethylene oxide and for any final guidance or instructions about inspections in Region 5.

Trump’s “Spiritual Adviser”: Pastor Paula White is a member of the president’s evangelical advisory board, and has been a frequent presence at the White House. White has said that she has enjoyed the role of an unofficial adviser to the president, advising him on issues like hurricane response and the U.S. embassy in Israel’s move to Jerusalem, and continues to use her connection to Trump to solicit funds for her personal ministry. We want to know more about her role and influence, and are asking for communications she’s had with political appointees at various government agencies.

Spending Taxpayer Money at Trump Properties: CNN reported this week that Defense Department employees have charged more than $300,000 at Trump properties since Trump took office, including at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and at the Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey. The president’s unprecedented ability to combine public office with personal profit has been a running theme of his administration — in late February, we reported that 14 federal agencies had told us they had no records of any general ethical guidance for federal employees spending money at Trump-owned businesses. Multiple other agencies — including the Defense Department — have not responded to the request.

Speaking of Spending Money at Trump Properties: An analysis of recent Justice Department filings reveals that the department has adopted a narrow interpretation of the foreign emoluments clause, which prohibits government officials (including the president) from accepting gifts from foreign governments without Congress’ approval. According to law professor and American Oversight board member Kathleen Clark, the department’s new stance “would permit the president … to accept unlimited amounts of money from foreign governments, as long as the money comes through commercial transactions with an entity owned by the federal official.”

No Records Here: Earlier this year, the White House announced that it would be creating a committee intended to challenge the science surrounding climate change. The panel is reportedly to be headed by William Happer, a climate skeptic who believes excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a good thing. The White House Council on Environmental Quality told us this week that it has no records of communication with Happer.

No Records Here, Either: Back in January, members of the Trump administration — including Secretary Nielsen — made a number of misleading statements about terrorism and immigration. We filed a FOIA request for DHS talking points regarding the number of known or suspected terrorists apprehended at the border to find out whether those misleading claims were part of the administration’s efforts to get funding for a border wall. This week, DHS told us it had no such records.

Related Blog Posts

July 29, 2020

New Coronavirus Relief Bill Includes Nearly $2 Billion for Trump-Requested FBI Headquarters Project

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget
July 14, 2020

Investigations Update: Militarization of Police, Covid-19 in Migrant Detention Centers, and Barr’s Political Interference

Central Intelligence Agency, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Defense Logistics Agency, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, General Services Administration, Office of Legal Counsel, Palm Beach County - Florida, Transportation Security Administration
July 10, 2020

News Roundup: Sidelining Safety and Science

Chicago Mayor's Office, Cook County - Illinois, Florida House of Representatives
July 9, 2020

Supreme Court Rejects Trump’s ‘Absolute Immunity’ Claims

Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, White House
July 1, 2020

American Oversight Sues Treasury for Records Related to Coronavirus Stimulus

Department of the Treasury
June 18, 2020

New Lawsuit Seeks Records of Jared Kushner’s Failed Coronavirus Supply Chain Task Force

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. International Development Finance Corporation
May 1, 2020

News Roundup: Protecting the Right to Vote During a Pandemic

Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, Arizona Department of Homeland Security, Arizona-Mexico Commission, Central Intelligence Agency, Cobb County - Georgia, Customs and Border Protection, DeKalb County - Georgia, Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of the Treasury, District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, Essex County - New Jersey, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Florida Department of State, Florida Office of the Governor, Food and Drug Administration, Fulton County - Georgia, Georgia Secretary of State, Gwinnett County - Georgia, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Indiana Secretary of State, Iowa Secretary of State, Kentucky Secretary of State, Kentucky State Board of Elections, Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, New Orleans, Office of Information Policy, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Richmond County - Georgia, Texas Attorney General, Texas Secretary of State, Wisconsin Elections Commission, Yuma County - Arizona
April 24, 2020

News Roundup: Miracle Drugs and Trump’s Alternate Reality

Albany-Dougherty County - Georgia, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Chatham County - Georgia, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Cobb County - Georgia, Cook County - Illinois, Customs and Border Protection, DeKalb County - Georgia, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, 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 Veterans Affairs, Federal Bureau of Prisons, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Florida Department of Corrections, Food and Drug Administration, Food Safety and Inspection Service, Fulton County - Georgia, General Services Administration, Georgia Department of Community Health, Gwinnett County - Georgia, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, King County - Washington, Macon-Bibb County - Georgia, Muscogee County - Georgia, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Office of Management and Budget, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Richmond County - Georgia, Texas Department of Health and Human Services, Veterans Health Administration
April 21, 2020

The Administration’s Attempts to Stonewall Investigations of Trump FBI Headquarters Interference Stumble in Court

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget
April 10, 2020

News Roundup: Corruption and Coronavirus

Agency for International Development, Census Bureau, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of the Treasury, Executive Office for Immigration Review, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Food and Drug Administration, Indian Health Service, Justice Management Division, Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, Nevada Department of the Administration, Office of Information Policy, Office of Legal Counsel, Social Security Administration, U.S. Department of the Navy, United States Secret Service
April 6, 2020

Administration-Wide Indifference Continues on How to Ethically Handle Spending Taxpayer Money at Trump Properties

Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State, Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Legal Counsel, Small Business Administration, U.S. Department of the Navy, United States Secret Service
March 27, 2020

News Roundup: Transparency and Oversight Are More Important Than Ever

Bartow County - Georgia, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Cobb County - Georgia, Customs and Border Protection, DeKalb County - Georgia, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, Drug Enforcement Administration, Executive Office for Immigration Review, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Federal Election Commission, Florida Department of State, Florida Office of the Attorney General, Florida Office of the Governor, Fulton County - Georgia, General Services Administration, Georgia Office of the Governor, Georgia Secretary of State, Gwinnett County - Georgia, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Security Division, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Personnel Management, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Tennessee Valley Authority, Texas Attorney General, Texas Office of the Governor, Texas Secretary of State, U.S. Marshals Service
March 6, 2020

News Roundup: Rising Coronavirus Fears and Sinking Public Trust

Administration for Children and Families, Agency for International Development, Briscoe County - Texas, Bureau of Land Management, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Cobb County - Georgia, Criminal Division, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, 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, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Federal Reserve, Food and Drug Administration, Freestone County - Texas, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Georgia Department of Driver Services, Georgia Secretary of State, Gwinnett County - Georgia, Hall County - Texas, Hill County - Texas, Hood County - Texas, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Jones County - Texas, Kendall County - Texas, King County - Washington, Lavaca County - Texas, Leon County - Texas, Limestone County - Texas, Loving County - Texas, Morris County - Texas, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Office of Information Policy, Office of Management and Budget, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Scurry County - Texas, Starr County - Texas, Swisher County - Texas, Texas Secretary of State, Veterans Health Administration, Victoria County - Texas, Washington State Department of Health
February 21, 2020

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

Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, 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, Fish and Wildlife Service, Food and Drug Administration, Office of Management and Budget, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, United States Secret Service
February 14, 2020

News Roundup: Trump Has Learned His ‘Lesson’

Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Central Intelligence Agency, Cobb County - Georgia, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, DeKalb County - Georgia, 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, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Federal Reserve, Florida House of Representatives, Florida Senate, Fulton County - Georgia, Georgia Secretary of State, Gwinnett County - Georgia, Kentucky Office of the Governor, Office of Information Policy, U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Wisconsin Senate, Wisconsin State Assembly
December 27, 2019

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

December 20, 2019

News Roundup: Beyond Impeachment — The Investigations Continue

Administration for Children and Families, Congress, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Customs and Border Protection, 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, Federal Communications Commission, Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Government Accountability Office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Office of Management and Budget
December 17, 2019

American Oversight Sues for U.S. Embassy Communications About Trump Properties

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
May 3, 2019

News Roundup: Above the Law

Congress, 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 Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Veterans Affairs, General Services Administration, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
May 3, 2019

New Evidence of Emoluments Violations Prompts American Oversight Lawsuit

Department of Justice, Department of State
April 30, 2019

American Oversight Sues HUD for Communications Related to Sale of Trump-Tied Housing Complex

Department of Housing and Urban Development
April 17, 2019

Why Congress — and the American People — Deserve to See Trump’s Tax Returns

Congress, Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, White House
March 25, 2019

The Corruption Continues: Mueller Has Finished His Work. American Oversight Has Not.

March 13, 2019

Two Years of American Oversight

March 8, 2019

News Roundup: Lawsuits Against Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services

March 4, 2019

FBI Headquarters Investigation: Agencies Refusing to Search for Records of Trump Interference to Protect Hotel

February 5, 2019

Lawsuit: Why Did Government-Run Site Attached to Trump Hotel Stay Open During the Shutdown?

General Services Administration, National Park Service, Office of Management and Budget
January 3, 2019

Government Site Attached to Trump Hotel Stays Open Despite Shutdown and We Want to Know Why

November 19, 2018

Ivanka Trump Email Investigation Sparked by American Oversight FOIAs

Department of Commerce, Department of Education, Department of Labor, Department of the Treasury, Small Business Administration
November 8, 2018

American Oversight Sues State Department for Trump Organization, Kushner Companies Records

Department of State
October 23, 2018

New Lawsuit Seeks Details of White House, Trump Organization Involvement in FBI Headquarters Decision

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget
May 3, 2018

Court Rules in Favor of American Oversight in Trump Hotel Lawsuit

General Services Administration
December 17, 2017

Trump Transition GSA Emails and Memorandum of Understanding

General Services Administration
December 11, 2017

State Department Emails Show How Embassy Websites Promoted Mar-a-Lago

Department of State
November 2, 2017

FOIA In Action: Helping Journalists Expose Questionable Behavior By Trump’s Appointees

Department of Education, Department of Labor, Small Business Administration
October 24, 2017

Texts Show SBA Staff Tried to “Crop the Opulence” from Trump Hotel Event

Small Business Administration
August 4, 2017

Ethics 101: Twitter Ads Follow President Trump to Bedminster, NJ

July 24, 2017

American Oversight Launches “Defund Trump” Investigation

Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Council on Environmental Quality, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
June 28, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Sues GSA for Trump International Hotel Lease Records

General Services Administration
May 3, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Calls for Investigation into Pattern of Promoting Trump Family Ventures on Government Websites

Department of State
April 25, 2017

American Oversight Files IG Complaint over State Department Promotion of Mar-A-Lago

Department of State
March 29, 2017

Call for GSA Inspector General to Review Trump Hotel Lease Decision

General Services Administration