News Roundup: Acosta Resigns and White House Admits Census Defeat

Labor Secretary Alex Acosta became at least the fourth member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet to resign in disgrace – joining the former heads of Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, and the EPA in departing the administration amid growing allegations of ethical misconduct. While Tom Price, David Shulkin, and Scott Pruitt all faced questions over abuse of their offices for personal benefit (a pattern that has also extended beyond the cabinet), Acosta was apparently brought down by his mishandling of the prosecution of Jeffrey Epstein during his previous service as a U.S. Attorney in Florida.

Acosta’s departure means that four cabinet agencies – Defense, Homeland Security, Labor, and the Small Business Administration – along with numerous sub-cabinet departments will be headed by acting officials who have not been confirmed into their roles by the Senate. President Trump has previously said he prefers having “acting” cabinet officials because it gives him “more flexibility,” but those temporary appointments also leave the American public with a government that may be less effective and, in some cases, unable to carry out its duties. Moreover, the widespread use of acting officials undercuts the Constitutional system of checks and balances in which the Senate, as the representative of the people, has the opportunity to confirm or reject nominees to key posts.

Meanwhile, Trump admitted defeat in his quest to add a citizenship question to the upcoming 2020 census and instructed federal agencies to attempt to determine the citizenship status of people living in the United States through other means. The reversal came after a week in which many of the government attorneys who had been arguing on behalf of the Trump administration in various census-related litigation attempted to withdraw from those cases and, in at least once instance, were blocked from doing so.

Here’s what else we’ve been tracking and working on this week:

Lawfare Podcast – On Tuesday, American Oversight’s executive director, Austin Evers, joined the Lawfare podcast to discuss the ongoing oversight battle between Congress and the White House. Trump insists his administration will fight “all the subpoenas” and is refusing to comply with even basic information requests from Congress, setting up a showdown over the balance of power in our government. Austin spoke with host Margaret Taylor and former House of Representatives senior counsel Michael Stern.

Up in Smoke: Taxpayer Funds for Trump’s Salute to America – It’s been just a week since President Trump turned the nation’s annual Independence Day celebration in Washington, DC, into a politically-charged, military showcase aimed at celebrating his own power – and we’re now starting to learn how much it all cost. According to an Interior Department letter obtained by ABC News, the cost to the federal government was more than $5.3 million. The Washington, DC, government separately reported that providing security for the occasion had cost $1.7 million and had bankrupted the fund used for securing high-profile events. We’ve filed FOIA requests with the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior to obtain copies of their emails with the Republican Party, the Trump campaign, affiliated Super-PACs, and various White House officials regarding the event. 

Undermining Obamacare (Again) – The Trump administration continued its attack on the Affordable Care Act – the law that guarantees Americans access to health insurance coverage and blocks insurers from denying care to those with preexisting conditions – as a federal appeals court heard arguments from states suing to declare the law unconstitutional. The case is likely to end up in front of the Supreme Court, but this is by no means the first (or realistically, the last) attempt by the Trump administration to undercut the health care law. American Oversight has filed multiple lawsuits to expose the facts about previous efforts to use legislation and administrative actions to chip away at health care protections. 

Watching the Revolving Door – The cabinet isn’t the only level of the Trump administration with high turnover. Earlier this year, senior EPA official Mandy Gunasekara left the agency to found an outside political advocacy group to support the administration’s energy agenda. We filed new Freedom of Information Act requests this week to find out whether Gunasekara has been communicating with her old colleagues in the administration to share information or influence policy. We’re seeking records from the EPA, Interior Department, and the Energy Department.

Oil Industry Influence at EPA – One of the policy changes being pushed by the EPA is a rollback of public health regulations governing harmful emissions from cars and other vehicles. According to news reports, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has made public statements about the SAFE Vehicles rule that conflict with information provided to him by the agency’s nonpartisan career staff. The oil industry has lobbied heavily for the rollback, which is projected to significantly increase domestic oil consumption. We want to find out what kind of influence the oil industry had on EPA leadership in advancing this rule – and we filed a new FOIA to get answers.  

Open Questions on the Census – Even with the administration retreating on its push to add a citizenship question to the upcoming census, we’re still investigating exactly how and why Trump officials were so eager to include that question in the first place. We’ve asked for copies of communications between now-deceased Republican consultant Tom Hofeller or presidential transition team member Mark Neuman and top officials at the Justice Department, Commerce Department, or Census Bureau