News Round-up: Attorney General Nomination, Family Separation Lawsuits, and Treating Immigrants Like Humans

On Friday, after some speculation, President Trump announced that William Barr — who headed the Justice Department when President George H.W. Bush pardoned officials involved in the Iran-Contra affair — would be nominated as the next attorney general.

The news comes as Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker faces increasing pressure from Congress and watchdog groups over political and financial conflict of interests. And as American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers noted, Barr’s selection could also be a sign of Whitaker’s involvement.

Two weeks ago, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out if Barr’s current law firm, Kirkland & Ellis, had insider access to senior DOJ officials. We’ve been continuing our investigation of Whitaker (here’s his resume, and we still want to know more about his involvement with a firm accused of fraud), and we uncovered communications indicating that Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski has been recused from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Here’s what else American Oversight has been working on this past week:

  • The Senate confirmed Kathy Kraninger to head the besieged Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She’ll be taking over for Acting Director Mick Mulvaney (who is also the director of the Office of Management and Budget, where Kraninger has been working most recently). Mulvaney has been criticized for dismantling much of the agency’s work, including its regular review of banks and lenders that work with military members. We’re seeking agency communications about the decision to end these routine examinations. We’ve also been looking into Kraninger and OMB’s involvement in the transfer of nearly $10 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as her participation in the administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy.
  • That zero-tolerance policy, which resulted in the separation of thousands of immigrant children from their parents at the border, is the subject of multiple lawsuits American Oversight filed this week. Trump officially ended the policy in June, but news reports indicate that families are still being separated, and as part of our investigation of the policy’s development and implementation, we’re suing for records that can shed light on its costs and on the conditions in the detention facilities.
  • Buzzfeed reported Thursday, based on documents we received from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, that a CBP media officer had to remind everyone at the agency that using dehumanizing language to describe immigrants “detracts” from every person’s “inherent dignity and respect.” Two days before that email, American Oversight had filed a Freedom of Information Act request about the agency’s use of “#CatchOfTheDay” to describe recently apprehended undocumented immigrants — a phrase, of course, commonly used to describe freshly caught fish.
  • A diversity officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs had less success in sending out a similar email in 2017, this one denouncing the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. A Washington Post article, referencing documents we obtained about the incident, describes how the official was blocked by the Trump administration from issuing a forceful condemnation.
  • The VA continues to draw scrutiny regarding the influence of the so-called Mar-a-Lago trio — three friends of Trump who frequent his Florida club — including their involvement with a multibillion-dollar contract for overhauling the department’s electronic records system. We’ve also been investigating their influence in VA policymaking.
  • The administration announced plans to ease oil and mining restrictions that were put in place to protect the at-risk populations of a Western bird called the sage grouse. On Thursday, we filed FOIA requests for records of communications between Congress and three agencies about the Endangered Species Act, and we continue to investigate the influence of oil and gas interests within the administration — including within the Department of the Interior. This week, we filed multiple FOIA requests seeking information about Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, who would likely take over at Interior if Ryan Zinke were to depart, and any communications he and other Interior officials had with Congress and with the oil and gas industry.
  • As the stock market careened from the president’s mixed messages on trade with China, Trump also said he would move to cancel the North American Free Trade Agreement as a way to force Congress to pass his recently signed U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Emails we uncovered reveal tension between the office of the U.S. Trade Representative and congressional staff regarding the NAFTA renegotiation, due in large part to poor communication on the part of USTR.
  • On Friday, the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) reminded agency ethics officials of their obligation to promptly release public financial disclosure reports. This comes just a few weeks after Acting AG Whitaker’s reports, which American Oversight had demanded the release of, were finally made public after long delay — a delay that we urged OGE to investigate.
  • This week, Mother Jones published a story about House Democrats’ plans to investigate Ajit Pai, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, and the agency’s ties to the telecommunications industry. Included in the story are documents American Oversight received that show Pai had a private dinner with the same AT&T executive who hired Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, before the company’s approved merger with Time Warner.

Other FOIAs from this week: We’re seeking information about the anti-abortion former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Scott Lloyd, and his new book; records that can shed light on the government’s response to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and records regarding administration appointments to the Millennium Challenge Corporation.