As states across the country enter various phases of “reopening,” sobering news about the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic continues to emerge.
On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that during the initial May distribution of the coronavirus treatment drug remdesivir, the Trump administration sent vials of the scarce medication to the wrong hospitals and to facilities without eligible patients or necessary refrigeration capabilities. “We think the earlier you get it when you’re critically ill, the more likely it is to be beneficial, so delays could end up making the difference between whether the drug is effective or not,” one physician told the Post. “The fact that we’d be so incompetent in our distribution of this that we’d … inefficiently distribute the one therapy we have is stunning.”
Public reporting has also indicated that many states have been attempting to paint a rosier picture conducive to reopening by inflating the number of conducted tests and lowering the number of deaths. Late last week, the Tampa Bay Times reported that a former data scientist was instructed by a top Florida public health official to manipulate numbers to downplay the threat of the Covid-19 disease. Wisconsin saw a record number of new coronavirus cases and deaths two weeks after the state supreme court struck down stay-at-home orders, and public health experts told Buzzfeed that recent projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were far too optimistic and lacking in data to back up the low numbers.
But the same week that the total known number of U.S. deaths from the coronavirus surpassed 100,000, President Donald Trump has resorted to his usual pastimes of golf and Twitter tirades. The White House, still committed to its strategy of blaming China, has even put a new target in its sights, that of Voice of America, the U.S.-funded multimedia agency that broadcasts around the globe. A recent “1600 Daily” newsletter criticized VOA for its reporting on China’s pandemic response, raising questions about whether Trump is going to use the dispute to renew his push to install conservative activist and filmmaker Michael Pack as head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which supervises VOA.
American Oversight filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the agency for communications between select officials and the White House, as well as communications about the White House’s criticism. We’ve also filed new FOIA requests with the Food and Drug Administration for external communications, emails with White House officials, or guidance regarding relevant medical products or treatments, including remdesivir, or related emergency use authorizations. Other FDA communications we’ve requested include those with White House Senior Advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, whose roles in the pandemic response remain nearly as murky as their lack of expertise is clear.
American Oversight has also continued its investigation of how the Trump administration is using the pandemic to further its far-right anti-immigration policies. In March, the Trump administration halted asylum claims processing at U.S. ports of entry, potentially violating the Refugee Act of 1980. At the same time, the CDC issued an order, extended earlier this month, and new rules, justifying the halt as a precaution for mitigating the spread of coronavirus.
White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller reportedly tried to use a public health law in 2019 to curb immigration during outbreaks of mumps and the flu. We filed FOIA requests with multiple agencies for legal analyses of the CDC’s order and extension. We also requested White House directives sent to the Department of Homeland Security regarding asylum claims processing, as well as HHS senior officials’ communications with White House staff, including Miller.
Meanwhile, the federal government continues to deport people, moving people from overcrowded detention facilities across borders and effectively exporting the virus to other nations. In Guatemala, U.S. deportees make up roughly 19 percent of the country’s coronavirus cases. We filed FOIA requests with DHS for analyses and guidance from health agencies on the spread of coronavirus through deportations. We also asked DHS and the State Department for records of communications and meetings with the Guatemalan Ministry of Health.
For more on our investigation into the government’s pandemic response and everything else we’ve been working on this week, read on:
Investigating the Pompeo Family’s Perks: Secretary Mike Pompeo’s use of State Department resources has come under fresh scrutiny following reports that a recently ousted inspector general was investigating potential misconduct by Pompeo. There is also reporting that Pompeo used his position as Secretary of State to secure better housing from the Defense Department, and that his spouse, Susan Pompeo, has also improperly used State resources. We filed a request to multiple agencies for records and communications regarding military housing for Pompeo, and with the State Department for communications between agency officials and Susan Pompeo.
New Information on Pompeo’s 2017 Military Flights to His Home State: The news of Trump’s intention to fire the State Department’s internal watchdog unleashed a torrent of other concerning stories about Pompeo, from allegations that he improperly had an aide run personal errands for him and his family to lavish dinners with notable conservative media figures and politicians hosted by him and his wife on the taxpayers’ dime. His frequent trips to his home state of Kansas have fueled speculation that Pompeo is using his position to prepare for a run for office. American Oversight has uncovered new information about trips he took to Wichita in 2017, when he was still CIA director. You can read more here.
Transcripts of Flynn’s Calls with Russian Ambassador: The transcripts of the phone calls between former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Russian Amb. Sergey Kislyak are of extraordinary national concern. They have taken on even greater importance since the Justice Department filed a motion to drop the case against Flynn earlier this month — despite the fact he pleaded guilty twice to having lied to the FBI about his contacts with foreign government officials. We filed a request to the Justice Department for any transcripts or recordings of calls between Kislyak and Flynn from December 2016. We also asked for any related intelligence reports, or purge requests that would affect related records.
Republican Convention in North Carolina: Trump and Republicans have been pushing North Carolina state leaders and Charlotte city officials to fully commit to following through with the plan to host the Republican National Convention there in August. In response to Gov. Roy Cooper’s call for the party to submit a safety plan, Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and the president of the convention committee, Marcia Lee Kelly, sent a letter on Thursday listing the measures that the RNC would take and giving the governor a June 3 deadline to commit to hosting. The measures do not include masks or social distancing — according to the New York Times, McDaniel said Trump didn’t like the idea of televised mask-wearing — and mentioned requiring attendees to “pass a clean health check” without elaborating on what that entailed. We’re asking for any communications officials in the North Carolina Department of Health or the governor’s office had with the RNC or the Trump campaign.
Transgender Student Protections Under Attack: Under Secretary Betsy DeVos’s leadership, the Department of Education has rolled back protections for transgender students. In February 2017, Trump revoked previous guidance that allowed transgender students to use school bathrooms that reflected their gender identity. In July 2019, it was reported that the department’s Office of Civil Rights scaled back enforcement and investigations concerning complaints of harassment from LGBTQ students. We asked the department for records — including directives, orders, guidance, or decision memos — regarding the process of investigating and resolving student complaints concerning sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination.
$10,000 in Coronavirus Relief — in Exchange for Social Security: Earlier this month the Washington Post reported that Paul Touw, a chief strategy officer to State Department Undersecretary Keith Krach, authored a 29-page memo known as the “Eagle Plan,” which would provide fiscal relief during the coronavirus pandemic by overhauling federal retirement programs. Under such a plan, some workers would receive $10,000 upfront in exchange for cuts to their retirement benefits, including Social Security. We filed FOIA requests with the State Department for Touw’s communications about the idea, and for a copy of the plan itself.
McConnell’s Vow to ‘Leave No Vacancy Behind’: Yesterday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham told federal judges in their 60s to step aside and take senior status to create vacancies that can be filled by younger conservatives. Graham, who made the comment during an interview with Hugh Hewitt, echoes the long-held judicial priorities set by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. During an April appearance on the same conservative radio talk show, McConnell said his “motto” for the year is to “leave no vacancy behind.” We asked for communications between high-ranking Justice Department officials and Mitch McConnell’s office.
State of the Union Scholarship: During this year’s State of the Union address, Trump announced that one of his special guests, fourth grade student Janiyah Davis, would be receiving an “opportunity scholarship” to attend a presumably higher-performing school of her family’s choice. It was later reported that DeVos, whose family has founded and actively supports several charter schools, was personally funding the opportunity scholarship. We filed a FOIA request to the Department of Education for email communications about how the scholarship is being handled by the agency.
Wisconsin Absentee Ballot Data: On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Election Commission voted to send absentee ballot applications to about 2.7 million voters. We asked multiple Wisconsin counties for data on absentee ballots that were received, sent, counted, or rejected. The requests also seek complaints regarding Wisconsin’s April 7 in-person election. You can read more about our voting rights work here, and about our ongoing investigation into Wisconsin’s voter rolls purges here.
Newly Annotated Agency Calendars: This week, we added more documents to our collection of political appointees’ calendars. Former Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan’s calendars show he had meetings with multiple technology companies at the same time the Defense Department was soliciting contract bids for the controversial Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure project, as well as meetings regarding the transgender military ban. We also published more 2017 and 2018 EPA calendar records, which document meetings between then-Administrator Scott Pruitt and various conservative interests.
Part of Investigation: