News Roundup: Above the Law

As investigations swirl around the White House, and as the Trump administration escalates its fight with Congress, the president’s belief that the rules do not apply to him has been thrown into stark relief.

From his mixing of business with public service to his resistance to congressional investigations — including of his financial history, of his potential obstruction of justice, or of the White House’s security processes — Trump and his administration have been operating as if they are above the law.

For the past two years of his presidency, Trump’s failure to financially divest from his businesses has allowed him to profit off the presidency in ways unprecedented in modern U.S. history. In some cases, that has taken the form of allowing taxpayer money to be spent at Trump properties; at other times, it has raised questions about administration decisions that led to money going straight to the president’s pockets.

The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., is a glaring example of this. During the record-long partial government shutdown earlier this year, as national parks across the country remained shuttered and unattended, the government reopened a National Park Service site attached to the hotel. Records we received in response to our lawsuit about the General Services Administration’s decision to keep the site open indicate that GSA officials were frustrated by their agency’s slow response in explaining the decision. The documents also include an agreement between NPS and GSA to keep the site open.

Also this week, Reuters reported that in 2017 the State Department had approved multiple requests from foreign governments to lease space in the Trump World Tower in New York without congressional approval, as required by the Constitution’s emoluments clause. On Friday, American Oversight sued the Justice and State Departments for records related to those approvals. The public deserves to know whether the administration failed to consider the constitutional issue of emoluments — or whether it did, and approved the leases regardless.

Of course, that is not the only constitutional concern of the past few weeks. The publication of the Mueller report made clear the numerous ways Trump tried to thwart investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russian election interference, but since the report’s release the president has gone even further to shield himself from Congress’ constitutional power to investigate and oversee the executive branch, from ignoring subpoenas to suing the House Oversight chair. Here are seven ways the Trump administration has been systematically delegitimizing our system of checks and balances.

But since the president and his administration are, in fact, not above the law, here’s what else American Oversight has been investigating this week:

Pompeo’s Political Ambitions: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently took media-heavy trips to Iowa, Texas and Kansas, fueling speculation that Pompeo could be looking to a future in U.S. electoral politics — specifically, running for Senator Pat Robert’s seat in the next election cycle, for the Kansas governorship, or even eventually for the presidency. We’ve asked the State Department for his communications with outside entities, as well as for information about the costs of Pompeo’s domestic travel.

State Department Spending: Speaking of Pompeo’s travels, in January Pompeo’s wife accompanied him on an eight-day trip to the Middle East — during the partial government shutdown — requiring additional State Department staffing and transportation support. We want to know more about Susan Pompeo’s taxpayer-funded trips, and we also filed a Freedom of Information Act request for records related to Pompeo’s having received approval to rent a home on a military base to find out whether the arrangement does in fact “present taxpayers a significant cost savings,” as the State Department has claimed. Another FOIA request seeks records of State Department office renovations, because the past two years have shown that such remodeling can often represent a significant taxpayer expense.

Jared Kushner’s WhatsApp Messages: This spring, House Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings sent a letter to the White House detailing Jared Kushner’s use of private email and messaging applications like WhatsApp to conduct official business. (Yes, it’s all too familiar.) American Oversight filed FOIA requests across the administration, seeking messages Kushner exchanged with a number of top officials that the president’s son-in-law is reported to have close working or personal relationships with, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, OMB Director and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, officials at the Veterans Affairs and the State Departments (including Pompeo), and HUD Secretary Ben Carson along with HUD official Lynne Patton.

Selling Trump’s Emergency Declaration: In late February, as lawmakers criticized and questioned the legality of the president’s use of an emergency declaration to obtain funds to build a border wall without congressional appropriation, Vice President Mike Pence attended a lunch with at least one Justice Department lawyer to try to address Republican senators’ concerns. We filed a FOIA request to learn more about the Justice Department’s efforts to persuade lawmakers to support the declaration.

Politicizing Health Care: On Thursday, the Trump administration finalized new rules that would make it easier for health-care workers to refuse to provide care that violates their religious or moral beliefs, such as abortion or contraception. We’ve been investigating the influence of anti-abortion rights groups in the Trump administration, and are suing the Department of Health and Human Services for communications between senior appointees and various anti-abortion groups.

Border Wall Construction: Last week, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it was expediting the replacement of barriers along the southern border. The announcement came the same day that the Government Accountability Office issued a report saying that DHS had failed to properly measure costs and effectiveness in its border wall planning. Of course, as we know from our investigation of the Trump administration’s first year and a half of preparations to build a promised border wall, poor planning — or lack of planning altogether — is not unusual.

Interior’s FOIA Failings: Issues with the Department of the Interior meeting its FOIA obligations continue. Organizations involved in a lawsuit against the department over cuts to a national monument have accused Interior of failing to meet court-ordered requirements for releasing public documents. Back in January, American Oversight and Democracy Forward submitted a comment opposing proposed new rules that would allow the Interior Department to avoid transparency and accountability.

Erik Prince’s Comeback: The Intercept published on Friday an article detailing how Erik Prince, the founder of the private military contractor Blackwater (and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ brother), used Trump’s political rise to “make an improbable comeback.” We’ve been investigating Prince’s influence in the administration and whether the United States is considering privatizing wars overseas.

Remember Tom Price?: The former HHS secretary only served for half a year, but as Politico’s Dan Diamond wrote, looking at his calendars, which we obtained, “reveals insights into how the Trump administration was setting strategy” — namely, with numerous meetings with industry leaders.