News Roundup: All Eyes on the Mueller Report

This week’s U.S. news all seemed to orbit around Thursday’s release of the redacted Mueller report. Attorney General William Barr, who last month had sent Congress a brief, four-page summary of the 400-plus-page report, held a press conference Thursday morning before the Justice Department actually shared the report with the public.

Barr’s press conference was notable in his use of the word “collusion” — a word not used in his initial summary, and that reflects President Donald Trump’s oft-repeated phrase “No collusion!” Barr’s presentation was even more troubling given that the actual report, released hours later, explicitly says that Mueller’s investigation focused on whether there was “conspiracy” or “coordination,” rather than collusion. In fact, the report states, “In evaluating whether evidence about collective action of multiple individuals constituted a crime, we applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of ‘collusion.’ … [C]ollusion is not a specific offense of theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law.”

The report itself also contains numerous redactions, and while Barr has said he will provide certain members of Congress and their staff with a less-redacted version, he also said he would not lift all redactions. American Oversight’s chief oversight counsel Molly Claflin and staff attorney Daniel McGrath give an explanation of Barr’s four types of redactions here, along with an analysis of where Barr could — and should — go further to release more information, both to Congress and to the public. Of course, it’s not just lifted redactions that Congress should see — Republican members of Congress themselves set the precedent not so long ago that lawmakers should also be able to see the underlying evidence.

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

Motion for Discovery: In February — months after having submitted a sworn declaration that it had no written records of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointing a federal prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton — the Justice Department uncovered a signed directive from Sessions to U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber. American Oversight has asked the court to allow for discovery, a legal proceeding rarely used in Freedom of Information Act litigation, because the belated release of that signed directive calls into question whether the Justice Department had been fulfilling its duties in good faith under FOIA. Read more here.

Erik Prince: One of the figures mentioned in the Mueller report is Erik Prince, the founder of the private military contractor Blackwater (and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ brother). Prince, who worked on the 2016 Trump campaign, helped finance an effort to obtain former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, according to the report. (That effort ultimately concluded the batch of emails in question were not real.) We filed FOIA requests for communications that officials at the CIA and the Defense and State Departments had with Erik Prince and his related companies to shed light on whether the United States is considering privatizing wars overseas — proposals that former Defense Secretary James Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster all had reportedly criticized.

Payday Lending: In October 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau finalized a rule that placed new restrictions and standards on payday lenders — an industry with a well-earned reputation for charging shockingly high interest rates and preying on lower-income borrowers. Since then, the bureau and its new leadership have proposed rolling back the rule, to the delight of industry officials. We’re asking for communications to shed light on what influence the payday lending industry had on the proposed change.

Japan Courts Trump: Earlier this year, a Japanese newspaper reported that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize at the request of Trump. According to the newspaper, the U.S. government “informally” asked Japan to nominate the president after his 2018 meeting with Kim Jong Un. We filed FOIA requests with the State Department for related records, to learn more about whether the administration has prioritized Trump’s personal interests over diplomatic relationships.

Kushner’s Saudi Trip: When Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, went to the Middle East in February to push the administration’s peace plan, embassy officials were reportedly shut out of meetings in Saudi Arabia, including with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Few additional details have emerged from the trip, adding to the murkiness of Kushner’s relationship with the crown prince. We sent FOIA requests to the State Department for more information about the February delegation.

The Boeing 747-8 (the Next Air Force One): Questions remain about the safety of the flight-control system on the Boeing 737 Max 8, and we’ve been investigating the aircraft’s safety certification process. Another Boeing model, the 747-8, was announced last year as the next plane to be used as Air Force One. We filed FOIA requests with the Department of Transportation, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration, and NASA to find out whether there have been any concerns about the safety of the 747-8.

Consumer (Non-)Safety: Last month, two congressional committee chairs wrote a letter to Ann Marie Buerkle, the acting chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, expressing concerns about a report that she had coordinated with industry to interfere with the commission’s action on unsafe portable generators. We’re asking for her calendars, ethics obligations, and communications with non-government entities.

Ivanka and Jared’s Air Force One Trips: A new book from journalist Vicky Ward, Kushner Inc., reports that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner frequently asked to unnecessarily use Air Force planes for travel. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rejected their requests, but the pair found a work-around by inviting cabinet secretaries, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to join them on the trips. We’ve sent a FOIA request to the Treasury Department for communications about those invitations and trips.

Tax Day: Tax filings were due at the beginning of this week. President Trump’s tax returns have been due for quite some time.