President Donald Trump’s primetime address on Wednesday was supposed to reassure worried Americans about their government’s efforts to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Instead, and unsurprisingly, the error-laden speech only caused confusion and exacerbated fears.
During the address, Trump incorrectly said that the health insurance industry had agreed to waive all copayments for coronavirus treatment — in fact, the agreement was only for testing. He also announced restrictions on travel from Europe, saying it applied to all countries except the United Kingdom (actually, other countries are also excluded), all travel (the ban doesn’t apply to U.S. residents), and even cargo (it only applies to people).
And if the address was supposed to mollify the markets — something the White House seems to be preoccupied with for political reasons — that goal also failed, with U.S. stock prices dropping nearly 10 percent on Thursday despite the Federal Reserve’s offering of $1.5 trillion in short-term loans to banks. Banks have been lobbying officials for deregulatory actions, including lower capital requirements, which experts say could be risky for the financial system. American Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act request for communications between banks and Fed officials to see what influence the financial industry is having on the government’s response to the coronavirus.
Industry opportunism during a national crisis isn’t the only thing we’re looking into. We’re also asking for records of the government’s response to online disinformation about the outbreak. The State Department has created a report about such conspiracy theories and dangerous posts, but social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have complained that they haven’t received sufficient details about that disinformation. We’re asking the State Department for its report as well as for any such evidence and related emails.
But the biggest issues, of course, remain the lack of testing and the coronavirus’s danger to vulnerable populations, from the sick or the elderly to those without paid leave. More information continues to emerge about the U.S.’s failure to provide enough tests — a fact Trump continues to lie about — and the resulting delay that has allowed the virus to spread unaddressed. (Trump allies like Reps. Mark Meadows and Matt Gaetz, however, were able to be tested despite the shortage and their own lack of symptoms.)
Among the series of missteps was, as reported by Politico, a Feb. 23 email system crash at the Department of Health and Human Services, which interrupted negotiations over a coronavirus funding plan and other efforts. We filed a FOIA request for the HHS memo documenting the outage. We also filed requests for any directives or guidance telling health officials in Washington state, which is at the center of the U.S. outbreak, not to test or to stop testing for the coronavirus, after one doctor told the New York Times that the federal government had instructed doctors in February to “cease and desist.”
Despite the misdirection and inaction of the Trump administration, individuals and state and local governments across the country are increasingly heeding public health experts’ warnings and advice to take aggressive action. Schools are being canceled, as are many large gatherings, and people are self-isolating. And on Thursday, tenacious questioning by Rep. Katie Porter during a congressional hearing led to CDC Director Robert Redfield committing to make coronavirus testing available to all Americans regardless of whether they have insurance.
As we all take actions to “flatten the curve” and mitigate the severity of the outbreak, American Oversight is continuing to investigate the Trump administration’s troublingly inadequate response to the crisis. Here’s what else we’ve been working on this week:
Post-Impeachment Purges: The list of impeachment-involved officials pushed out of their jobs is long. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Gordon Sondland were fired only two days after the Senate acquitted Trump. Vindman’s twin brother, Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman, was dismissed the same day. Jennifer Williams was reassigned from her role as a special adviser to Vice President Mike Pence after testifying, and John Rood, who communicated with Congress about Ukraine aid, was forced to resign from his job as undersecretary of defense for policy. We filed a FOIA request to the Department of Defense for records concerning Sondland’s dismissal and Williams’s reassignment, and asked the State Department for records related to the firing of Rood and both of the Vindman brothers.
Trump’s Pardon Committee: On Thursday, American Oversight sued Trump, Jared Kushner, and the Executive Office of the President under the Federal Advisory Committee Act to allow public inspection of records from the president’s clemency task force, which has reportedly been meeting since 2019 to advise him on potential pardon recipients. The group is composed of a number of non-governmental members, including former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, Democratic commentator Van Jones, and the Heritage Foundation’s Paul Larkin. Under FACA, whenever the president or agency officials establish or utilize an advisory committee that includes members who are not part of the federal government, certain transparency requirements apply.
More Ukraine Docs: On Wednesday, the Office of Management and Budget released 170 pages of records in response to one of our Ukraine-related FOIA lawsuits. The document contains emails from the summer of 2019 that discuss aid to Ukraine — aid that Trump directed OMB to withhold while his Rudy Giuliani-headed shadow-diplomacy operation worked to get Ukraine’s leaders to announce an investigation into Joe Biden. Many of the emails are heavily redacted, but they do include a message from OMB General Counsel Mark Paoletta about a memo “on Ukraine funds” for “Russ” — presumably, acting OMB Director Russell Vought.
Trump Tax Cuts: Following the passage of Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, corporations reportedly intensified lobbying efforts at the Treasury Department to further lower taxes. The Treasury obliged, with regulations that allowed many multinational companies to pay little, if any, taxes on foreign profits. We filed FOIA requests to the Treasury for relevant communications and calendar entries of high-ranking agency officials. We’ve also filed a request to the Federal Reserve for the calendars of the members of the Board of Governors.
State Accountability Project: We’ve been filing requests for information on how state governments are protecting their voting infrastructure and encouraging voter turnout. In Texas, we filed a request with the secretary of state for more information about “Ready. Check. Vote.” — an educational campaign announced last month that’s supposed to prepare Texas residents to vote in the election. We want to know where the campaign is allocating most of its resources. In Georgia, we filed a request to the secretary of state for emails with the nonprofit Electronic Registration Information Center as part of our ongoing investigation into Georgia’s voting security. We also asked the Wisconsin Elections Commission for any email communications with key conservative figures and groups, including the Republican Party of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.
Pompeo Storage Unit Burglary: In November 2018, the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security dispatched agent William Embry to investigate a burglary of storage units in Wichita, Kansas — two of which belonged to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Reportedly, the storage units appeared to contain “miscellaneous Pompeo campaign items.” Last week, we asked the State Department for Embry’s investigative report on the burglary to provide more information about the incident.
Part of Investigation: