As the nation battles the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump is apparently counting on the public to be too distracted to pay much attention to his continuing dictator-like purges of government officials and his brazen rejection of oversight.
First, Trump announced late last Friday that he would nominate White House lawyer Brian Miller to be the special inspector general overseeing the implementation of the $500 billion corporate bailout included in the coronavirus relief bill. He also announced a slew of nominees to other inspector general positions, and notified Congress that he was ousting Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general, who had handled the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. Then this week, Trump removed Glenn Fine, the acting inspector general of the Defense Department, from his new role as the chair of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, a panel of inspectors general created by the coronavirus relief bill to oversee the $2 trillion bailout.
These corrupt actions make it clear that the president not only fears accountability but remains bent on politicizing the intelligence community at the expense of national security. “It is hard not to think that the President’s loss of confidence in me derives from my having faithfully discharged my legal obligations as an independent and impartial Inspector General, and from my commitment to continue to do so,” said Atkinson in a statement. Atkinson’s firing is the latest of Trump’s efforts to reshape the intelligence community to serve his own political interests, just as he has attempted to do with the Justice Department — in February, Trump replaced Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, with loyalist Ric Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany.
On Friday, American Oversight sued the State Department for records related to Grenell’s security clearance as part of our ongoing investigation into Trump’s authoritarian purges. Grenell had previously worked as a consultant for a Moldovan politician, work he did not disclose under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and we want to know whether he disclosed this work during his security clearance process.
Of course, all this is happening as the country contends with the tragic consequences of the Trump administration’s botched response to the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve filed dozens of new Freedom of Information Act requests as well as a new lawsuit against the administration to ensure the president does not duck accountability there, either. You can read more about our coronavirus investigations, and other issues we’re working on, below.
Lawsuit for Testing Directives: On Friday, we filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration for early directives or guidance concerning testing for coronavirus, specifically for information about decisions related to whether to use the World Health Organization’s test or share data about test kits, or about who qualifies for testing and where and when to send tests.
Indian Health Service: Native Americans are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak thanks to overcrowded housing, lack of access to health care, and higher rates of diseases that make the coronavirus most dangerous. We filed multiple FOIA requests with the Indian Health Service to shed light on how the administration is addressing these vulnerabilities.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): Despite the fact that there are reports of severe shortages of critical personal protective equipment, the Trump administration as recently as a couple of weeks ago shipped medical protective equipment overseas. Vice President Mike Pence, upon learning this, reportedly placed a hold on future overseas shipments of USAID’s equipment. We filed a FOIA request for that directive.
Kushner-Linked Company: Reporting by the Atlantic showed that Oscar Health, a health insurance company closely linked to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, developed a government website designed to screen and direct Americans to nearby coronavirus testing centers. We filed a number of requests for records of interactions between Oscar Health and the federal government, looking for signs of self-dealing or political favoritism.
Quarantine Powers: We filed more than a dozen requests for legal analyses from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel regarding any emergency or public health powers that could be used to respond to the outbreak, such as authorities to enforce quarantines or “shelter in place” orders, as well as for any similar analyses created for previous disease outbreaks like SARS or Ebola.
USS Theodore Roosevelt: This week, Thomas Modly, the acting secretary of the Navy, resigned after coming under fire for having called Capt. Brett Crozier “stupid” during and address to crew of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Modly had relieved Crozier from his command of the ship after the captain sent a memo warning of an outbreak aboard. Later reporting revealed Modly’s visit to address the crew had cost the Pentagon $243,000. We’re asking the Navy and the Defense Department for guidance, communications or memos related to the outbreak on board the Theodore Roosevelt or to Crozier’s dismissal.
Emergency Powers: In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Justice Department has lobbied Congress for new “emergency powers,” a request that has raised concerns among congressional leaders and civil rights advocates. We’re asking the department for related communications.
Other Coronavirus Requests: We’re seeking records that could shed light on how the Social Security Administration and the Census Bureau are responding to the crisis; Nevada state officials’ communications with the federal government about coronavirus; records related to the Treasury Department’s pursuit of medical debts referred to it by the Defense Department; and materials from pandemic-related meetings we uncovered in CDC calendars.
Federal Spending at Trump Properties: On Monday, we reported that multiple federal agencies still have no official guidance for how employees should (or shouldn’t) spend taxpayer money at Trump-owned properties. In one instance, when we asked for records that could show spending at Trump properties, the U.S. Secret Service claimed that the agency has no such records — even though public reporting has indicated otherwise. You can read more about that here.
Border Patrol Chief Rodney Scott: In January, Trump appointed Rodney Scott, a longtime Border Patrol official, as chief of the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP). Scott was in charge of USBP’s San Diego Sector during the November 2018 incident in which agents used tear gas on migrants. He replaced former USBP Chief Carla Provost, who stepped down from the position six months after ProPublica reported on her association with a secret USBP Facebook group containing racist social media posts. We asked the Department of Homeland Security for Scott’s resume and ethics documents provided to the agency during the hiring process.
BIA and ICE Adviser Feere’s Communications: Last week, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) — the highest administrative body for applying U.S. immigration laws — made it harder to cancel deportation orders for undocumented migrants who are caring for sick relatives in the U.S. We’re asking the Justice Department for records of communications between members of the BIA and Jon Feere, a senior adviser at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement who used to work with an anti-immigration organization designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Previously, we obtained records that revealed frequent collaboration between Feere and White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller, which you can read more about here.
Authority to Remove Fed Chair Powell: At a coronavirus task force news conference last month, Trump said he has the authority to remove Jerome Powell as chair of the Federal Reserve. Trump has made similar comments about Powell before, having reportedly talked to advisers in December 2018 about whether he could fire Powell after the Fed raised interest rates. Though it is unlikely that Trump has the legal authority to fire Powell, it is unclear whether Trump can demote him to another position. We filed a FOIA request to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel for records of any legal analysis regarding the demoting or firing of the Fed chair.
USAID Official’s Calendars and Emails: In March, Trump appointed John Barsa as acting administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Barsa previously served as the assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean and has replaced former USAID Administrator Mark Green. We’re interested in the work that Barsa conducted during his tenure at USAID, and have filed FOIA requests for Barsa’s calendars and emails with non-government addresses.
Barr’s Support for Durham’s Investigation of the Russia Probe: In May 2019, Attorney General William Barr directed U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut John Durham to investigate the origins of the FBI’s probe into Russian interference during the 2016 election. Durham’s investigation continues, even during the coronavirus outbreak, and in a Fox News interview on Wednesday, Barr called the FBI’s Russia investigation “one of the greatest travesties in American history.” We filed FOIA requests with the Justice Department for Barr’s calendars, visitor logs, text messages, directives, and communications with Durham’s office as part of our investigations into the administration’s continued politicization of the Justice Department and its response to Russian interference in U.S. elections.
Religious Freedom Laws: The New York Times reported in March that the Justice Department held a training on religious freedom laws, which one official called the “first of its kind.” The training raised concerns among some Justice Department attorneys that the agency could use religious freedom as a pretext for suppressing anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Last month, we filed a FOIA request with the Justice Department for materials related to the training, and have now filed a request with the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys for training-related records, including presentation notes, talking points, and agendas.
White House Involvement in Farm Bailout: Since 2018, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has provided $28 billion in aid to farmers to lessen the impact of Trump’s trade war with China. Questions have been raised about how the USDA is allocating the aid, and last month we filed a FOIA request for records reflecting meetings or guidance about the funds. This week, we filed a second request for top USDA officials’ communications about the bailouts with any person serving in the White House to learn more about the White House’s involvement.
Loeffler-Perdue Emails and Acosta Calendars: American Oversight is continually publishing records we’ve received through FOIA, and in the last week published email communications that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue exchanged with Sen. Kelly Loeffler and her husband Jeffery Sprecher. We also published 2017 calendars of former Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who left the department in July 2019.
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