News Roundup: Corruption, Plain and Simple

Emoluments, conflicts of interest, quid pro quo, undue influence, ethics violations — many words and phrases have swirled around the past few years to describe the Trump administration’s full range of wrongdoing. But it all comes down to one word: corruption.

It’s certainly the best word to describe the announcement Thursday that the 2020 G7 summit would, in fact, be held at President Donald Trump’s Doral golf resort (though you might just want to add “blatant” in front of the word).

The decision, hinted at by Trump months ago, looks like a clear violation of the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause, which prohibits the president from profiting from foreign governments. Of course, that hasn’t stopped foreign dignitaries and federal officials from frequenting Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel, another property that’s part of the president’s real-estate empire from which he has refused to financially divest. In fact, just two days before Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney announced the selection of Trump National Doral during a Thursday news conference, a federal appeals court agreed to rehear a lawsuit, brought by the Maryland and District of Columbia attorneys general, claiming that Trump is illegally profiting from his D.C. hotel.

With regard to the Doral announcement, as the Washington Post succinctly put it, “The president used his public office to direct a massive contract to himself.” And the Doral resort is struggling, with revenue having fallen significantly since Trump took office. (American Oversight has active Freedom of Information Act requests with the State Department for communications about the 2020 summit location.) Mulvaney’s Thursday news conference also drew headlines for his statement that Trump had withheld military aid to compel the Ukrainian government to help with a politically motivated investigation — thus confirming the “quid pro quo” demand that Trump has repeatedly denied took place. But that’s not the only damaging news for the White House in recent days.

Over the past week, a steady stream of State Department officials and career diplomats have lined up to testify before Congress in the House’s impeachment inquiry. Last Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told Congress that Trump and personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had pressured the State Department to remove her from her post back in May. Then on Monday, Fiona Hill, the president’s former top Russia adviser, said that she and former National Security Adviser John Bolton had been alarmed by Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, and that she had tried to report it. And on Wednesday, Michael McKinley, who recently resigned as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s top adviser, told lawmakers he had quit over the administration’s treatment of diplomats. Capping it all off on Thursday was Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, who said that Trump had delegated Ukraine policy to Giuliani.

All of that is just from the past week — and we haven’t even gotten to Rick Perry yet. Here’s more:

Perry Out: After denying such reports last week, Energy Secretary Rick Perry will be leaving his position before the end of the year. But that won’t make those congressional subpoenas go away, and questions about his involvement in the president’s Ukraine scheme will stick around, too. We’re looking into the decision to have Perry, instead of Vice President Mike Pence, lead the delegation to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s May inauguration, and have filed a number of FOIA requests about Perry’s meetings with Ukrainian officials. Oh, and we have his 2017 calendars.

Perry’s Replacement: Trump announced on Friday that Deputy Secretary Dan Brouillette would replace Perry. Calendars we obtained through FOIA litigation on behalf of the Union for Concerned Scientists reveal his having had a major role in many of the Trump administration’s more controversial energy policy efforts.

Ongoing Ukraine Investigation: We’ve now filed more than 50 FOIA requests in our investigation of Trump’s contacts with Ukraine, and we have two lawsuits against the State Department for related records. This week, we filed a request with the State Department for the communications of Kurt Volker, the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, and another request with the Defense Department for any final legal analysis about the withholding of congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine.

Upcoming Hearing: A federal judge has called a hearing next Wednesday to discuss American Oversight’s emergency motion in one of our lawsuits against the State Department for records related to Ukraine. The judge asked the State Department attorneys to be ready to discuss the number of documents that might be responsive to American Oversight’s request and to provide an estimate of how long it would take to process them for public release.

China, Too: It was just two weeks ago that the president publicly and openly said that China should investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. According to news reports, Trump had brought up the political prospects of Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another Democratic presidential candidate, during a June phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. For months, the president’s allies (Giuliani included) have discussed allegations of Biden’s involvement in China. We’re asking the State Department for officials’ communications regarding any efforts to get China to investigate Trump’s potential 2020 opponents, or with Giuliani and his allies.

Emissions Standards: In mid-September, Trump announced that his administration was revoking a waiver that allowed California to set higher emissions standards than the federal levels. Less than two weeks earlier, the Wall Street Journal had reported that the Justice Department had opened an antitrust investigation into an agreement among four automakers to follow California’s high admissions standards. Around the same time, the EPA and the Transportation Department sent a letter to California regulators, notifying them that the agreement was inconsistent with federal law. We want to know more about the origin of this antitrust investigation, and whether it was politically motivated.

Bahamian Refugees: We’re investigating the conflicting signals sent by the Trump administration regarding the acceptance of people leaving the Bahamas after September’s devastating Hurricane Dorian. After hurricane survivors aboard a ship headed to Florida were told to disembark if they did not have visas, Customs and Border Protection Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said that refugees whose lives were in danger would “be allowed to come to the United States, whether you have travel documents or not.” But shortly thereafter, the president contradicted that statement, saying “everybody needs totally proper documentation.” We’re asking for White House or Homeland Security guidance regarding Bahamian refugees, as well as related communications.

Remembering Chairman Elijah Cummings: On Thursday, Washington mourned the loss of Elijah Cummings, the chair of the House Oversight Committee and a powerful voice in our democracy. As Americans pay tribute to his legacy of justice, we also remember his commitment to government oversight: “We have to have transparency,” Cummings said as he accepted the 2019 Sunshine in Government Award from the News Media for Open Government coalition, where he highlighted “the critical importance of FOIA and the federal records law.”

Below is American Oversight’s full statement on his passing:

Elijah Cummings was a giant of the United States Congress who wielded his considerable authority with a humanity and dignity that served as a model of citizenship and public service.

Chairman Cummings often said that we should look to the past to learn how to make the future better, and in his life we all have a roadmap for how to make our country better. Through his actions and words, he taught us to expect great things from our country and never to settle for less. And every day he served in Congress, the American people could have faith that someone was on watch, steadfastly fighting on our behalf.

While we mourn his loss, we take comfort in knowing that he leaves behind a living legacy in the people he mentored, who loved him, and who will continue to fight for accountability for all of us.

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