News Roundup: Elaine Chao’s Stocks, Trump’s Handwritten Notes, and the Administration’s Communications with the NRA

On Thursday, House Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings accused the administration of blocking a congressional investigation of the Education Department’s attempts to replace its internal watchdog.

In January, President Donald Trump attempted to appoint a new inspector general after Acting IG Sandra Bruce had opened an investigation into Secretary Betsy DeVos’ decision to reinstate a controversial for-profit college accreditor. (We’re also investigating the Education Department’s relationship with the for-profit education industry.)

This isn’t the first time the department has been less than helpful with investigations of its decisions. Kathy Kraninger, the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said last week that the Education Department was obstructing efforts to oversee the student loan industry. We filed a lawsuit with the National Student Legal Defense Network last year for records related to the department’s role in helping student loan servicer Navient defend itself against a CFPB lawsuit.

Cummings said that the department had responded to his committee’s investigation by turning over just seven “heavily redacted” pages of records. Heavy redactions have also been an obstacle in one of American Oversight’s ongoing investigations: In our lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Management and Budget for records of communications about plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, the administration redacted large portions of documents. This spring, a judge ordered the administration to release the information, but now the administration is appealing that decision.

Here’s what else has been going on this week:

Chao’s Failure to Divest: The Wall Street Journal reported that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has retained shares in Vulcan Materials Co. for more than a year after the date she promised to divest them. Since that date, shares in the company have risen nearly 13 percent, giving her a $40,000 gain. We have an open FOIA request with the Department of Transportation for communications with private developers, including Vulcan Materials. Chao isn’t the only cabinet secretary who failed to divest from stocks they were supposed to: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross also made money during a long divestment delay last year.

New Lawsuit: We’re suing the Department of Health and Human Services for the calendars of Shannon Royce, the director of the HHS Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives. Royce had previously worked for anti-abortion rights and anti-LGBTQ organizations.

NRA Communications: The National Rifle Association has seen its share of controversy in recent weeks and months, including conflict among its leadership and scrutiny from Special Counsel Robert Mueller and outside groups over its involvement in Trump’s 2016 campaign. We’re asking for records of communications between the NRA and the Departments of the Interior, Justice and Education as well as the Small Business Administration.

Trump’s Handwritten Notes: During a news conference in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, a Washington Post reporter snapped a photo of the president’s notes, written in black marker, which said that Democrats “have no achomlishments” and “want to impeach me over acts that they did.” We’ve filed FOIA requests with the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Justice, Education, State and the Treasury for any news articles or memos that contain handwritten notes or annotations from Trump.

So Long, Scott Lloyd: The former director of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, who had been transferred to the HHS office for faith-based initiatives late last year, will be leaving the administration. During his tenure as refugee director, Lloyd had attempted to block unaccompanied teenage girls from getting abortions and failed to tell HHS leaders about the health risks of separating migrant children. We filed a number of FOIA requests related to Lloyd’s communications and his anti-abortion novel, and we are representing Equity Forward in litigation for records related to his efforts to restrict abortion rights for immigrant minors.

Texas Voter Purges: The Texas secretary of state resigned this week after attempting to purge nearly 100,000 names from the state’s voter rolls. The first priority of our State Accountability Project is uncovering evidence of voter suppression, and we have already filed more than a dozen public records requests in Texas.

Possible Military Action Against Iran: The rapidly escalating tension with Iran has led many to worry that the Trump administration is on a path to war. In April, the administration designated a branch of Iran’s military as a foreign terrorist organization, which elicited concerns that the move was laying the legal groundwork for initiating military action under the authority of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force — thus sidestepping a congressional declaration of war. We’re asking the Departments of State, Defense and Justice for any legal analyses regarding the use of military force against Iran under the AUMF.

Mueller Speaks: On Wednesday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller made a statement about his investigation into Russian election interference and obstruction of justice. He essentially repeated what was in his report — that Russia engaged in a systematic effort to interfere in the 2016 election, and that his investigation did not exonerate Trump — and punted further action to Congress. Here’s a refresher on the redactions Attorney General William Barr used in releasing the report to the public, and an explanation of which information Congress or the public should still be able to see.

Census Citizenship Question: The death of Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller last year led to the discovery of files that revealed his involvement in the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Files show that Hofeller wrote a 2015 study stating that with the addition of such a question, Republicans could gerrymander electoral maps to disadvantage Democrats even further. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the question in the coming weeks, and American Oversight has numerous open FOIAs and lawsuits related to the administration’s decision.