News Roundup: Fiona Hill’s Warnings, Nikki Haley’s Emails, and Matt Bevin’s Stay at Trump’s Hotel

(Photo: Brookings Institution)

The Trump administration has stubbornly refused to provide records to Congress in the impeachment inquiry, but a stream of witnesses have appeared before the House Intelligence Committee to testify about the administration’s efforts to push Ukraine into announcing a politically motivated investigation. And while we wait for the State Department to fulfill the federal court order to produce documents in our lawsuit (today is their deadline), plenty has happened on Capitol Hill.

On Thursday, former NSC official Fiona Hill testified, using her opening statement to puncture conspiracy theories about Ukraine’s interference in the 2016 election and to call out lawmakers for peddling such stories, which only serve the interests of the actual offender, Russia. “Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Hill said. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

One prominent trafficker of the narrative that Ukrainian officials were “cooperating directly with President Trump’s political opponents” has been Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes, who was the subject of a Daily Beast story this week about help he received from indicted Giuliani associate Lev Parnas in 2018. Parnas helped arrange meetings in Europe for Nunes and his aides, using government funds.

Hill’s warnings and condemnations appear to have had little effect on the president’s other defenders in Congress. On Friday, Sens. Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson requested from the National Archives records of Obama administration contacts with Ukraine. (Johnson attended President Volodymyr Zelensky’s May inauguration, along with former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and was involved in conversations with Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland about the held-up military aid for Ukraine.) We filed new Freedom of Information Act requests to learn about whether and to what extent the Justice Department is pursuing investigations of links between Ukraine and the 2016 election, asking for senior officials’ communications about the issue or about such an investigation. We also asked for Justice Department officials’ communications with the president’s many personal attorneys.

In her testimony, Hill also noted how shadow diplomatic efforts, like the one carried about by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and Sondland, threatened the work of career diplomats. Hill said that she had told Sondland that the effort was “all going to blow up,” and said “it is not credible” that Sondland had been “oblivious” (as he had said during his testimony the day before) to the connection between Burisma, the Ukrainian natural gas company he knew the president wanted investigated, and Hunter Biden, the son of one of President Donald Trump’s perceived political rivals.

For his part, Sondland drew a clear line connecting his efforts — and those of officials like Perry, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and acting Chief of Staff and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney — to the president himself. “Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said more than once. “We followed the president’s orders.” 

We may soon know even more, once the State Department releases the requested documents, so keep your eyes on americanoversight.org — we’ll be posting any documents as soon as we get them. In the meantime, here’s what else we’ve been investigating this week:

Nikki Haley’s Emails: American Oversight obtained documents that show that former Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley sent classified information over an unclassified email system in July 2017, at the time of a North Korean missile launch. The documents suggest that she used the less-secure email because she had forgotten the password for her classified email system. “Ambassador Haley may have found it inconvenient to update her password, but, as we all know, ‘convenience’ is not an acceptable reason to skirt information security rules,” said Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director. “She should be held to the same standard as everyone else.”

Wilbur Ross’s Boeing Meetings: His wife owned nearly $3 million worth of stock in Boeing, but that didn’t stop Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross from holding a March 2017 meeting with Boeing’s CEO about “competitive issues facing the U.S. aerospace market.” We obtained correspondence about the meeting in response to FOIA litigation, and Forbes reported on the meeting this week. You can see the documents here.

Kentucky Emoluments: We uncovered records indicating that when Ky. Gov. Matt Bevin came to Washington, D.C., in January, he stayed at the Trump’s hotel — and that his state’s taxpayers initially paid the $686 bill, before the Kentucky Republican Party reimbursed the state two months later. As detailed in a Washington Post story about the findings, the incident is yet another example of the president’s mixing of profit with public service, and may represent a violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause.

Other Spending at Trump Properties: Politico reported this week that the Secret Service spent more than $250,000 at Trump properties during a 5-month time period in 2017. We filed FOIA requests with more than two dozen agencies across the federal government for records related to taxpayer dollars being spent boosting the president’s business and lining his pockets.

John Gore’s Misrepresentations: Former Justice Department official John Gore, as American Oversight discovered last month, had made clear misrepresentations — and perhaps outright lied — in a declaration signed under penalty of perjury. Gore has now acknowledged the misrepresentation, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York filed a letter to a judge correcting the record.

Other Ukraine FOIAs: Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, also testified this week, and said that as early as July 25, the day of the now-famous Trump-Zelensky call, the Ukraine embassy was asking about U.S. military aid. We’ve asked the Defense Department for those communications.

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