News Roundup: Hear No Evil, See No Evil

No witnesses, no documents. For many senators, that’s the recipe for a quick acquittal. It’s an astonishing abdication of responsibility that will resonate in history. But more than that, it shows willful blindness, because senators will hear from witnesses and they will see documents — but it will be on the talk show circuit and on the pages of AmericanOversight.org.

During debate this afternoon, potential swing senators signaled that they would vote against including witnesses and additional documents in the impeachment trial — even as more evidence of the president’s Ukraine scheme continues to pile up.

Just this afternoon, the Defense Department lifted some redactions on documents we obtained back in December. Underneath those redactions were the words “Zelensky” and “USAI,” showing Defense Secretary Mark Esper having mentioned the Ukrainian president and Ukraine security in an email on Aug. 31, 2019, the day after he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with President Donald Trump to discuss Ukraine funding — and the day after OMB Associate Director Michael Duffey had sent an email to Pentagon official Elaine McCusker saying, “Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold.”

And of course, earlier this week new details from former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s book were published, including the revelation that President Donald Trump told Bolton to assist in the shadow campaign to coerce Ukraine to announce an investigation into the Bidens. Even John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff and homeland security secretary, said that the Senate “shirks its responsibilities” by not hearing from witnesses like Bolton.

But the mountain of evidence will grow and the truth will still come out, even if the Senate turns a blind eye to it. American Oversight has obtained hundreds of pages of Ukraine-related documents through Freedom of Information Act litigation. On Tuesday of this week, the Department of Energy released former Secretary Rick Perry’s briefing book — which had been withheld from Congress — from the May 2019 delegation he led to Zelensky’s inauguration. The book included schedules, talking points and background materials revealing the previously unreported participation of certain officials as well as records showing the department’s push for energy reform.

More document productions from the State, Defense and Energy Departments are expected in the coming weeks, including another from the Energy Department next week. The White House’s stonewall is crumbling, the truth will come out, and votes to prematurely end the Senate’s impeachment trial will look increasingly worse.

For more on our other investigations, read on:

Pompeo’s NPR Outburst: Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made headlines for cursing at NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly when she asked Ukraine-related questions during an interview. Kelly reported that after the interview was cut short, she was summoned to a private room where Pompeo demanded she point to Ukraine on a map and asked, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” In a statement released the next day, Pompeo accused Kelly of lying to him “twice” during the encounter, and soon after the State Department denied press credentials to another NPR reporter covering Pompeo’s trip to Europe, which includes a stop in Kyiv. We asked the department for communications regarding the interview and emails containing key terms to learn more.

Public Charge Rule: The Supreme Court ruled on Monday to allow implementation of the Trump administration’s “public charge rule,” which lets the government deny green cards to applicants who use or are deemed likely to use public benefits such as housing vouchers or food stamps. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has supported the policy since introducing it back in August and praised the decision. We’re seeking Cuccinelli’s communications with specific individuals and groups outside DHS to learn more about the development of this policy, which could further narrow the legal paths to immigration.

Veteran Discharge Appeals: In recent years, there has been a considerable outcry on behalf of veterans who received less-than-honorable discharges because they were not properly screened for post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat injuries, suffered from sexual assault while serving, or were discharged because of their sexuality. In April 2019, the Defense Department removed all posted appeals decisions from its website without explanation — even though the department is obligated to publish them. The Pentagon has since agreed to make these records publicly available, but we’re asking for directives to shed light on why they were removed in the first place.

Refugee Resettlement in Texas: Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that Texas would no longer accept the resettlement of new refugees following an executive order from Trump allowing state governments to end federal resettlement operations within their jurisdiction. A federal judge has since ruled against the executive order, but advocates remain concerned that the Trump administration may appeal. We’re asking the Texas governor’s office for communications with the Department of Homeland Security and the White House about refugee resettlement. 

Private Contractors in Prisons: The National Institute of Corrections (NIC), part of the Justice Department’s Federal Bureau of Prisons, provides specialized assistance to corrections facilities across the country. We’re seeking communications between NIC officials and private government contractors, including private health-care company Wellpath, formerly called Correct Care Solutions, which over the past decade was sued at least 1,395 times and has been accused of egregious care practices.

Immigration Appeals: Under the Trump administration, the Board of Immigration Appeals, which often has final say over asylum claims, has increased in size with the addition of immigration hardliners. We’re asking the Justice Department for communications between board members and anti-immigration activists, as well as with White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller, whose anti-immigration agenda has permeated agencies across the federal government.

Seema Verma’s $47,000 Claim: In December, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma filed a $47,000 reimbursement claim to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for lost luggage during a work-related trip. She sought reimbursement for clothes and jewelry, including an Ivanka Trump-brand pendant estimated to be worth $5,900, and the agency ultimately approved $2,852.50 of the claim. Verma isn’t the only Trump-appointed administrator who has made questionable expense requests, especially on office renovations. So we’re requesting Verma’s reimbursement records from HHS, as well as any office renovation expenditures and travel costs.

Chad Wolf’s Leadership at DHS: Chad Wolf was sworn in as acting DHS secretary last November, following the departure of his predecessor Kevin McAleenan. Records we previously obtained from Wolf’s tenure as chief of staff to former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen suggest that he played a role in the Trump administration’s family-separation policy. We filed requests for Wolf’s policy directives and approvals as DHS secretary, as well as his ethics documents and calendars and communications since October 2018.

Voting Machines in Texas: Election system company Hart InterCivic has contracts across Texas, despite a history of Hart InterCivic voting machine errors, including reports that machines were changing votes during the 2018 Senate race between Sen. Ted Cruz and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. We asked for Harris County elections officials’ email communications with the company. 

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