News Roundup: Hicks, Barr, Ross and Congressional Oversight

Former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks appeared at a closed-door interview with the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, refusing to answer even the simplest questions about her time working for the president.

White House lawyers claimed that Hicks had “absolute immunity” from talking to Congress, and even her appearance on Capitol Hill wasn’t certain until recently, thanks to the administration’s blanket resistance to cooperating with any congressional investigation. Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler said that Hicks’ reticent testimony could be used by House Democrats in the planned lawsuit against former White House lawyer Donald McGahn, who ignored a subpoena in May.

The White House’s unprecedented defiance of congressional subpoenas presents serious risks to the integrity of our system of checks and balances. American Oversight is investigating the extent to which federal agencies are following the lead of the president in defying legislative branch oversight, filing dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests for agency communications with White House lawyers or employees about congressional requests.

For instance, the Treasury has illegally refused to comply with the House Ways and Means Committee’s request for President Donald Trump’s tax returns. Trump’s personal lawyer, William S. Consovoy, wrote to Treasury and IRS officials to urge them to withhold the tax returns, which Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin did, using the same reasoning as Consovoy — reasoning that contradicted a legal analysis circulated in a draft IRS memo. In addition to the requests for communications with White House lawyers, we’re also asking the Treasury and the IRS for communications between officials and president’s personal attorneys.

Federal agencies have also stood with the White House in obstructing the congressional investigation into the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Last week the House Oversight Committee voted to hold both Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt for not providing related documents that the committee had issued a subpoena for.

Of course, the census question is not the only issue on which the attorney general has been less than forthcoming. In May, Barr failed to appear at a Judiciary Committee hearing, defying another subpoena for the unredacted Mueller report and its underlying investigation.

Since the completion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Barr has repeatedly and confidently stated that the president’s actions, as described in Mueller’s report, did not constitute criminal obstruction of justice. But despite public statements of his disagreement with Mueller’s legal analysis and assurances that the Justice Department “applied the right law” in its determinations, Barr has not made his own legal analysis on such an important issue public.

This has raised serious concerns that the attorney general is relying on the memo he sent to the Justice Department and the president’s lawyers while working as a private attorney in 2018 — and not on a formal, well-developed position from the Justice Department. American Oversight has requested the written legal analysis the attorney general relied on to make his decision.

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

Notes from the Private Trump-Putin Meeting: We joined watchdog group Democracy Forward in filing a lawsuit against Secretary of State Michael Pompeo for refusing to address Trump’s unlawful seizure of an interpreter’s notes during a private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017. Pompeo’s failure to preserve and recover these records violates the Federal Records Act, which requires his department to notify the National Archives when meeting notes are seized or destroyed, to recover those notes, and to refer the incident to the attorney general for enforcement action.

Russian Agents and Sessions: The news came out this week that Russian agent Maria Butina and her former boyfriend, Republican operative Paul Erickson, had been friends for years with a State Department official in charge of arms control negotiations with Russia — a friendship that the official did not disclose to superiors or during her spring 2018 confirmation process. Butina’s reach was wide: Last month, reports detailed meetings that Butina and Alexander Torshin, a Russian central banker and operative, had at the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, and previous reporting revealed that both had communicated with people connected to Jeff Sessions while he was a senator. We want to know if those contacts continued after Sessions became attorney general, and have asked for his office’s communications with Butina, Torshin and Erickson.

Frank Luntz’s Influence: Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz may have an imperfect idea of how certain political systems work, but he has acquired some significant influence in the Trump administration. A friend of Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Luntz reportedly donated him a two-day media training in 2018 and has met with various cabinet secretaries. We sent a FOIA request to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative for records of a June 5, 2018, meeting on USTR Robert Lighthizer’s calendar, titled “Kushner/Luntz,” as well as for all email communications between Luntz and the USTR’s office.

Neglect at Detention Center: A legal team interviewed 60 children at a Border Patrol facility near El Paso, describing neglect of young children and inadequate food, water and sanitation. Many children have the flu, which has already taken the lives of some migrant children in custody. Earlier this week, American Oversight filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, seeking the communications of senior officials, including former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Acting Secretary Kevin McAleenan, related to the deaths of detainees. We’ve filed several Freedom of Information Act requests to find out more about the treatment of pregnant, transgender, and other vulnerable detainees, as well as to shed light on abuse in detention centers.

Linda McMahon: Now that she’s no longer head of the Small Business Administration, Linda McMahon, the co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment, is charing America First Action, a super PAC aiming to raise $300 million for Trump’s re-election campaign. She may have left the administration, but we’re still looking into her compliance with her ethics agreement, in which she pledged to resign her management position at a company even as she continued to be featured on the company’s website, social media, and at events.

Katharine Gorka: Known for her far-right and Islamophobic views, Katharine Gorka — who is married to former White House Adviser Sebastian Gorka — is expected to be the new press secretary at Customs and Border Protection. American Oversight has a number of active FOIA requests seeking records about her work as a DHS policy adviser, where she reportedly played a role in cutting Countering Violent Extremism grant funding for certain groups. Our investigation into Trump administration political appointments was the first to uncover that Gorka had been hired at DHS at the start of 2017.

Interior Department FOIA Processing: We called on the Department of the Interior’s inspector general to investigate whether the department has been interfering with FOIA requests. A process adopted last year requires career officials to notify political appointees if FOIA requests mention their names or email addresses, which could allow appointees to delay the production of documents to requesters.

Other News: We filed a FOIA request for records about recent changes to disclosure requirements for student loan servicers — changes that work in favor of Navient, which ripped off tens of thousands of U.S. servicemembers five years ago. We also uncovered more evidence of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s preferential treatment of Kentucky-specific requests, and filed a related lawsuit against the Department of Transportation.