News Roundup: Investigating Outside Influence and Political Appointments at the State Department

This week, American Oversight filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests with the State Department for records of outside influence on American foreign policy and information about a high-level appointee.

The confirmation process of Brian Bulatao for a senior State Department position was stalled for nearly a year while the department refused to cooperate with congressional oversight requests. Bulatao, a close friend and business associate of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who had worked under him at the CIA, had been nominated to be under secretary of state in June 2018, but his confirmation had been held up as Senate Democrats sought records related to retaliation against career officials perceived to be disloyal to President Donald Trump. American Oversight has been investigating reports of loyalty tests and political retribution, including the reported scouring of employees’ social media by State Department official Mari Stull, who left the administration in January.  

Bulatao was ultimately confirmed last month, after Senator Bob Menendez worked out an agreement with the State Department for the requested documents. But during the 11-month delay, press reports suggested that Bulatao was in touch with Pompeo, and Politico quoted a State spokesperson as saying that he was “availed transition space for consultation as part of the regular confirmation process.” Additionally, ProPublica listed Bulatao in its database of appointees as having officially started in September in the role of senior adviser.

To find out more about Bulatao’s role at State, American Oversight has filed a FOIA request for his calendars, official employment forms, and expenses since last year. We also asked the State Department for records related to the administration’s promotion of abortion restrictions, Trump’s businesses, and right-wing European politicians. Here’s more information about those FOIA requests:

Mexico City Policy: One of Trump’s first moves after taking office was to reinstate the Mexico City policy, a rule prohibiting foreign nongovernmental organizations that provide abortions or abortion referrals from receiving U.S. funding. In March, Pompeo announced that the administration would be expanding the “global gag rule” by withholding aid from NGOs that give money to foreign groups that perform abortions. We’re asking for communications that State Department officials, including Pompeo, have had with outside groups that oppose abortion rights in the U.S. and around the globe.

Embassies Advertising for Mar-a-Lago: In 2017, American Oversight obtained records showing the State Department’s response to public outcry over the promotion of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort on U.S. embassy websites in April of that year. The president maintains business interests in numerous foreign countries, and his family members have reportedly highlighted their connection to him in promoting the Trump Organization’s foreign business interests. We filed a FOIA request for the communications of multiple U.S. embassies that mention Trump properties or his businesses.

Hungary’s Illiberal Democracy: “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.” So said Trump’s ambassador to Hungary, referring to far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán’s description of his government as an “illiberal democracy,” in an interview with the Atlantic. In the past year, the administration’s policy toward Hungary’s democratic backsliding has pivoted, with Orbán’s influence growing. We’ve filed FOIA requests for State Department communications with outside entities, including the Heritage Foundation and lobbyists for the Hungarian government.

Also this week:

Investigating the Investigations: Attorney General William Barr’s claim during an April Senate hearing that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign elicited heated criticism from those who pointed to Barr’s lack of evidence and the politically charged consequences of such a statement. Since then, Barr has doubled down on his claim in a CBS interview, and last month directed John Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, to examine the origins of the investigation into Russian election interference. We filed FOIA requests with the Justice Department for more information about the scope of that investigation, as well as any modifications to the instructions given to U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber, who was directed by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate Hillary Clinton.

Rollback of Train Safety Rule: Last September, the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration rolled back a safety rule requiring trains carrying hazardous material to install electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes by 2021. According to the Washington Post, there were nearly 20 derailments of trains carrying oil and ethanol between 2010 and 2016, leading to spills, fires and evacuations. We’re asking for Transportation Department communications about the ECP rule’s reversal.

Oklahoma-SBA Communications: In early February, Linda McMahon, then the director of the Small Business Administration, announced the appointment of Todd Pauley as director of the SBA’s Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives. Pauley had worked for Senator James Lankford’s congressional campaigns and donated money to Senator James Inhofe’s 2020 campaign. We’ve filed a FOIA request for correspondence between his office and those of Lankford and Inhofe to see whether the Oklahoma legislators have influenced Pauley’s work at the SBA.

Disability Benefits for Non-English Speakers: Under a rule proposed by the Social Security Administration in early February, non-English speakers would find it harder to qualify for disability insurance or benefits. We filed a FOIA request with the SSA to find out whether White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller — an architect of some of the administration’s harshest anti-immigration policies — influenced the proposal. Miller had worked for then-Senator Jeff Sessions in 2015 when Sessions opposed the inclusion of non-English proficiency in determining Social Security disability cases.

“Feel-Good Reports”: The Washington Post reported that the Department of Homeland Security’s acting inspector general, John V. Kelly, told federal auditors who had uncovered problems with FEMA’s response to 2016 flooding in Louisiana to instead produce “feel-good reports” praising the government’s response. American Oversight has been investigating the administration’s failed response to Hurricanes Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, including reports that FEMA had mismanaged contracts to provide food and medicine.

Payday Lending: This year, the payday lending industry had its conference at the Trump National Doral resort outside Miami for the second year in a row, spending a total of $1 million at the president’s business, as reported by ProPublica this week. The March gathering of the Community Financial Services Association of America took place a month after the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau proposed the rollback of a rule restricting the predatory practices of an industry notorious for charging exorbitantly high interest rates on low-income borrowers. We have an active FOIA request with the CFPB for records of the industry’s influence on the proposed rollback.

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