This week, American Oversight launched its investigation of one of President Donald Trump’s most aggressive and worrying attacks yet on democracy — the purging of administration and intelligence officials deemed to be disloyal.
Loyalty over truth and political advantage over public service and safety are, of course, hallmarks of authoritarianism. And the past two weeks have brought more details about the president’s dangerous reshaping of the intelligence community to serve his own needs.
On Wednesday, Politico reported that the ousting of acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire — and his replacement with Ambassador Ric Grenell, a Trump supporter with no intelligence experience — was “only the tip of the iceberg.” Grenell, the new acting DNI, used to work for a Moldovan politician who is barred from entering the U.S. under anti-corruption sanctions, which Grenell did not disclose. Grenell also failed to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. In response to this news, we filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Office of the DNI, the State Department and the FBI for records related to Grenell’s security clearance process.
The replacement of Maguire with Grenell is, as former acting DNI David Gompert said in Wednesday’s Politico story, evidence that the “principal objective … of this acting DNI is to ensure that information about Russian [election] interference and Russian preference for this particular president does not get out.” Politico also reported that Trump’s increasingly tight grip on the intelligence community has had “a chilling effect” on senior officials who don’t want to be on the wrong end of Trump’s attacks.
One consequence has been the reported withholding of information from the House Intelligence Committee during the course of the impeachment investigation, which Committee Chair Adam Schiff last month accused the NSA and the CIA of doing. We filed FOIA requests with both agencies for records of any directives or guidance for sharing (or not sharing) material with Congress.
But it’s not just the intelligence community that Trump has trained his loyalty-desperate sights on. Axios reported that for a year and a half, White House officials and allies had been assembling lists of “bad people” to purge from government. Those allies include Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who had received names through her work with the right-wing strategy group Groundswell. Trump has also received help from the recently rehired John McEntee, his new head of the White House’s personnel office. McEntee has reportedly asked cabinet White House liaisons to identify disloyal officials.
In the last week and a half, we’ve filed a number of FOIA requests to learn more about the activists and advisers working with Trump on his dictatorial ambitions, asking for records of Maguire’s communications about Russian interference as well as emails between White House liaisons and McEntee or Thomas. As the president’s actions become increasingly alarming, we’re committed to shedding light on these threats to our civil service and national security. We’re also keeping our eyes on the administration’s other actions — read on for more about what we’ve been up to this week:
New Ukraine Documents: Late last Friday, the State Department released a new batch of emails related to the Trump administration’s Ukraine pressure campaign. The documents reveal additional details about Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s contacts with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in March 2019, when the smear campaign of then-Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was occurring. The president may have been acquitted by his loyalists in the Senate, but more evidence like this will continue to emerge. In fact, today is the deadline for the Defense Department to produce more documents to American Oversight — keep an eye on our website and Twitter.
‘Unapproved Condom Imagery’: That’s what an official at the Department of Health and Human Services called a picture on an educational flier about HIV before asking that the file be removed from a government website. American Oversight obtained the email from August 2017, which was reported on by Kaiser Health News on Friday. You can read more here.
Stephen Miller Lawsuit: The administration’s so-called “public charge” rule, a wealth test that allows immigration officials to deny green cards or visas to applicants deemed likely to use public assistance, went into effect this week. Given that White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller has been behind some of the administration’s harshest immigration policies — and reportedly has a network of like-minded officials installed across various federal agencies — we’re suing for Miller’s communications with officials at the Departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services, all agencies that will be affected by the new rule.
Florida Voting: Documents we obtained through our State Accountability Project were featured in a story about the difficulties people with former felony convictions in Florida still face in trying to access the polls. The documents revealed that state agencies like the Florida Department of Corrections and county clerks have received conflicting directions from the Division of Elections on the implementation of the controversial SB 7066. To make matters worse, human errors like typos and misspelled words have made it nearly impossible to track down individuals’ financial obligations.
Health-Care Sharing Ministries: More than a million Americans struggling to pay for health care have joined Christian cost-sharing groups that offer far lower rates but are not, as the New York Times reported earlier this year, legally obligated to pay all their members’ medical claims. The Trump administration’s relaxed rules for alternatives to the Affordable Care Act has allowed such groups to grow. We’re asking for any communications or information about meetings that key officials in the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services had with medical cost-sharing groups such as Sedera Health.
Retaliation Against States: Measures seemingly designed to punish states that have been deemed uncooperative with the Trump administration’s harsh immigration enforcement efforts have gone beyond the president’s threats to undermine sanctuary cities — recently, the Department of Homeland Security announced that New York residents would no longer be permitted to participate in travel programs like Global Entry. Other measures with regard to “uncooperative states” have also been discussed. We filed requests with DHS for related communications or final directives, and we also asked for communications that federal immigration officials or the White House had with the New York governor’s office or the county clerks in Rensselaer and Erie Counties.
Eddie Gallagher: Early in February, Rear Adm. Collin Green — who had disagreed with the president’s intervention in the case of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher — announced that he would resign from his post. Gallagher had been accused of committing war crimes in Iraq, and Trump had not only reinstated Gallagher’s rank after the officer was demoted as punishment but had also overruled Green’s effort to allow a disciplinary review. This wasn’t the first such high-profile resignation over the president’s handling of the Gallagher case; back in November, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer also resigned. We filed a number of FOIA requests with the Defense Department for communications related to the case, including with the White House, as well as for any formal departure memo or message from Green.
Scott Angelle: The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Scott Angelle, the director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, had ordered a staff engineer to remove language in a new offshore drilling safety rule that contained objections from BSEE engineers. Angelle, the president’s top offshore oil and gas regulator, is the same official who called gas companies “partners” and gave his cell number to industry representatives, reminding them to call because written communications are subject to FOIA. We also obtained documents showing that Angelle has had far higher number of calls with industry groups than he has with watchdogs or conservation groups.
Part of Investigation: