President Donald Trump has seemingly failed to learn that no amount of political spin can minimize his administration’s mismanaged pandemic response. Nor can the promotion of miracle cures that have not been proven effective erase the costly failure to institute early testing for the novel coronavirus.
On Thursday, American Oversight filed two new lawsuits against the administration for records related to testing decisions and official messaging. The lawsuits are based on numerous Freedom of Information Act requests we filed back in March, when the president’s efforts to minimize the pandemic and pat himself on the back came in the form of a preoccupation with controlling official communications and canceled media appearances.
When it comes to ignoring reality, little seems to have changed. Warnings from medical professionals and lack of evidence of hydroxychloroquine effectiveness against Covid-19 did not stop the president’s controversial and reckless hyping of the antimalarial drug. This week, lawyers for vaccine expert Dr. Richard Bright said that Bright would be filing a whistleblower complaint over having been ousted from his position as director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority and reassigned to the National Institutes of Health. In a statement, Bright said that he believed the move was because he “resisted efforts to fund potentially dangerous drugs promoted by those with political connections.” (On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning about hydroxychloroquine dangers.)
Also this week, the president took issue with scientific reality again, attempting to make recent comments from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield vanish. Trump took to Twitter to claim that Redfield was “totally misquoted” in a Washington Post article (though Trump singled out CNN) in which Redfield said that the virus will be “even more difficult” next winter, when its second wave occurs at the same time as flu season. Redfield has since affirmed that the Post had quoted him correctly.
We sued the Department of Health and Human Services and three component agencies for email communications between key agency officials and the White House — as well as for any directives, orders, or guidance from HHS or the White House regarding public communications or press strategy — to find out whether the department’s public communications were altered to benefit the president’s political interests. We also sued to enforce FOIA requests we sent to HHS and the Food and Drug Administration for records of communications about decisions that affected the availability of coronavirus testing in the United States.
Bringing our total number of coronavirus-related public records requests to more than 400, we filed more than a dozen this week for officials’ communications with individuals regarding vaccines or treatments, to shed light on how private interests may have influenced the administration on potential coronavirus treatments. For more on what else we’re looking into with regard to coronavirus and other issues, read on:
Coronavirus and Food and Worker Safety: Slaughterhouses, meatpacking plants, and other industry facilities have proved particularly vulnerable to concentrations of coronavirus cases. We’re looking into what measures the Department of Agriculture and its Food Safety and Inspection Service have taken to ensure worker and food safety during the pandemic, seeking records of USDA communications with industry groups and governors with Covid-19 outbreaks in their states; data on plant inspectors’ wellness and protective equipment or related guidance; and FSIS’s “Human Pandemic Operations Plan.”
Trump’s Unnecessary Signature on Stimulus Checks: Earlier this month, the Treasury Department confirmed that Trump’s signature would appear in the memo section of the coronavirus stimulus checks to be sent to millions of Americans. We’re investigating whether this unprecedented — and unnecessary — addition caused any delay in the checks’ disbursement. We filed FOIA requests with the Treasury and the Internal Revenue Service for analyses of any impacts from adding the signature; any directives from the White House to add the signature; and emails regarding associated delays and costs.
Treasury Communications During Stimulus Negotiations: Last week, we talked about how we’re investigating the influence that lobbyists, banks or private interests might have had over where taxpayer money is directed in the government’s coronavirus response — and that includes the president’s personal business. We filed requests with the Treasury for Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s and other officials’ calendars and external emails for the first three months of the year, and for their communications with Jared Kushner or Ivanka Trump. We also want any records showing discussions or notes about Trump’s businesses — including whether those businesses could qualify for federal assistance.
Trump’s Interference in FBI Headquarters Plan: Two recent court rulings have put a stumbling block before the administration’s continued attempts to avoid turning over records related to the president’s influence over a multibillion-dollar government plan. We’ve been investigating his involvement in the scuttling of a plan to relocate the FBI headquarters, which sits a couple of blocks away from the Trump International Hotel, and to redevelop the site for commercial use. Read more about what federal judges said about agencies’ “inadequate” searches for records.
Speaking of Trump’s Hotel: This week, the Trump Organization asked for a break on rent payments for the Trump International Hotel, which leases its space in the federally owned Old Post Office building from the General Services Agency. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that we’re asking for communications between GSA officials and the Trump Organization.
‘Cohort Quarantine’: People in processing and detention centers are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus because of poor access to health care, lack of essential supplies, and close quarters. Recent reports indicate that processing and detention centers have adopted a practice of “cohort quarantine,” in which affected inmates are placed in separate areas — a practice that health officials say has actually accelerated the spread of the virus. We filed requests to DHS for any directives regarding cohorting, and to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for data on the number of people who have been segregated into separate groups.
Coronavirus in Jails and Prisons: Covid-19 is spreading through prisons and jails at an alarming rate. One federal prison in Ohio has seen 80 percent of its inmates test positive. Cook County Jail in Chicago is also a major hotspot for the disease, with hundreds of cases. We filed a number of public records requests for more information about the outbreak in the Cook County Jail, and are also asking the Florida Department of Corrections for data, assessments, and communications with the governor’s office or private contractors about the coronavirus.
Jared’s Coronavirus Volunteers: News reports indicate that private citizens have been communicating on FEMA’s behalf, including with contractors and potential contractors, from non-governmental email accounts — and these individuals were connected to federal efforts by President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. They reportedly include analysts from investment firms that may have financial interests in the health-care industry, which could be impacted by federal efforts to respond to the coronavirus. We’re asking for the non-disclosure agreements they reportedly signed as well as their emails.
Georgia Election Staffing: Poll workers across Georgia are reportedly quitting because of the coronavirus outbreak, raising concerns about the state’s capacity for in-person voting in the upcoming June primary. We’re asking multiple Georgia counties for records reflecting the number of election staff and poll workers available to run the state’s election, and for related emails and directives. We also filed a request with the state’s Department of Community Health for records related to compliance with the National Voter Registration Act, and filed a similar request in Texas.
Foreign Interference in the 2020 Election: The State Department’s Global Engagement Center is tasked with countering foreign propaganda efforts in the United States — including Russian disinformation about U.S. elections. We’re asking the State Department for any Global Engagement Center reports concerning foreign interference in the 2020 election, as well as Global Engagement Center Coordinator Lea Gabrielle’s calendars and emails sent to non-government entities.
Loyalty Over Qualifications: According to Politico, the Presidential Personnel Office has hired a fourth college senior as a top official — once again showcasing the emphasis on political loyalty (at the expense of actual job qualifications) that permeates the Trump administration. We have the resume of one of the other college students in the PPO — you can see it here.
HHS’s Anti-ACA Testimonials: In June 2017, in the leadup to an important congressional vote on the Affordable Care Act, HHS posted a series of anti-ACA video testimonials on its official YouTube channel. We’ve since obtained records that show HHS staff scripted at least one additional video in this series, but it appears that the video was never released. We’re asking HHS for this last video, as well as any other unpublished media produced by the agency regarding the ACA.
Judge Justin Walker: In October 2019, Trump nominee Justin Walker was confirmed to a lifetime appointment as a U.S. District Court judge in Kentucky. Walker previously served as a speechwriter for former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, clerked for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and received a rare “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association. He has also been characterized as a “protégé” of Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell. Recently, the president nominated Walker to the role of an appellate judge on the D.C. Circuit court, a post that can ultimately lead to a Supreme Court nomination. We’re asking the Justice Department for communications with Walker or McConnell or his staff.
Withdrawal from Syria and Backchannels with Turkey: Reporting suggests the Trump administration has numerous backchannels through which it communicates with Turkey — including Jared Kushner and business partners of the Trump Organization. These channels came under particular scrutiny in October when Trump agreed to withdraw troops from northern Syria at the request of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. We filed FOIA requests with the State Department and the Department of Defense for communications about the decision to withdraw from northern Syria.
FEMA Spreadsheets: We filed requests for the spreadsheets FEMA is using to track requests from other agencies and the needs and capacities of hospitals across the country, and for briefing materials created by the interagency Data and Analytics Task Force.
Anti-Immigrant Advocates: American Oversight has been investigating White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller’s influence on immigration policy across the federal government. This week, we asked for the communications of his political allies at the Departments of Homeland Security and Commerce, including the emails of ICE Senior Adviser Jon Feere. We wrote about Feere and his close working partnership with Miller back in January.
Perry’s Ukraine Communications: We published Energy Department records of former Secretary Rick Perry’s communications concerning Ukraine-related matters as part of our ongoing investigation into the Trump administration’s contacts with Ukraine. The records are the result of a lawsuit filed by American Oversight against the department last November and show preparations for Perry’s May 2019 trip to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration. We’ll be getting more Ukraine Energy Department records next month, so stay tuned.
New Records of Note: This week, we posted more calendars of USDA officials, which included a 2019 Census Bureau presentation that lists the (now blocked) citizenship question as one reason the 2020 census would be conducted “in an environment that is more challenging than ever before.” We also posted additional pages of coronavirus-related communications we received from King County, Washington.
Part of Investigation: